Emotional Health

Keystone Habits: Where Change Begins

Dear Dr. Ford,

I am one month into the New Year and things are not going well with my New Year’s resolutions. I stuck to my diet for a few days, lost two or three pounds, but I am so overwhelmed that it seems hard to stick with anything. The problem is that I work long hours, come home exhausted, and don’t have the energy to exercise or cook a nutritious meal. The only way I have to relax is to drink a few glasses of wine and veg out in front of the TV.

I also stay up later than I should because I want to finish a show I am caught up with, or read a magazine. Then I wake up exhausted and it starts another day of the same mess.

The foundations of my life are fairly solid, I think. I am a cheerful, friendly person, and though I lost my husband at the age of 55, I am now 60 and I have come to terms with it and don’t mind living alone. I like my job and my apartment, have some good friends and family, but I am letting bad habits get the better of me. What can I do to break out of this cycle?



Dear Carol,

You are not alone with this issue. Many people start off the year with goals and good intentions, only to give up on them after a short time. Some of us repeat this same process every year, and wonder what are we doing wrong. How can we make changes that will last? Often we are strongly motivated but somehow we fail over and over to reach our goals.

Does this mean you are doomed, and should just give up? Absolutely not. Many bad habits are deeply entrenched and though they are not easily broken, it may take several attempts to do so. People who are successful at giving up smoking, for example, have often tried and failed many times before.

The truth is change requires concerted effort. You need to examine what aspects of your approach are not working, and adopt a different approach. My guess is that by starting first with the goal of losing weight you are getting off on the wrong foot. It may be that there is a more fundamental issue that needs to be solved first.

Your letter indicates to me that your habits are all interdependent, creating a cascading effect. You mentioned that you are exhausted at the end of a workday, and that as a result you don’t have the energy to make the effort to break old patterns and create new habits. Because you say you like your job, the exhaustion may be linked to your sleep deficit rather than work stress. Not getting enough sleep may be what Harvard’s Charles Duhigg calls a “keystone habit.” In his best-selling book, The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012), he says there are some habits that are fundamental to the way we do everything else, and if you change this one crucial pattern, others will be easier to break, too.

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  • V. Brooks Dunbar, DM April 7, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    This is an important topic that needs more discussion in wellness circles. I discovered the importance of sleep a few years ago while an employee of the US Army Surgeon General. It was her key initiative and it still resonates with me because it was linked to all of my bad habits, including eating and exercising. Wonderful article. Thank you.

  • Donna Magelli February 2, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Spot on! I loved this article because it was exactly what I told my stressed out daughter to do. At the age of sixty, I have finally learned how important sleep is for my entire well-being. Tweak some habits, and new habits can be formed. Give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and the rest will follow.