Keystone habits: How to live like Benjamin Button

Executive summary: How a few strategic keystone habits almost effortlessly can change your life for the better

Case in point, n=1: How I am the best version of me, approaching 50 years (kind of), thanks to regular dog walks and gym sessions

What you should do? Establish just one (low threshold) keystone habit that has the potential to shape and improve your days or weeks with regards to, e.g., investing, research or exercise


How is father time treating you?

Hi,

How are you?

Investments are lagging?

Tired, a little sore, hungover perhaps?

Got a few pounds and inches extra round the waist?

Getting winded walking up stairs? Back’s aching every now and then?

Got a cold? Again? And you had one last year as well?!

It’s just part of turning 25/30/35/40/45“, you say?


Age is no excuse

I’ll turn 45 in a few months (January 2017)

Today (Monday, September 12) I executed my best bench pressing session ever*. In my previous workout session, three days ago (Friday) I had my best deadlifting session ever*.

*the absolute weights don’t matter, but if you just have to know; I benched 4 sets of 4 reps, with a short stop at the chest, at 120kg (265 lbs), and the 4*4 deadlifts were performed at 165kg (364 lbs).

In between I did some light partying on Friday and Saturday. The weekend before that, however, I set some kind of a new weekend party record.

In a recent interview (Börspodden, to be released Wednesday September 14, 2016, I think) I was reminded of how I in Tokyo this spring memorized a 14-character random WiFi password from a single reading (without even trying… However, I can’t claim to be able repeat the feat reliably).

On top of all this, I am more mindful, focused, kinder, more flexible, healthier*, and exhibit better aerobic capabilities than ever. And, I look like this (September 10, 2016 – NB that my focus is on being healthy not looking healthy)

*I haven’t caught a cold in a decade

Sprezzaturian

I am the least humble I have ever been too. Progress on all fronts…


Faster Harder Scooter

The key to a 300+ lbs bench press at 45, when my PB in my 20s and 30s was 20% lower is keystone habits. The same habits explain my improved posture, general health, psychological resiliency, my party recovery rate, my improved cognitive abilities, mental strength, and on and on.

In short, a few keystone habits introduced in my 40s have caused me to experience a Benjamin Button style backwards life trajectory.

Let’s take a look at those habits.


Keystone habits

Dog walks

I have a dog, a German Shepherd-Doberman mix that I take for at least 3 walks a day; morning (8 am), afternoon (3 pm) and night (9 pm). No matter how I feel, what the weather is like, or what plans I have, I get to go out 3 times a day, walk a few miles, interact with nature, my dog, other dogs, other people.

The dog walks create a framework for my days, a weekly matrix that’s very suitable for other bolt-on habits. For example, I usually listen to educational and informative podcasts during my walks. In addition, I limit my drinking, or at least have a reason to, in order to fit the dog walks into my schedule.

Note: the keystone habit of dog walks also means I get a lot of brain exercise (science podcasts), as well as drink less alcohol.

Weight lifting

I lift weights at a gym every second day. In between dog walks and eating there really isn’t much time. That means walks and gym sessions combine to push me to be more effective, or I wouldn’t get anything done (blogging, podcasting, writing, etc.).

Partying

It’s no fun at all squatting hungover, which means my weight lifting routine sets a limit to the amount of partying and drinking alcohol I can do. That in turn makes it easier to keep a steady sleeping schedule.

I typically initiate my pre-sleep routine around 11 pm, including turning off my phone, washing my face and reading, and then turn off the lights at or slightly before midnight.

Reading and sleeping

-Add reading every day, and keeping a regular sleep schedule to my keystone routines (or possibly second order add-on habits)

Cognition

Some of the research on blogs I read and podcasts I listen to (including The Brain Science Podcast with Dr Ginger Campbell) has inspired me to practice a kind of micro meditation/mindfulness (mmm) during my walks. That has further improved my general feeling of well-being. The mmm habit is a bolt-on that might never have happened without the dog walks. Recently I have started trying longer meditation sessions as yet an extension stemming from the keystone habit of dog walks.

