Mental Game: Successful Habits

Mental Game: Keystone Habits

Mental game comes up often in my lessons. Recently, my poker coach referred to the game of poker as “the great teacher”.

At first I thought he was giving a game of cards too much credit. But upon further reflection, I get what he means.

While there are plenty of pursuits that will teach you some serious life lessons, this one in particular possesses many distinguishing characteristics.

Monetizing the Mental Game

For instance, my hourly rate is directly tied to my state of my mind. None of my friends (outside of the poker community) face that challenge.

(Perhaps if I ran with some pro golfers or chess masters….)

My friends can get away with being a tad hungover when they show up to the office. I can’t. A hangover can cost me a day’s wages.

Also, this particular season (summer) is fraught with tempting BBQs, birthdays, and beach parties which constantly put my will power to the test. Successfully balancing an active social life with a poker career has necessitated developing certain enduring habits and life-hacks.

Last summer, I wrote about a specific technique for changing your habits. But let’s dig deeper.

Keystone Habits

In the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes particular habits we establish that serve as the foundation upon which many other habits can be built. He calls these keystone habits.

For example, the simple act of waking up and making your bed, can set you up to then build and establish other good habits. It’s a small win that quickly becomes second nature. When your other habits might wane, at least you can continue to make your bed (it’s so easy anyway, right?) Then eventually you can get back on track with the others.

For me, my keystone habit has been taking cold showers. I got the idea from an amazing interview with Tony Robbins on the Tim Ferris show.

I’ve taken over 100 cold showers this year, and my longest streak was over 60 days in a row. I track this using an app called Loop Habit Tracker.

Meditation is another habit (and a crucial ingredient to a strong mental game) that I attempt to keep going every day, but even that can slip for a couple days sometimes. Yet, after getting in a groove with the cold showers, now it’s just something I do.


Well, first thing in the morning, it really serves to wake me right up. I jump in, turn on the water to full cold, and have a rinse for about 15 seconds. Talk about mental game and the “great teacher”. This experience has taught me about fear, will power, and that my wife prefers not to wake up to screaming.

And that’s the power of the keystone habit. When all else seems to be failing, it keeps going. And eventually, the others start to get back on track.

Trending and Momentum

It’s perfectly natural and should be expected that you will at times be completely on top of your mental game while at other times…not so much. The trick is not to be too hard on yourself when you slip.

Also, you can develop the skill of not just maintaining good habits, but recognizing when they’ve slipped and having a little technique that works for you to kick them off again. Perhaps it’s a check-up you schedule for the first of every month.

I definitely acknowledge the changing of the seasons and can’t help but go through some personal reflection. How are things going? Am I happy with where I am and my trajectory?

In the past I’ve done 2 week “cleanses” (basically a commitment to healthiness), or I have friends that do “sober September”.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge commitment to major change (though the “100%” approach works very well for some people.) It simply can be trending in the right direction. And once you’ve established a trend, then you start to pick-up momentum.

With some regular habits under your belt, more will naturally start to follow. It becomes fun, powerful and rewarding.

Then, try reflecting on the differences in how you feel once you’ve gained this momentum and established these habits, and how you felt before. The difference can be so significant that it serves to sustain your motivation. It becomes hard to imagine going back and will help you protect these habits going forward.

Let’s Discuss

What habits work for you or do you hope to implement? What more would you like to know about mine or my techniques for improving mental game?

Often the most value nuggets from this blog comes out in the comments as we carry on the conversation, so please use them!

  • nomnom

    Present exam towards a certification at work next week.
    1-Finish memorizing starting hands chart
    2-Define playing/studying schedule
    3-Log 30k hands and book some coaching sessions.

  • Henrique Haliski

    Excelent text Mike! These words warms me for going out of my confort zone e moving foward to sucess.

    But, the most difficult for me is to get started, I love planning and studying ways to improve and masterize my routine, but when it comes to act, thats where I fall back.

    I’ll try to implement the Keystone Habits to improve my wish of change and remind me that, even if I fail, I’m succeeding at them and keep on going foward.

  • Robert

    Can you do an article on how to use Holdem Manager to figure out what the poplulation is doing? For example say I am in BB 3b against unknown villian and we have just enough hands to know he is a reg. He flats and we have to decide his range on the flop. Is there a way to know default ranges by going through the opponent tab in HM2?

  • Mika Hämäläinen

    Getting rid of bad habits, if anyone here should have them, is very difficult. Recent studies have shown, that instead of getting rid of the bad habits, one must try to replace them with better, new ones. This is why e.g. so many fail in quitting smoking. I remember that Mike wrote about something similar in his blog, and he replaced something he did before with juggling. It took a few tries to find out what worked, but he did it.
    Keystone habits are really effective, but I have not yet found anything that works for me regarding going to bed in time. I often seem to be doing “important” stuff on my computer late into the night, even to 2 a.m. It’s not fun to wake up dead tired at 7 a.m. and waste most of the day being unable to think straight or having to take a 2hr nap. I have gotten better at this, but I still do it occasionally. Should I put a timer on my monitor? Any tips, anyone?

      • Mika Hämäläinen

        Thanks for the tips, Mike. I do have a Post-it note on my monitor which says “Sleeping is not a waste of time”. I’ll try the “sacred” approach. I’m so tired of being tired. It would be the best new habit for me to start sleeping well. Increased sharpness and productivity, better mood, etc. Those are good rewards for sleeping more.

  • Mika Hämäläinen

    ” The blue spectrum light keeps your brain stimulated. ”
    This is true. There is a nifty program called f.lux (, which removes the blue spectrum automatically after sunset. It’s available for every major platform. I have noticed it helps, but your mileage may vary.

  • Salty D

    Each morning i write 5 things I’m greatful for into a journal. This small thing helps me start my day with a strong positive attitude… and has taught me tons about discipline by doing eaxh and every day – no matter what

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