Keystone habits for professional success

Awareness, exercise, and planning are vital.
Keystone habits for professional success

London-based Dan Beverly wakes up at 5am without an alarm clock, puts on his already-laid out gym gear, downs some nutritional supplements and breakfast, packs his children's lunches, meditates, plans his day, grabs his gym bag, and then heads out the door for his daily workout. "My morning routine is very strong," said the executive performance coach and owner of Red Swan Executive Coaching.

So what's the significance of his already-laid out gear and prepacked gym bag? The mere action of preparing his bag the night before represents one of Beverly's "keystone habits" — a trigger that starts his day off on a positive note and impacts the hours that follow. This morning tradition gives him verve and focus, helps jump-start his work, and creates a domino effect on the rest of his day. "Just picking up my bag kick-starts everything else, and I use so little brain energy to be completely set up for success," he said.

Keystone habits are established practices that influence other actions throughout the day. These habits can be physical or mental, and can occur at work or at home. For professionals, keystone habits, good or bad, are important because they affect productivity, mood, concentration, and relationships.

If you spend an hour on email each morning, a keystone habit, you may get sucked into problems that derail other things planned at work. If you spend every lunch hour walking in nature, you come back to work feeling refreshed and energised. If you always work late, a keystone habit for some, it can impact your spirit and attention the next day.

"When I think of keystone habits, it's being able to step back and reflect on our lives and identify what is really important," summarised John Park, D.Ed., a director at accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP in State College, Pennsylvania, and an advocate for establishing good keystone habits. Park drinks a lot of water, which he deems important for his wellbeing. "If I don't stay hydrated I get headaches, and if I get headaches, I'm not as effective in my job," he said.

A keystone habit is often created when a person wants to initiate change in their lives or work, noted Peter Banerjea, a productivity and leadership expert and co-founder of SuccessIsWhat, a London-based content marketing firm for small to midsize businesses. "My own keystone habit is meditation," wrote Banerjea in a blog post on the topic. "It helps me to maintain high levels of concentration, block out distractions, and keep stress out of the door."

Those who implement good keystone habits have determined what is important in their busy and demanding lives. This is crucial for Beverly, he said, "because without it I'm just on autopilot, and reacting to my day". He advises professionals to write down three things that matter the most, and then ensure that their daily activities are in alignment with those three things. "What really matters to me personally is energy and vitality, family, and work," he noted.

Added Banerjea: Choose keystone habits that you enjoy doing, that invigorate and inspire you, and that are doable and not complicated. If you detest running, for instance, find something more appealing.

So what are some keystone habits that financial managers should adopt? Here's some guidance:

Establish a solid morning routine. Create a keystone habit that kicks off the day so you don't get sidetracked. "I want to set up my day so it's hugely efficient, so it focuses on the things that shift me forward," Beverly said.

Write things down. Regularly record your accomplishments, trials, and what you learned from these experiences, Park advised. "The process of journaling can help you learn from both your successes and the challenges you face, improve your decision-making, and force you to slow down and think through the impact of how you lead and communicate with others," he said.

Rest and recuperate. Beverly takes a daily nap about 2.30pm. To be a high performer, he noted, everyone needs rest after working four to six hours nonstop. So find ways to regenerate midday, whether it be sleep, meditation, or some other relaxing activity. "We're the only creature on the planet that tries to do all its sleep in one go," he quipped.

Invest in yourself and your team. Schedule time daily or weekly to read, build knowledge, and stay up-to-date in your profession. Encourage curiosity both for yourself and your employees, Park said. In addition, noted Banerjea, express gratitude to your staff and make it a habit to improve your team.

Ask good questions and pay attention. Listen intently. Ask open-ended questions, which will "send a message that you are interested in the other person", Park said. This is a good keystone habit because it helps you clearly understand the issue and creates "opportunities for drilling deeper into a topic", he noted.

Plan tomorrow the night before. At the end of each day, jot down things that didn't happen today but that need to be done tomorrow. Then your day is complete and you can unwind, with a guideline for the next morning, Beverly advised.

Exercise. Find a level of fitness that works for you and keeps you healthy and alert, Beverly advised. "For anyone who has a professional goal, create a physical equivalent alongside it," he said. Beverly follows his own advice: Tomorrow, at 5am, he'll rise and grab his gym bag, already packed.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at