cholenaorrThe Mindful Workweek1

The Secret Sauce to life change

Keystone habits are what I call the secret sauce. They’re the habits which pull the rest of your life in order and bring other habits, processes, and systems together. 

Keystone habits are those which set off what’s known as “the science of small wins”. These habits are extremely powerful as they provide us with a positive sense of identity and encourage other great habits.

There’s a correlation between

Making your bed each morning and being successful

Children eating at the dinner table and the completion of homework assignments

Exercise and healthy eating

Like a lot of people, exercise is a keystone habit for me. 

Every morning, I hear my husband wake up and start his shower. This is my trigger to wake up and meditate for around 20 minutes before getting up myself, showering and heading to the gym. After I exercise, I eat a healthy breakfast with my husband, then head into work nice and early. 

Once at work, I’m alert and in a good mood after ‘frontloading’ my day with activities that make me happy. Because I’m in a good mood, I kick off the day with high-value and often difficult work.  

Of course, every now and then I don’t get out of bed on time. And this can lead to a less than healthy breakfast as I eat on the run. I feel rushed, by the time I get to work I lack focus and may even be in a bad mood.  

What’s your keystone habit? For some, it’s writing a ‘to do’ list at the end of the day before going home. For a few it’s as simple as making their bed in the morning. For one of my clients it’s getting her kids lunches ready at the end of the night before bed.

You may already consistently act out your keystone habit. Alternatively, you may have given up due to work and/or personal obligations. For instance, many parents stop exercising when their children are born. They feel guilty taking time for themselves, or are simply too tired to make the time. 

When you understand which of your keystone habits leads to productivity and happiness, you can do them without guilt.

Along with individual keystone habits, we have team and company keystone habits. The key to identifying keystone habits is to keep asking yourself questions to understand the impact small wins have on other areas of your life. 

Again, it’s about experimenting and looking for small wins which lead to other wins.   

Case Study: Peter focuses on his keystone habit to get his professional life back on track

Peter was unhappy in his role. When we first met, he spoke slowly and seemed quite depressed. He worked long hours, late into the night and went into the office most weekends.

He was single, didn’t have much of a social life, had gained weight and wasn’t performing in his role. Even though he worked long hours he received a poor performance review from his manager.

Peter said he failed to meet his deadlines 30 per cent of the time. He didn’t communicate with his stakeholders enough and they were constantly following him up. He also felt his relationship with his manager could improve. On top of this, he procrastinated on important conversations and personal tasks, like keeping his finances in order.  

One of the first questions I asked was what he would do with his spare time when he stopped working so often. He already had a long list of things he wanted to achieve in his personal life. 

I told him to focus on one item on his. He started exercising again on a regular basis. Regular exercise had a huge impact on his personal performance and gave him greater confidence. He felt better about himself, and started leaving work on time every day.

We worked together on setting more realistic time frames with his stakeholders and being more proactive in his communication with his manager. He created a 90-day plan in collaboration with his manager and started a weekly planning habit to be more realistic with his time.

By communicating more regularly, Peter found he was able to cut down on the number of interruptions he had from stakeholders each day. He developed an email batching habit, and printed out the communication framework to ensure he was providing the right details in his email.

Peter’s keystone habit was exercise. By maintaining a consistent exercise habit, Peter was able to maintain his work-life balance, which helped him be more efficient and effective at work.  

•           What are your keystone habits?  

•           What great habits do you have that create success and more great habits?

•           What are the habits you believe will lead to wins in other parts of your life?

If you don’t already have an exercise habit, I recommend this as one of the first you develop.  It’s one of the best ways to achieve better focus and confidence at work and in your personal life.   

Fear, Self-Sabotage and Busting Habit Change Myths

Habit change requires a mindset shift. Shifting our mindset is about choosing vulnerability over fear.  

Our fear sabotages us when we try to change.

It’s time to introduce you to your lizard brain.  That is the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala.   

The amygdala is about the size of a lizard’s brain and is thought to be the part of our brain that fears change. This part of the brain explains our primal nature, as it tells us change leads to death.   

I usually introduce the lizard brain to my clients in our third session together. By this time, they’re starting to realise the benefits of changing a few of their habits and can smell success. I know it won’t be too long until they have their first setback. Or, as I like to say, “fall off the wagon” and without quite understanding why. 

Remember those times when you made a massive effort to adopt healthy lifestyle habits? After three weeks of a disciplined diet and exercise program you started to fit into the smaller sizes in your wardrobe. Your skin looked fabulous, you could finally run on the treadmill for 30 minutes straight.

Then disaster. 

You found yourself standing in front of the freezer at home putting an almost empty ice cream container back without even thinking.

After all your great work over the last few weeks you ate three times your daily calorie intake in one sitting. You don’t even remember walking into the kitchen.

You sabotaged yourself. Again.

