After meeting with John in therapy sessions for over nine months, we both began to get frustrated with his lack of progress. John was a big-time partier who was always up for a good time, but over the last several years, his alcohol use became out of control. We often discussed what we called his default mode in life, which seemed to be underneath most of his drinking behavior.
The default mode translated into something like this: “I love to drink; it’s part of my personality. I’m the party guy. I will usually look for any opportunity each night to find a way to throw back some drinks.” To be clear, drinking was a habitual behavior that in some ways felt like it was almost a part of John’s self-identity.
His drinking was so consistent, chronic, and habitual that he almost could not envision life without alcohol. Sadly, John’s drinking persisted in the face of pretty significant consequences. He struggled in his relationship with his wife, and he began to have difficulty following through with healthy habits that would ensure success at work. He was late for work on most days, struggled with motivation and low energy, and constantly argued with his pregnant wife about his lack of follow-through at home and inability to communicate.
Just when I thought John might be a hopeless case, the craziest thing happened. John stopped drinking. The progress started when his daughter was born two months premature. He spent night after night at the hospital, holding his fragile little girl in his arms, desperately praying that she would be okay.
During one of our sessions, he showed me a picture of his daughter cuddled up almost entirely in the palm of his hand. He explained that the experience of feeling responsible for this little life was the primary catalyst behind his newfound sobriety.
Shockingly, John’s new sober life extended long after his little girl came home from the hospital. Essentially, he created a new default mode that resulted in a different set of daily habits. It sounded something like this: “I am, first and foremost, a father responsible for the health and well-being of my little girl. I must follow through with the details of my life at work and home to assure she is safe, happy, and healthy.”
This new default mode drove a completely different set of habits. Instead of drinking at night, John would rush home to help his wife care for their daughter’s needs. Now, instead of finding an excuse to leave home and drink, he attentively sat on the couch with his wife and communicated consistently about following through with specific aspects of his life. Instead of arriving late for work, John was the first person at the office every morning and was motivated to meet his sales goals. John’s new default mode had started to drive new healthy habits.
The change I watched John make was truly remarkable. It was almost as if there were two versions of John; the drinker and the father.
However, it’s important for me to share that there was a relapse. John the drinker did show up on one occasion or two after his daughter was born, but John worked hard to overcome the urge to use alcohol to medicate his emotions.Based on my recommendation, John spent two months in our intensive outpatient rehab at LiveWell Behavioral Health learning how to prevent relapse and identify triggers that influenced alcohol abuse.
As a result of his hard work, John absorbed and implemented the coping skills necessary to keep him clean and sober. Essentially, John the parent started to drive all the small habits that led to a healthy life. His change was authentic, dramatic, and it was sustained over time.
The lessons we can learn from John’s transformation from the drinker to the parent are rich. As we all strive to be our truest self, our deepest self, our connected-to-God self, we have an opportunity to start fresh and begin to build healthy habits that will allow us to reach our goals. Like John, we have to decide which version of ourselves will show up in the details of our life.
Will we persist in the old identity that drives the old unhealthy habits, or will we create a new version of our self-identity that propels new healthy habits? Hopefully, we all have the desire to improve our lives and progress going forward. I think we do, if we don’t settle for our surface level desires and dig down to find our core desires.
Psychologists have unveiled some interesting dynamics that might help us all do just that. Here’s the latest psychological wisdom the experts suggest will help us make meaningful changes in the that persist over time.
01. Identify Your Keystone Habits
Keystone habits are the routines and practices we employ to drive many of the decisions we make minute-by-minute, moment-by-moment. They are the core principles from which we operate every day, and they don’t require either willpower or persuasion.
Keystone habits are simply our default mode. Whether positive or negative, each of these habits has a ripple effect across everything we do in life, in business, and in relationships. We can use the example of a vegetarian to highlight how a keystone habit looks in real life.
You might look at a vegetarian filling their plate at the New Year’s Eve party and be amazed by the willpower to pass by so many delicious meat dishes. The vegetarian would see it differently. They might even say they don’t require willpower at all to pass up meat because eating fruits and vegetables is just a healthy option a person can take. Their keystone habit, the default mode, is, “I’m healthy.” Their default mode compels other smaller habits, such as food choices at a party and the tendency to run every morning before work.
If we use the example of John, his keystone habit transformed from “I am a party guy” into “I am a parent.” John’s new default mode became a catalyst for other smaller habits like healthy time management and communicating with his wife.
Keystone habits will usually lead to a trickle-down effect that has added benefits to our confidence, health, work, and relationships. Keystone habits have become automatic, intuitive, and they seem like they are an innate part of our self-identity.
02. Determine Which Keystone Habits You Will Keep
Not all keystone habits are positive. Sometimes, we have automatic and intuitive habits that drive unhealthy behaviors. Take John the drinker for instance. He didn’t have to think about all the habits connected to his identity as a drinker. He just did his thing intuitively and automatically, and the behaviors would flow out of his keystone habits, quite destructively.
