Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time.
He has won 28 medals in multiple swim categories and still holds several world records even though he has retired. His 80-inch wingspan and flexible ankles make him naturally predisposed to swimming — perhaps even more so than walking on land.
The talent is undeniable.
But the less-told story is how his life has been built on a few habits that were intentionally inculcated into him. His swimming coach, Bob Bowman, knew Phelps could be great, but to become a champion, he needed habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.
Fast forward to the 2008 Olympics and Bowman was proven right. Phelps would be the first person to win eight medals in a single Olympics. When asked about how Phelps prepared, Bowman had this to say:
“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. The stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualised. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected.
What most people viewed as tedious, Bowman saw as vital and indispensable. He goes on to explain:
“The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”
The Power Of Keystone Habits
Habits make actions and outcome predictable. When the body is on autopilot, you can perform regardless of the environment you’re put in. That certainly matters if you’re Phelps or competing at the highest level.
Phelps had many habits which he incorporated into routines. He would visualise the perfect race — each stroke, turn, and finish — before and after going to bed. His stretching regime would start at the arms and end at the ankles. He knew exactly how long his warm-up before each race would take.
It sounds like a lot of work. But these habits weren’t developed one by one. It turns out that some habits compound, which makes the acquisition of other good habits easier.
These are what Charles Duhigg calls keystone habits in The Power Of Habit. Unlike normal habits, keystone habits create positive effects that spill over into other areas. They start a chain reaction which shifts other patterns. Over time, this transforms everything.
What Keystone Habits Look Like
I’ve seen keystone habits in action. More specifically, I’ve seen how a single habit has led to a set of behaviours in myself.
A few months ago, I started to track my food to know how much calories I was consuming. Not too long later, I started exercising. I then started to reduce my intake of carbohydrates. That meant that I ordered takeout less and had to prepare my own meals.
Looking back, it seems a little absurd how the small act of keying my food into the MyFitnessPal app could start off such a reaction. But the thought process was simple.
Tracking my food made me aware of how many calories I was consuming. To balance the net calories consumed, I started to go for runs and then the gym. It made further sense to complement my efforts by optimising my diet and eating healthier food. Because low-carb options are scarce where I live, I had to prepare my own meals.
What began as a small act of curiosity quickly snowballed into a series of habits that made me healthier. One small change made me feel better and more energetic.
Granted, some days I don’t stick with these habits. But focusing on tracking my own food — a keystone habit — led to several other changes in my life without much effort on my part.
Building Your Keystone Habit
You don’t have to choose from a limited set of actions to build a keystone habit. As it turns out, it’s not the exact act that causes the chain reaction, but rather the intent behind the act. As Duhigg writes:
“The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self image. Basically, anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.”
The range of habits is limitless. Acts which are seemingly unconnected can breed unexpected benefits. Take the following for example:
Wake up early. You get an extra hour or two of uninterrupted time which you can use to pursue activities you’re interested in. This could mean more time reading or pursuing your passion project. Mastering something which most find difficult might also give you increased confidence and an expanded sense of possibility.
Make your bed. It sounds ridiculous, but for some this simple act could be a small win that gives one discipline and a sense of control. It’s something that Admiral William McRaven had to do when he was a Navy SEAL and found so important that he titled his book Make Your Bed.
Meditate. Numerous benefits have been reported, including reduction of anxiety, improved self-awareness, and greater emotional stability. The peace of mind and calm it evokes can also help in decision making.
Don’t confine yourself to specific behaviours.
I’m a night owl who gets up early only when I must. My bed is usually in a mess. I haven’t tried meditating. These are activities that I don’t particularly enjoy, and will likely take a longer time to become a habit. The point is this: start with something that you will enjoy and work from there.
Not all habits are equal. It’s better to focus on building keystone habits when you’re first starting out.
New habits are always hard to stick to. There will be times where you’ll be frustrated by your lack of progress. But you only need to succeed once in developing a keystone habit, and the others will follow.
The habits you develop will help you get where you want. Success will become a natural extension.