“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
This was the opening sentence of the May 17, 2014, commencement speech given by Admiral William McRaven to the graduating class of the University of Texas. The speech went viral with over 10 million views and later became the number one, New York Times bestseller, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World.
Though he never used the term in his speech, Admiral Mc Raven was highlighting the power of keystone habits. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg popularized the idea of keystone habits. It’s based on an architectural metaphor, where the keystone sits in the center of an arch and helps to lock the other stones in place, while bearing the least amount of weight.
What’s amazing about keystone habits is they have second and third order benefits that are difficult to connect with the habit itself. Research shows making your bed consistently is correlated with higher productivity, a greater sense of wellbeing, and the likelihood of sticking with a budget.
I’ve seen the power of keystone habits in my personal life. But Duhigg extrapolates them to the workplace as well. That prompted me to wonder, what is the workplace equivalent of making your bed?
Making Your Bed at Work
According to Duhigg, “Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as ‘small wins.’ They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.”
I first encountered keystone habits at work nearly fifteen years before Charles Duhigg wrote The Power of Habit. Without the research or the language to describe it, I thought of these keystone habits as leadership quirks. My leader at the time, Dick Wynn, the founder of Emerging Young Leaders, had two firm office rules that everyone understood: 1) erase the white board when you finish your meeting and 2) clear your desk when you finish your day.
If Dick went into the conference room and found un-erased content on the white board, he didn’t erase it. He walked from office to office asking who was responsible until he found the guilty culprit, who would walk with him back to the conference room to erase the white board. One time was enough to create a habit.
Dick was equally focused on a clean and orderly desk at the end of the day. He encouraged us to keep one drawer of the desk empty so you could pile everything you were working on at the close of the day into that drawer until the next morning.
These two rules, religiously applied, ensured every workday started with a clean and orderly desk, and every meeting started with a clean and orderly conference room. Erasing the white board seemed to trigger other actions, like properly arranging the chairs around the table and discarding any trash. Clearing your desk at the close of the day spilled over into keeping the rest of the office tidy and orderly.
Looking back on this work experience I can see how these two rules were actually keystone habits that set a tone, helped other good habits flourish and established a culture of professionalism.
Bad Keystone Habits (or Unmade Beds at Work)
Duhigg asserts that cultures are shaped by the keystone habits of every organization, regardless of whether leaders are aware of them. Some of these keystone habits are bad in that they correlate with other negative behaviors that undermine the culture you are working hard to build.
It’s been twenty years since I worked with Dick Wynn at Emerging Young Leaders. I still erase the white board at the end of every meeting, and so does the team I lead.
The question every leader should answer is: In our organization, what is the workplace equivalent of making your bed?
If you found this content helpful, check out this month’s episode of our video blog, Learning @ the Speed of Life.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.