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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Work as a Keystone Habit

Why changing our attitudes to work could change EVERYTHING

Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today

Originally published on 27 February 2024 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement

Habits matter. We are not just creatures of habit, but we are also the sum total of our habits, large and small. Our brains love routines. They seek to automatize as much as they can. First and foremost, they wish to free up as much as possible of our energy for exceptional situations in which we need quickly to access our mental and physical powers. Secondly, our brains also want to avoid mental overload. Distinguishing between relevant new and already known information is crucial in that process.

Psychologists believe that over 50 percent of our daily behaviours are driven by habits that we engage in on autopilot, without conscious thought. Because our habits inform such a large part of our actions, they have a significant impact on our health, productivity, relationships, and overall well-being.

Habits are also self-perpetuating. Every time we think or do something, we strengthen a specific neural pathway. And the stronger this connection gets, the more we want to follow it in the future. Again, that has to do with energy conservation: Imagine you are on the top of a snow-covered mountain. It is much easier to walk down an existing path through the deep snow that has been created by repeated usage, rather than choose a new and potentially perilous route through the pristine white surface. Every step through new snow takes effort. Our feet sink much deeper, and it takes strength to pull them back out again.

What is more, we don’t know where exactly these roads less traveled will take us and what we might step on on the way. Our minds don’t like uncertainty. They prefer the devil they know. We often choose to continue on our bad paths simply because they are known to us.

The Power of Keystone Habits

We can endeavour to change selected habits, for sure. But changing habits and cultivating new ones takes energy, perseverance, and time. It’s worth it, though, because behaviours compound: they build on each other to create more and more changes. And some habits matter more than others.

According to Charles Duhigg, who wrote The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change (2013), we all have “keystone habits”. A keystone habit is a habit that has the power to create a ripple effect that leads to the development of other positive habits. Keystone habits are the foundation upon which many other behaviours and routines are built. Our keystone habits therefore have a disproportionate impact on various areas of our lives.

For example, establishing a routine of regular exercise might lead to improvements in our diet, productivity, sleep, and overall well-being. Similarly, meditating each morning for just 10 minutes could lead to enhanced focus, reduced stress, and better decision-making skills. Drinking less might result in improved sleep, exercising more, eating better, and better mood.

When we manage to change our keystone habits, we can expect to see a positive chain reaction – other unhelpful habits might fall like a chain of dominoes. They are set in motion by toppling over just one stone. Keystone habits can be catalysts for transformation and cause more dramatic shifts by dislodging and remaking other patterns.

Common Unhelpful Keystone Habits

What are the most common unhelpful keystone habits? We usually assume it is something diet-related, such as eating too much or else the wrong kinds of foods. Or else it might be not exercising, or bad sleeping practices. It can be overspending, or drinking too much, too often. It can be smoking or other substance abuse. Or else compulsive social media checking that wrecks our ability to concentrate. All of these things matter and are impactful. And we would most certainly benefit if we managed to change these keystone habits.

But I recently wondered about another perspective on damaging keystone habits. What if there is one that we engage in both individually and as a collective, without giving it much conscious thought? And what if that habit were the key to unlocking a chain reaction of good habit change? Here is what I think: I believe that the way we think about and engage with work is our most injurious foundational habit. If we managed to change our work-centric mindset, it would dramatically change how we feel, think about, and show up in all other domains of life. I believe that if we had a different attitude to work, we would sleep better, eat better, see more of our friends, and take better care of our bodies, minds, and souls. In other words: we aren’t able to cultivate a lot of other good habits BECAUSE of our attitude to work.

Work as Keystone Habit

If we changed our attitude to work, it could impact our mental well-being, our relationships, our health, and our sense of purpose. Why? Because our attitude to time and how we spend it, more precisely, how we allow ourselves to spend it, would shift. Here are four reasons why this is hard:

1. Attentional Centrality

Even when we are not working, our thoughts often circulate around work-related matters. Many of us find it incredibly hard to switch off from work-related thoughts, just as we find it hard to switch off the devices that keep us connected to work. Even when we have left the office or shut down our computer, we might continue to work something through in our minds, to seek solutions to work problems, to solve interpersonal issues with colleagues. Often, we might ruminate about work in an anxious way that gets us nowhere. And we are far from alone with that problem. The centrality of work in our individual and collective consciousness has by now become the norm.

2. Horizon of Expectation

We don’t just expect work to furnish us with an income and with status. Nowadays, we expect work to supply us with an identity, with meaning, purpose, with connection, and with an opportunity for self-realization. In other words, the existential stakes couldn’t be higher. And this is also why suffering at work has such dramatic repercussions and tends to bleed into all other domains of our lives.

3. Bad Working Cultures

At the organizational level, we can often find myriads of bad working habits that have become entirely normalized. Again, the sum total of working habits constitutes a particular working culture. Unhelpful organisational habits can include no respect for work/life boundaries, constant unnecessary urgency, regularly working long hours, bad communication practices, lack of appreciation and support, and death by meeting culture.

Many of my clients in higher-level roles literally have back-to-back one-hour Zoom meetings all day, every day, often without lunch breaks. They then have to use evenings and weekends to actually do some real work. The same is true for emails: just staying on top of emails or Slack messages often takes up a significant part of our working hours. Both of these phenomena are, if we step back, profoundly unhelpful habits that have become the norm.

4. Inability to Allow Ourselves to Rest

Then there are our deeply internalised cultural attitudes to working, and especially to not working. They are rooted in Protestant religious frameworks that celebrate success and productivity as outward signs of salvation and that condemn laziness as a deadly sin. Many of us have become unable to allow ourselves to rest, to take breaks, to do something that is good for ourselves. We feel we should be productive at all times, or else we might feel that we have fallen so far behind with our work and wasted so much time procrastinating that we think we need to catch up at all costs – and especially at the cost of rest.

Disentangling From Our Working Habits

What might happen if we looked at all these things as bad habits – and, more specifically, bad keystone habits? This reframing could be helpful for the following reasons:

  • It may allow us to disentangle from bad working habits (both our own and the ones in which we are embedded) in a systemic way, looking at the problem of work from all angles: individually, organizationally, and culturally. This is important because it reminds us that we are not alone with the problem of work, and that there are internal and external reasons why it is so hard.

  • It may help us to ask ourselves: How regularly do I allow work to bleed into the other dimensions of my life? Which ideas do I hold about work that do not serve me? Is the way I work aligned with my key values or does it undermine them? How entangled am I in the grand cultural narratives around work that are injurious? How attached am I to the idea that success, achievement, and my value as a human being are inextricably entwined? Who am I when I am not working?

The bad news is that changing our working habits requires work. Deep inner work. Ideally supported by a coach or a therapist. The good news is that committing to this kind of inner work might well transform your life. We can begin by simply understanding our habits more deeply, and by putting them in a broader context. We are not the only ones who are struggling with the question of how to work well – far from it. This is one of the key challenges of our times. There are reasons why work has become a broader cultural source of suffering.

Next, we can begin to think about what good working habits might look like for us. What would our ideal work-day look like? And what small change can we implement today to move towards that vision?

Which practices around work – both attitudinal and behavioural – do we want to cultivate in the long run? And what might shift in other areas of our life if we changed our working habits? Which other dominoes may begin to fall?

Image: Tom Wilson @Unsplash

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