The Power Of Keystone Habits

A lot of times people wonder what makes applications like twitter and games like Portal so addictive. How do they hook users from the get go? Because applications like twitter and games like Portal use a technique that makes it easier to build and change several habits/behaviors at once: finding a keystone habit.

Falling Jenga Tower

So what exactly are keystone habits and how are they different from regular habits? An easy way to think of the difference between regular habits and keystone habits is with the classic game of Jenga. Regular habits and behaviors act like the pieces on the very top of the Jenga tower. Pull one out and there is little to no effect on the other pieces. Keystone habits on the other hand are the pieces that form the foundation of the Jenga tower. Once you successfully pull one out from the foundation, the entire tower falls down!

Now this sounds fantastic and you may be asking yourself: “Why not always target keystone habits?” Well just like anything, there are pros and cons:

Meet the Pros:

  1. Since habits tend to build on top of one another, when you are trying to change or engineer several different habits and behaviors you may find they have a common keystone habit. By targeting this keystone habit you will in effect be killing two birds with one stone.
  2. Keystone habits are the foundation of a Jenga tower. As more and more pieces (i.e., habits and behaviors) are built on top of the foundation, it becomes increasingly difficult to remove part of the foundation. Thus, increasing the longevity of your engineered habits/behaviors.

Meet the Cons:

  1. Since you are not targeting the desired habit or behavior directly, you have to wait for the keystone habit’s effect to “bubble up.” Or in terms of Jenga, instead of immediately pulling out a single piece, you have to wait for the tower to fall down.
  2. Because many habits share the same keystone habit, it can at times be very difficult to change them—imagine trying to swap out one of the pieces at the bottom of the Jenga tower without it falling down.

How are they in use?

So now that you know what keystone habits are, why they can be so powerful and the risks in using them, let’s take a look at how other games and applications have put this technique to work.

Portal 2

Like its name, Portal is a game about using portals to solve extravagant and life threatening puzzles. But what made Portal so much fun? Why was it so hard to put down after you started playing it? What made it more addictive than all the other puzzle games out there? One of the biggest reasons for this is because Portal makes you feel like adventuring and “testing”. Give anyone the keyboard or controller for a couple minutes and I guarantee you they will start testing absolutely random things.

Now why does Portal make me feel like adventuring and testing? Because Portal discovered the keystone habit to making you feel like an adventurer. And since the very beginning of the game, started building its keystone habit: don’t be afraid to jump, you can always get back to where you were. So how did they install this habit into you?

  1. Because many gamers have become familiar with the affordance of long fall = fast death, it was necessary to force the player to take the first step… or should i say jump. Because of this, one of the very first things Portal has you do, is you guessed it, fall down a large hole. Plus, to reassure the player everything will be fine, Wheatley (your companion) keeps saying things like “you’re a good jumper” or “go ahead and jump, you’ve got braces on your legs so you’re all set.”
  2. Levels are brilliantly designed to make you fall large distances. By repeatedly showing the player that 1. they lived and 2. how easy it is to get back to where they were, the player begins to feel more and more comfortable leaving the beaten path and testing things.

Because of this, the player is instilled with the feeling of being an adventurer, test subject and jumper.


With 140 Million active users sending a total of 340 million tweets everyday, you can definitely say twitter has hooked its users. How did they get so many users hooked? They found their keystone behavior: following 5 or more active twitterers. After discovering this, twitter remade its entire signup process to make sure each user achieved this. Here’s how their process works, circa September 2012.

  1. After creating an account, the first thing a new user is shown is a little tutorial on how twitter works, what their timeline is, etc. But what is the first step they almost force the user to take? That’s right, following 5 highly active twitterers.
  2. After this, they then ask you to follow people in certain areas you find interesting (Music, Technology, etc…).
  3. Lastly, you are asked to follow people you know via email and upload an avatar.

It is at this point that the genius can be seen. The user is immediately shown content they find interesting. Their timeline is filled with tweets from coworkers, friends, their favorite sites and celebrities. This user is no longer a “user,” they feel like a fully fledged twitterer.

Finding your keystone habit

Debatably the toughest part of using the technique that is keystone habits, is simply finding what habit IS a keystone habit. But here are some tips on finding yours:

  1. Mine data, data, data and more data. Oh, did i mention mining data? If you have a game or application that already has a good amount of hooked users, start looking for patterns and activities that took place between the time when they were just ordinary users and when they became hooked. After enough data analysis you’ll start to find similar patterns in what triggered their addiction.
  2. Find other applications similar to yours who have found their keystone habit. For example, if you were building Pinterest before it had massive amounts of hooked users, you might look at twitter and reverse engineer both what their keystone was and how they installed it into their users.
  3. Get lots of “test subjects,” and analyze why they do what they do. Sit down with a gamer, or potential user of your application and quietly watch them play your game or use your app. When you see them taking the behaviors you’re trying to build, try to drill down and found out why they did. The guys at Valve like Mike Ambinder do this intensively (they even do things like eye tracking).

Other than those tips, its all about experimenting. It took twitter 3+ redesigns and years of experimenting to find their keystone habit. But once you do, you’ve struck gold. Just don’t give up, and as GLaDOS would most certainly agree: keep testing.

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