Building Habits - Part 3: Keystone Habits

Habits Aug 2, 2020

This is the third in a multipart series on building habits for software engineers. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

Most habits don't live in isolation from each other. Sometimes, changing one small habit can have a ripple effect on the rest of the individual's life.

Keystone habits are repeated behaviors that bleed over into other aspects of life. Through shifting a major keystone habit, an individual creates a domino effect that changes many different actions they perform.

By choosing the right habit to change, it's possible to set off a positive spiral of professional and interpersonal successes.

How to Identify Keystone Habits

Perhaps the most common example of a keystone habit is exercise. Through exercising daily, many people witness a gradual yet radical transformation in the quality of their entire life.

Suddenly, they don't get as frustrated or easily aggravated at home. They feel better about themselves and their appearance. It doesn't take as much effort to get out of bed; perhaps they're even encouraged to eat a little healthier.

Over time, relationships with their coworkers, family, and friends become radically improved through thirty-minute daily cardio sessions.

Aside from improving bodily health, it can be challenging to identify that change that will suddenly make everything click. However, there are a few critical strategies for understanding what habits have the most significant effect.

Three essential characteristics to look out for

Keystone Habit Characteristics

1. Keystone habits provide repeated, small senses of victory throughout the day.

In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg states that "small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves."

These powerful habits give insight that more significant accomplishments are just within reach.

2. Keystone habits allow other positive habits to easily and rapidly flourish.

Over time, one positive habit can cause a whole host of other positive behaviors to grow. For instance, the habit of learning one new thing every day can cause a developer to seek out relevant books, lectures, or conversations with others.

A straightforward habit of reviewing a new widget could cause a software engineer to develop more passion for programming.

3. Keystone habits give individuals more energy and confidence.

Introducing one particular habit may be the impetus for even more substantial gains. Excellent keystone habits allow for the realization of one's full talents and potential, allowing them to perform as competently as possible.

Keystone Habits for Software Developers

Considering just how distinct every workplace is, it's hard to pinpoint specific end-all-be-all keystone habits. Freelancers, large corporate entities, and small startup teams all pattern by different norms that underlie long term success.

It may be helpful to start by identifying the routines that pattern day-to-day life at the office. Analyzing what one does as soon as they arrive at the office, after they get back from lunch, or right before they leave is a great place to begin.
After noting different behaviors and cues, it's possible to start stacking good habits and displacing old ones.

Many recommend starting with small, simple habits like:

  • Documenting all methods in a file
  • Writing clean code with proper style
  • Checking the office to see if struggling teammates need help
  • Crafting and updating test cases during downtime
  • Spending five minutes to learn one new concept every day

The more than one works to integrate positive habits, the more they can overcome persistent limitations in work life and at home.

Need a little nudge to help you build better software development habits? is a smart virtual coach designed to help software engineering and managers professionally grow and improve their skills.


Myron McMillin

Co-founder at

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