If we want to make the changes that will yield our best life, we should all make the decision to be intentional about identifying our keystone habits.
The first step: Identify the routines, practices and behaviors that you do (or don’t do) without thinking. Go ahead, grab a pencil and piece of paper and write them all down.
- Do you always get out of bed at a certain time?
- Do you try to eat a healthy diet every day?
- Do you smoke a cigarette when you’re stressed?
- Do you journal every evening?
- Do you always say yes to the next beer or glass of wine?
Write a long list of these habits, everything you can think of, and then ask yourself a few crucial questions.
- What does this list say about me as a person?
- What does it say about what I value in this life?
- What does it say about the things I choose to spend my time doing?
Congratulations, you have just identified your keystone habits.
The second step: Be intentional.
Go back to your list and circle the habits you want to keep and strikethrough the ones you’d like to modify. For those habits you wish to change, consider what default mode might drive the change you envision. On that same sheet of paper, write down the new keystone habits you just identified.
The third step: It is important to consider what smaller habits may naturally flow out of your new keystone habits.Remember, picking up a good habit will require willpower until it reaches the point of self-activating. Your goal is to reverse engineer keystone habits by focusing on the smaller habits minute by minute, moment-by-moment. In essence, you are getting other aspects of your personhood—thoughts, emotions, social support, and other behaviors—to support and strengthen the relatively weak power of you will.
Don’t be like John and wait for all the negative consequences to pile up before you adopt a new default mode. Visualize and record a plan for personal development that will allow you to be intentional about your life and make the changes you need to make to ensure that the best version of you shows up going forward.
03. Pursue Change in the Context of Relationships
If we take the example of John, one thing is sure: his change happened within the context of new healthy relationships. Obviously, his connection with his daughter was a major catalyst for developing the new keystone habits.But I don’t think we can minimize how the power the therapeutic relationship I had with John might have played in his long-term success.
Remember, in order to crystallize his gains, John joined our intensive outpatient rehab and built relationships with even more group leaders and members. I encourage you to find healthy relationships that will encourage your change and normalize the value of your new healthy keystone habits.
This is especially true if you’re trying to make significant changes in domains of your life typically connected to mental health or trauma. For instance, if the new default mode you are trying to create is connected to being a less stressed, more peaceful person, it is wise to recognize that this keystone habit will require some coping skills related to anxiety management.
That process is going to be eased by access to a therapist who can help you develop the healthy coping skills that will essentially be your new automatic habits. If your goal is to go from “I’m a drinker who always engages in the party” to “I’m a healthy person who is not controlled by alcohol,” it’s essential to find a therapist who can help you walk through that process.
04. The Interface of Spiritual Formation and Keystone Habits
As we look back through the discussion regarding Keystone habits, it’s clear that positive change requires a self-examination of the habits you wish to change. There’s an intentional process involved here that mirrors the foundation of spiritual formation itself.
Dallas Willard often referred to spiritual formation as the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself. Inherent in the idea of spiritual formation is this essential self-examination of the core habits we wish to conform to the image of Christ.
So, a willingness to tread in those deep waters of Keystone habits is only complete for the believer to the extent that we are willing to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the very character of Christ as it is revealed through scripture. It is through an examination of his character that we will ultimately identify the areas of our inner world that he wants to transform.
The next step in the process of living as your truest self is to reverse engineer keystone habits by focusing on the smaller habits minute-by-minute, moment-by-moment. For the believer interested in transforming their inner world to reflect Christ, this reverse engineering process is based on a new vision for life and practicing certain time-tested spiritual disciplines.
There is an active will involved here (Dallas might call this the “I” or Intentionality of his VIM model) where we engage in the same solitude, service, fasting, and worship that Christ himself engaged in. We essentially have to develop the willpower to walk in the new habits—the spiritual disciplines—until they reach the point of self-activating.
Having said that, viewing the change facilitated by Keystone habits through the lens of spiritual formation requires more than just willpower. Becoming like Christ will ultimately be accomplished when we abide in Christ. It’s only as we abide in Christ and in his presence that we will ever be able to put his word into action. Again, Willard articulates it perfectly when he quotes Jesus words in John “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and then says “ and we can be sure that if we do nothing it’ll be a part from Jesus.” And this is where his teaching on vision and means can come into play to support one new habit reformation.
So, the idea of Keystone habits encourages us to engage the spiritual disciplines that can strengthen the power of one’s will and created a deep longing to abide in Christ as the only true empowerment for lasting change.
But we should remember that an appreciation for the power of spiritual formation honors the reality that change does not come only through discipline and inspiration. These pieces are important, but incredibly ineffective unless they are executed within the context of relationship. Spiritual formation requires community. It requires that we find healthy relationships that will encourage our change and normalize the value of our new healthy keystone habits. What begins with a heathier and more loving relationship with God is authenticated as it results in a healthier and more loving relationship with others—beginning with our significant others.