One day in October of 1987, Paul O’Neill was announced as the new CEO of Alcoa, a company that for many years had been one of the largest producers of aluminium products in America. They literally made everything from the teapots in your kitchen to the components used in gigantic airships. However, as company profits started to decline, the large corporation decided it was time for a change and thus, a former government official by the name of Paul O’Neill was made the new CEO of Alcoa.



“I want to talk about worker safety”.


These were the first words O’Neill spoke when addressing the shareholders of Alcoa for the very first time. To everyone’s surprise and to the dismay of many, there was no talk of profit margins and no mention of tax rates. Worker safety seemed to be O’Neills sole concern.

Rather than focusing on large-scale management restructures or new product expansions, Paul O’Neil had one simple goal. To make Alcoa the safest company in America to work for, and how was he to achieve this? By focusing on 1 simple habit: All workplace accidents were to reported within 24 hours, so that a plan could be formulated to prevent such an incident occurring again. More importantly, only those employees who followed this routine would be eligible for future promotions.



The Domino Effect.

In order to meet the target of reporting all workplace accidents within 24 hours, a number of key changes had to take place at Alcoa. For example, communications had to improve dramatically between factory employees and managers. Procedures had to  be put into place so that the correct safety equipment was always used and any faults with factory machinery were to be reported immediately. Essentially, for one change to occur, many other smaller changes also needed to take place.

But here’s the thing, it wasn’t just safety that dramatically improved at Alcoa, rather a number of small changes occurred within the company which saw massive increases in worker morale, productivity and efficiency.

For example, in making a number of small changes to decrease to likelihood of spillage’s occurring at work, less money was wasted on lost materials. In reporting small issues with machinery as soon as they developed, the whole manufacturing process became more efficient. In ensuring that workers had the correct safety equipment to do their jobs properly, they became more motivated as employee morale increased.

The key point is that in establishing 1 simple habit concerning worker safety, a domino effect occurred whereby productivity, worker morale, efficiency and ultimately profits were massively increased. By the time Paul O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa was not only one of the safest companies in America to work for, but the company’s net income had increased fivefold.



“If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company” – O’Neill



The Power of Keystone Habits.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that certain habits can cause a ripple effect throughout almost every other area of our lives. These behaviours are referred to as keystone habits. So what are some examples of such habits we can form in our own lives?


The story of 'Alcoa' and how 1 simple habit, can lead to monumental change. Click To Tweet


Well let’s suppose that you want to start exercising more. Many people will make the mistake of trying to change too much, too soon. They will buy an expensive gym membership and try to dedicate hours lifting weights, every day after work. However, our willpower is a limited resource and thus, when we try to change too much, too soon, we end up falling back into old routines.

Perhaps then, a better approach would be to start by making one small change, one tiny step in the right direction. In the case of exercise you could establish a habit of performing 10 push ups every morning before work. Anyone can perform 10 push-ups, the routine would take just a few minutes and could be performed, literally anywhere.

What you would find however is that this simple keystone habit will grow over time, 10 push-ups becomes 20 push-ups and before long you have added some sit-ups or jumping jacks into the mix. Maybe you notice some healthy changes taking place in other areas of your life as well. You suddenly find yourself drinking more water, taking the stairs rather than the elevator at work and drinking less on a Friday night. When we make one positive change, it spread into areas of our lives, which we didn’t even think we’re related.



“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu



It’s all about consistency.

But why is it the case, that keystone habits should have this spillover effect? Why would performing 10 push ups in the morning, cause you to opt for water rather than coffee, later that same day at work? Well it all comes down, to what psychologists, refer to as Cognitive Dissonance Theory.

Essentially, as human beings we have a desire for our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours, to remain as consistent as possible. Whenever we behave in ways which contradicts our beliefs about ourselves, this uncomfortable conflict is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. This is a feeling we try to avoid as much as possible. For example, somebody who claims to care greatly about the environment would be quite unlikely to drive a monstrous 4×4, as this behaviour would cause deep conflict with the beliefs they hold about themselves.

So, what has this got to do with habits? Well, whenever you establish some keystone habit, even something as simple as making the bed in the morning, you create a small shift in your beliefs about yourself. In other words, you’re telling yourself that “I’m making my bed, I must be an organized person”.  Thus in order to maintain consistency you are more likely to behave in ways which are in harmony with this newly planted belief about yourself.

When you start the day by drinking a glass of water you are telling yourself “I’m a healthy person who drinks water in the morning, not coffee”.  One of the reasons keystone habits are so powerful is that they cause a slight change in the person we see, when we look in the mirror.


Final Remarks.

As we have learnt from the example of Paul O’Neill and Alcoa, establishing 1 simple habit, has the power to inspire monumental change over time. If you want to be more productive, start by making your bed in the morning. If you want to start writing more, start by journalling for 5 minutes every evening before bed. If you want to start eating more healthily, start by replacing your afternoon cookie with an afternoon banana. Rather than trying to make huge strides in life, start by making one small change at a time.


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