And so, what most of us do next is open the fridge. You’ve already stuffed up your diet so you might as well finish off the beautiful French cheese in the fridge, and of course cheese is best devoured with a nice organic Australian wine. You might as well finish the rest of the ice cream while you’re at it.

The self-talk starts, “I’m not good enough”, or “I always fail” or “I’ll never be healthy and fit” or “I’ll never be successful.”

Next time you’re trying to change habits think again, or at least like this: 

Your lizard brain made you do it. It thinks you’re going to die if you change anything about your life so it sabotaged you.

At this point, I want to bust the myth that it takes 21 days to change a habit.   

Research has shown it takes somewhere between three and eight months to truly change or create a habit. Sure, you may make a good start on a new habit over a 21-day period, but you’ve got to be prepared to overcome setbacks before you create a habit you do automatically as a “must do or else”. 

Understanding the lizard brain will help you. When we try to change our habits, for good or bad, our lizard brain will fight us by sabotaging our new habits. We must train it to believe the new habit is just normal behaviour. That it’s critical to our survival. At that point, our lizard brain works for us, even protecting our new productive habit from being changed.

“Just try to eat that ice cream”, the lizard brain says. In three to eight months’ time, it will believe healthy eating is the status quo, and when you attempt to eat unhealthy food it will say, “I’m going to make it taste horrible and sickening.”

And you can say to your lizard brain: “Tricked you! Now you’re finally on board with my fit and healthy lifestyle.” 

If we want to achieve optimal productivity, we need to understand the lizard brain and forgive ourselves when, every now and then, it takes control of our responses and makes us act in a way that takes us in the opposite direction to where we want to go and who we want to be.

Forgive yourself and make the right next decision 

Usually the first thing we feel when we realise we’ve sabotaged ourselves is shame. We realise our behaviour doesn’t line up with our values and we allow this to impact on our self-identity and self-worth. This can have a dangerous impact on our behaviour. 

Forgive yourself and move on. Realise it’s part of the process and get back to work by making the next right decision.

How to do it: 

When you’ve decided to change a habit, take a moment to script your setbacks. 

For example, when I coach people to help them change habits, I ask them to identify their “non-negotiable habits.” That is, the one or two habits they’ll always stick to no matter what. 

So, when they “fall off the wagon” for whatever reason they can put themselves back on the path to success by performing one of their “non-negotiable” habits, like planning, email batching, exercise.

Acknowledge your fear and don’t let it drive. 

Fear can be useful. It identifies potential risks, allowing us to react quickly or prepare for and mitigate disaster. However, fear too often holds us back from creating extraordinary work. Success in today’s market is about innovation, creativity and disruption. We can’t achieve success if we’re going to let fear drive our behaviour. 

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about fear in her book about creative living called “Big Magic”.  Here’s an excerpt about working with fear: 

Dearest Fear,

Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do.

I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously.

Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must.

But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring.

There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this:

Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognise and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed.

You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote.

You’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature.

Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Then we head off together – me and creativity and fear – side by side forever, advancing once more into the terrifying but marvellous terrain of unknown outcome.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Don’t take your eye off the ball

Our lizard brains create all sorts of distractions to encourage us to procrastinate on the changes we need to make to be successful. We have an amazing idea, start implementing it and then someone tells us it won’t work. 

Our lizard brains say, “I told you so”. And we drop our amazing idea without even considering that person may be driven by fear themselves. Or, we have an outstanding idea which could change lives, but our lizard brain reminds us there’s a new fabulous series on Netflix we should binge watch instead. 

Never forget your vision

Your vision will help you shut out the many distractions that could take you off your path.

Realise fear has its place and will always be there but never, ever, let it drive you. 

You are not your fear

Perhaps you need some help? I believe everyone at some time in their life will benefit from a coach and a counsellor. A counsellor provides therapy whereas a coach helps you to move your goals forward.  

Often, the habits coaches work on with you will lead to healing in other areas of your life. I’m definitely not a personal trainer, but many of my clients find they also end up getting fit. Finding the right counsellor, one you can talk to about fear and other psychological scars is important.  

Action helps us overcome fear by building confidence and competency.  

Calls to action:


  • How is fear holding you back?  
  • Realise that emotional responses are often indicators of fear.  
  • Procrastination, conflict, anxiety, hoarding information and clutter are all indicators of fear.  
  • Ask yourself: “what am I afraid of?”  And then what’s my next logical action?
  • Once you’ve journaled these fears, take a moment to focus on your body.  
  • Where do you feel fear in your body?  
  • When you feel fear, the mindful techniques we covered in the first part of the book can help you to observe it, learn from it and transform it into loving kindness and action.  

Habits to work on:

  • Observe your fears as they arise
  • Remember, what you observe changes  
  • When we start to understand how fear impacts our behaviour, we can be sure we’re making choices based on the right information.  

Let me know how you go.

Keep moving forward

Let me know how you go


A student in the University of Cape Coast (UCC)- Ghana.

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