Mobility

Since I’ve started doing mobility exercises during my walks, I’ve come to spend more time on them than my typical 2 minutes during the Game Of Thrones Intro once a week.

HIIT

The heavier I lift at the gym, the more crucial the warm-up becomes. Before doing exercise specific warm up sets at spend 10-15 minutes performing High Intensity Interval Training, which has pushed me to my best aerobic shape ever – without even trying.

Superfoods

Do you hate that concept too?

I know! Me too.

Anyway, every day I have a spoonful of natural fish oil* mixed with a specific antioxidant-rich olive oil.

I would say that habit is just as important as walking, sleeping and working out. However, it is a secondary habit I picked up in my mid-30s, in order to accommodate my taxing work and workout regimes. No matter, it demonstrates the synergistic potential of keystone habits.

Food

I used to live on junk food (McDonald’s 2-3 times a day in 1994-1995).

With time, however, all the working out, working long hours, walking etc. slowly made me eat better and better; more beans, more fibers, more leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (picture), less meat, more fish and fish oil*, whole fruits and berries, no juice, more spices like ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric…

Vegetables, close-up

The keystone habits made it a necessity as well as a delight – in between gym and a dog walk what I want and need is a quick power drink with more or less all the above included.

*ArcticMed, if you are interested. Filtered from Phtalates, mixed with a rare anti-oxidant rich (in particular oleocanthal) olive oil, and Friends Of The Sea certified. Btw, a very recent study (summer 2016) on mice is showing exactly how w-3 is reducing inflammation in a cell.


Reinforce or establish your own keystone habits

Which are your current or potential keystone habits? A day job could work, but it’s not necessarily healthy and it could also wear you out and prevent you from adding truly good habits.

You could try subscribing to a food delivery service to eat better which should make exercising easier and possibly lead to better sleep and more energy in a virtuous cycle.

You could try adding an exercise routine, e.g., walking a few extra blocks every day before going home and then “reward” yourself with a healthy power drink.

Signing up for a group sports activity 3 times a week is probably one of the best things you could do to create a framework nudging you toward eating better, sleeping better, drinking less, reading more. If you can stick to it. However, going from zero to three right away probably just won’t work.

My preferred way of introducing a keystone habit, or any habit for that matter, is to set the bar extremely low:

If you want to start exercising, running, studying, programming or whatever it might be, set aside just one minute per session. Gradually increase the number and length of sessions, slowly and in very small increments but steadily, until you’ve reached the desired volume.

Investments

Think about what keystone habits could improve your investment routines. What could make you more informed, more disciplined, sticking to your best practice lists? What could make you focus less on empty tips, on social media chatter, on laid back reading instead of actual research?

Implement those. Just one is enough.


The power of keystone habits redux

– how Ronja and weight lifting turned me into Benjamin Button

Pumping iron and walking Ronja created a framework as well as a need for better nutrition, better sleep, and being more effective.

One thing have led to another, and nudge by nudge I have come to spend my dog walks listening to science news and doing mobility exercises, and my days reading and writing, interspersed by power drinks with whey protein, spinach, kale, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, berries, or other healthy meals.

Smarter and more productive by blogging

The framework and constraints (albeit artificial) have made me disciplined and effective, despite my natural inclination toward laziness. That includes not the least my creative endeavors of this blog and my podcast (in Swedish: 25 minuter), which force me to stay up to date and productive during my retirement.

Another way of putting it is that my workouts are better now, since I know and understand more; that my partying doesn’t hurt as much, since I am in better shape, eat better, sleep better and I am more mentally resilient. No matter, it all boils down to the healthy regularity introduced by my dog walking and gym going routines.


