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30-Day Challenge

30-Day Challenge: Day #6 – Use ‘Keystone Habits’ to create a chain reaction of Success like Michael Phelps

Inspiration: Michael Phelps

I’ve previously written on the power of using your brain’s neurological cravings to form habits to aid your language study. Today will we look at another example of using habits to achieve success.

Habits are incredibly powerful tools if put to proper use because they can create or influence complex patterns of behavior, and you don’t even have to think about them. Once a habit is firmly established, it’s literally second nature. Your brain is freed up to spend more of its time and energy in figuring out other things, rather than determining your behavior or what action to take next.

But, how do you decide which habits to focus on forming? If you want to lose weight for example, should you focus on exercise habits or eating habits?

Charles Duhigg introduces the idea of “keystone habits” in his New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit. “Keystone habits” are foundational habits that create a chain reaction and can influence and shift other patterns in our lives – effectively completely transforming them. One of the most prominent examples of putting “keystone” habits to use is the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, Michael Phelps.


Michael Phelps’ “Keystone Habits”

Duhigg writes that there are three things that come together to create “keystone habits” and that make Michael Phelps a formidable foe in the water. These are:

  1. Small wins (that begin long before a race) that build a mounting sense of victory
  2. Creating new habit platforms (from which other habits can build)
  3. Establishing a culture where excellence is contagious

Duhigg writes about Phelps’ morning habits on August 13, 2008 before his 200m butterfly event in Bejing to give us an idea of how his habits work together for his success. (Here’s a longer version of the same article.)

Phelps’ small wins
  1. At 6:30am, he wakes up.
  2. He puts on a pair of sweatpants and walks to breakfast.
  3. At 8:00am, he begins his regular stretching routine (exactly 2 hours before the race).
  4. He starts with his arms, then his back, and works down to his ankles.
  5. At 8:30am, he begins his first warm-up lap (this lasts for exactly 45 minutes).
  6. At 9:15am, he gets out of the pool and starts squeezing into his bodysuit (it’s so tight it takes 20 minutes to put on).
  7. Finally, he puts on his headphones and turns up the same hip-hop mix he plays before every race.
  8. At 9:56am, the announcer calls his name and he steps up onto his block.
  9. Then he steps down again, and swings his arms 3 times, just like he has since he was 12.
  10. He steps back up onto the blocks and positions himself for the gun to sound. Then, he’s off!
Phelps’ new habit platforms

In addition to his morning routine, Phelps also has an “away-from-the-pool” habit that helps him focus.

  1. Every day after practice, his coach would tell him to “put in a videotape of your perfect race.”
  2. Phelps would go home and mentally visualize every aspect of the race – from stretching, to starting block, to victoriously ripped his goggles off at the end.
  3. Every morning after waking up, Phelps would do it again.

Phelps literally knew every second of the competition so well that it felt almost anticlimactic during the events. This simple mental habit helped calm his mind in the midst of what should have been a high-pressure race.

Phelps’ contagious excellence

On the morning of his 200m butterfly in Beijing, as soon as Phelps’ hit the water, he noticed his goggles were leaking. Most people would have had trouble with this realization and it would have hindered their speed in the water, but Phelps remained calm for a few reasons:

  1. He’d already mentally visualized every possible contingency and was literally prepared for anything. Rather than losing focus and worrying, he simply changed his behavior according to what he’d already visualized.
  2. He’d raced this race so many times, he knew approximately how many strokes it would take to reach the wall. On the last lap, he literally couldn’t see anything, so he just started counting the strokes, anticipating the wall at around stroke 21.
  3. He’d already won this race (and others) so many times, that he knew he excelled at it, and so he didn’t stress out about it. He knew he could succeed no matter the obstacles.
  4. His coach, in an effort to prepare him for any contingency, had once made him swim in the dark in Michigan. He was completely ready for this setback.

When he finally reached the wall and ripped off his flooded goggles, he saw on the screen a huge “WR.” He’d just busted a World Record with flooded goggles!

When later interviewed about how it felt to swim blind, he said nonchalantly, “It felt like I thought it would.”

How can you use this strategy for better language study?

Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman describes this series of habits like this:

There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory. If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.

When you consider you language study,

What things make you feel victorious?

Is it writing a journal, reviewing vocab, reading a book, talking with someone? Begin completing those things early in the day, and building up for a greater sense of victory as you study.

What habits can build into other habits?

For example, you can:

  1. Watch TV or read at night to increase your vocabulary.
  2. Review that vocab over breakfast every morning to prime your brain for the day.
  3. Go out and use that vocab by speaking with Koreans.
  4. Write a journal at lunch time using the same vocab and any new phrases you picked up in your conversations.
How can you create a culture of excellence?

If you use study in the morning, speak during the day, and write a journal at night, does that give you a sense of accomplishment? A sense of victory? Figure out what “excellence” looks like for you, then create habits that enable you to consistently perform at an “excellent” level. Then, when difficulties arise, you’ll have a long history of “excellence” behind you that will enable you to continue being “excellent” even when things are difficult or not motivating.


Today’s Challenge is as much about your personal Korean study plan as it is about using Korean.

#6: Answer this question in Korean (on paper, on video, to a Korean friend): 어떻게 한국말을 아주 잘 배올거예요?

(Translation of above question: How will you learn Korean excellently?)

Feel free to include any of the exercises and Challenges we’ve gone over so far, or any of your own study strategies. The goal is to think about creating a series of habits in your study that lead to a mounting sense of victory because that will encourage you and fuel your motivation for more continuous study.

Hashtags today are:

#k2k306 #smallwins


Since today is about habits and planning (as much as about using Korean), here are some resources along those lines:

  1. Make Korean a habit
  2. Use Neurological cravings to solidify habits
  3. Plan, but not in stone
  4. Setting SMART goals
  5. Step out of your Comfort Zone (Challenge Day #1)
  6. How small things (like a uniform) determine your mindset
  7. Practice beats “best laid plans”
  8. The secret to motivation

Visualization and “keystone habits” are also great to help mentally prepare you for the stress of tests. How else have you used the techniques above for your Success?

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