Kufa, Iraq was a death zone in the mid-2000s. At its height, hundreds of people were being killed and no one had any idea what to do about it. Muqtada Al-Sadr had forces entrenched in the city. The surge at that time was in its infancy and many people were wondering about its effectiveness – could you really fight firepower with more firepower?
In the middle of all this was a lone American major in charge of Kufa. During his time in Iraq, he noticed something very peculiar about the demonstrators. Whenever there was a demonstration, sitting off to the sides were the kabob sellers. They were there to sell food as these protests would often last far into the night and people would get hungry.
The more people that came to the demonstrations, the more the kabob sellers would arrive to feed the people. The more the kabob sellers would provide food, the bigger the crowds and the longer they would stay.
A peculiar idea came to the major: what if we barred the kabob sellers from coming to the demonstration – would it affect the demonstration crowds?
He decided to try it out. He asked the mayor of Kufa to prevent Kabob sellers from entering the area of the Grand Mosque, where most of the demonstrations were occurring.
At first everyone thought that he was crazy. Just imagine being in the middle of a fierce anti-American city and telling your subordinates that the way we are going to solve the violence was by stopping Kabob sellers from selling food.
But, in fact, soon after, he noticed a small but significant change.
When the first demonstration occurred after the ban, sure enough the Iraqis came to demonstrate. When lunch-time arrived, the demonstrators started to look to the sides for kabob sellers. To their surprise, no one was around to sell them food. As the day continued and lunch soon turned into dinner, no one still had anything to eat or drink. And if you have been in the hot sun for hours without any food or water, well, things that once seemed important before don't seem as significant. Soon people got too hungry and tired and went home to eat.
This process was repeated over and over again in the upcoming months. The demonstrators would come to the Grand Mosque; they would get hungry, not see the kabob sellers, and then go home. Soon after the demonstrators became less and less until there were fewer and fewer people present; subsequently the violence subsided.
In 1993, Proctor and Gamble developed a product that they thought would make them millions of dollars. It was a product that, when sprayed in the air, would bind malodorous particles to help eliminate them and provide a pleasant smell in the room. It was named Febreeze. And it was an utter failure, costing the company tremendously. It was not until it was paired with another habit, cleaning a room, that it became a world-wide success.
These stories were told in The Power of Habits, a wonderful book on how keystone habits, like the banning of kabob sellers in Kufa or pairing Febreeze with a clean room, can make momentous changes in one’s life.
Keystone habits are habits which act as a fulcrum for other changes in your life – by changing this one habit, your able to change a cascade of other things. In one study, making your bed every morning was an impetus for forming the habit of saving money – by forcing yourself to consistently make your bed, that same habit of consistency allowed people to regularly put money away.
What are your keystone habits, both good and bad? What are the habits that trigger all the other habits in your life? For some people, it is a poor diet – eating bad is the keystone habit that forms the basis for other bad habits (i.e. smoking, drinking excessively, poor sleeping, etc).
And more importantly, what keystone habits can you implement to make your life better?
My keystone habit, for the better, has been CrossFit. Besides the obvious health benefits, doing CrossFit has forced me to push beyond what I think I can do both physically and mentally. That habit has spilled over into my everyday life leading to other changes that I did not think were possible: publishing more papers, being more confident in my professional skills, having faith that I can overcome problems that might have overwhelmed me before. Boundaries and limitations that once boxed me in are no longer there and I attribute it to the habits I built while doing CrossFit.
Determine what your keystone habits are. Once that is done, see if there is a way to change or alter them for the better. Ban your own kabob sellers.