Summary

  • Establish a keystone habit – just one, or reinforce an existing one.
    • It could be daily pod walks, a “stop sitting” alarm, walking meetings, reading certain newsletters at set days and times every week, exercising every second day, every day, go outside for 10 minutes of mobility work before dinner every day, or something similar.
    • Remember to make it easy (wu wei); the lower the threshold the better. Once the habit is set you can increase its intensity. 
  • With time, let other healthy, useful, productive habits bolt on to your main habit.
  • Perhaps add another keystone habit
  • Enjoy a carefree and healthy lifestyle without even making an effort

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16 Comments

  1. Are dead lifts hard on the back, even with good form? I’m happy with my workout routine, but it does get boring and need changing sometimes. At 55, dead lifts just seems like a large risk to take, given a back injury could permanently ruin quality of life.

    Early retirement is wonderful. Just about to go to the pool to read and get my vitamin D for the day. Later I’ll walk the beautiful trails or bike ride. All while my dividend stocks and bonds pay the bills. You do not need to be rich. Just choosing passive income instead of material possessions.

    • Steve, you should try deadlifts with a trap bar. This puts much less strain on your back and it is fun!

    • Ahhh, living the good life, I hear. Great choice.

      As for the deadlifts, they are considered one of the best therapies to treat or prevent bad backs. There really isn’t anything dangerous in doing ordinary deadlifts as long as you have enough mobility and pay attention to your form. If you stay at or below 80% of your 1RM and do the lift properly safety shouldn’t be an issue.

  2. Something I’m wondering:

    Why are you not more aggressive in trading money for performance?

    Don’t get me wrong, I really like your low-tech approach to personal effectiveness, with simple, minimal-cost methods that work – very Zen.

    But still, there’s a ton of cool stuff out there that money could unlock. I’m not saying you have to pay someone $40000 per quarter for their blood like Peter Thiel does, but surely there’s an optimal curve where a little bit more money could buy you a lot more oomph?

    Or maybe you’re already injecting Russian designer drugs, going for stem cell treatments, and undergoing experimental neurofeedback regimens, and just not telling us? :)

    • Dangerous to fuck with a billion years of evolution. Probably just give yourself cancer, or some auto immune disease. As I said above — why risk losing everything when life is already great?

      These “designer” drugs are for snake oil salesmen and fools looking for a short cut. For many of us, the work is the fun part. A drug would just take the fun out of it.

    • Ha ha, Alex you always crack me up :D

      I’m waiting for it to be thoroughly tested and mainstream before I go down that route. The brain is kept healthy by natural diversity, the body by working hard and eating right. There is no real upside to risk cancer from stem cell treatments, when there will be safe alternatives in just 20 years’ time. I’m waiting as long as I’m happy and healthy without it.

  3. Excellent article, I really appreciate your simple approach to life and health rather than the typical more complicated is better routine.

    Along the lines of eating habits, please consider a book by Doctor John McDougall called “The Starch Solution”, it has changed my life and with the greatest of ease as I don’t have to calorie restrict. My blood test results are nothing short of amazing and I owe it to finding McDougall. He also has many videos on youtube to get familiar, in short he can be trusted as he does not push pills or procedures, just focus on what you eat and make it workable. I hope he helps you get to the next level like he did with me.

    Good luck and keep rolling!

    • He is pushing his books, which is just as bad. The advice to eat lots of carbs is the reason why everyone is getting obese and diabetic.

      Suggest you read about Paleo-like diets and insulin before you join the 40-year trend of illness.

  4. Another good article Mikael.

    I also work out but cant seem to make much progress ito getting stronger.

    Do you take any supplements to help you with your work outs?

    I eat quite healthy mostly vegetables with limited protein, eggs and meat.

    • You write “limited protein”. If you want to get stronger, you need a calorie surplus, and enough protein.

    • I eat lots of protein, where a lot means “2.5g protein/BW in kg/day”, typically in the form of eggs, milk, fish and whey powder – and not insignificant amounts from, e.g., oatmeal

        • I’ve touched upon the topic a few times (see archive/physical improvement) but it might be time for a food-only article

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