StrongStart 5-step Productivity System – Mastering Habits

Your total productivity is heavily influenced by the efficiency of all the habits that comprise your daily activity. Hitting the snooze button is a habit. Checking email or Facebook six times a day is a habit. Determining the most important task you have today and tackling it first thing is a habit. Habits can have a positive impact or they can be a major roadblock.

This is step one of my five-step system. For the introduction and links to all of the posts in this series, click here.

Fortunately, habits can be purposefully designed and managed. Critically, combinations of habits can have benefits greater than the sum of the parts. The key is looking at habits as the building blocks of your personal productivity system. Identifying your habits, evaluating them, designing those you want to have, eliminating those you don’t, and repeating this process on a consistent basis are critical to being able to adopt and stick to any productivity improvement systems.

In recent years a significant amount of research has been performed to delve into habits and how they are constructed.

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP” ― Charles Duhigg, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business  (affiliate link)

If you consider your typical day, it will be comprised of many habits. Until you think about it, many of them will be invisible to you because habits, once they are formed, become near automatic responses to the cue. It is an interesting exercise since it can help you determine why you respond in certain ways to given circumstances. Do you always pick up a donut in the break room? Why are you addicted to email? The amount of “control” habits have over your life is a fascinating topic.


Changing or eliminating bad habits

Habits are very difficult to eliminate but fortunately, they are easier to change when you understand the components mentioned in The Power of Habit. The key is changing the routine that sits between the cue and the reward. Using the donut analogy, the trigger is seeing the donut or being hungry. The routine is walking by the break room and deciding to eat the donut. The reward is a combination of the sugar rush and suppression of hunger. If instead you accept the cue but go for a piece of fruit instead of a donut, you’ve changed the routine. The difficulty is getting that change to stick, to have THAT become the habit and not revert to the previous habit.

Start actively managing your habits today by downloading my free habit tracking template! This template provides a monthly tracking and scoring system for your habits. It includes instructions and a sample month fully populated.

Get you free download

To truly change the design of a habit, Charles Duhigg’s research points to the importance of belief and group support. You have to believe that bad habits can change and that belief can be found via the support of a like-minded group of people. One example would be forming a weight loss club with your friends or co-workers where instead of tracking pounds you track the number of times you avoided the old habit and used the new one.

A second method for changing habits is to substitute a different reward or change the time frame of a reward. Using the sweets example again (I am a recovering dessert addict), rather than a daily reward of a donut in the break room, you can change the reward time frame and say “if I go Monday to Thursday selecting fruit then on Friday I get the donut reward.” Same reward, different time frame, and positive change to an existing bad habit.

Designing and developing new habits

Now that you know habits are comprised of a cue, routine, and reward, you can start designing new habits that will stick. Often a cue can be as simple as a list or reminder to do something and the reward a simple as checking a box that it is done. One really interesting development is that there are now a number of different applications and systems that let you track your habits. These tools then give you reports on how consistently you executed the habit. The application and tracking in and of itself become the reward. It’s the gamification of habits.

Some of these applications also bring to the table the group support that was found to be such an important part of the change in The Power of Habit (affiliate link). Some of them provide coaching, some social tracking and scoring, and so on. I suggest not focusing on tools just yet, we will go deep on that topic later in this series of posts.

Habit Stacking

Combining or “stacking” habits is a very powerful concept. A quick overview of this concept is included in the book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less (affiliate link). I also use that term to for combining two or more habits that are highly complementary to each other. Exercising and watching an educational video or podcast are two highly complementary habits. Listening to a podcast while showering is another example. Here’s how. (affiliate link).

Determining a set of habits to precede or follow important parts of your daily routine and optimizing them over time delivers great benefits. You have graduated to advanced productivity tuning if you are experimenting with the order and combinations of your habits and measuring results.

Improving your personal productivity through habits

Here’s where this becomes really powerful! If you begin to think about your day as a series of habits that you design and adopt, you are well on your way to improving your productivity. Most of us set goals in one or more areas (get fit, learn a new skill, and so on), especially around this time of year (the start of a new year) but then we start to drift of fade. Why is that? It is because we don’t actively manage our habits. If you combine solid goal setting with active management of your habits, you will see significant improvement. 

Action Plan

Here is a simple system that I ask you to think about:

  1. Break down your typical day into phases or segments (ex. morning, work day, night)
  2. Make a list of the habits you currently have in each segment
  3. Organize each habit as good or bad
  4. Make a list of the habits you want to have (new habits) in each segment
  5. Each month, pick one bad habit to eliminate and two new habits you want to add
  6. For the ones you pick, write down the cue, routine, and reward
  7. For the bad habit, determine a better or substitute routine and any change to the reward that might be needed
  8. On paper using the template I provide below (we will talk about tools and systems later in this series) track your progress in terms of the number of times you avoided the bad habit and number of times you performed the good habits

Imagine the results! By the end of the first month you will hopefully have eliminated four bad habits and adopted eight new good habits. Be reasonable here though; start relatively small in the scope of the habits you choose in the first couple of weeks and build momentum. If you struggle with overeating don’t define the habit as “stop eating bad things” but rather start with “eat fruit for breakfast instead of that darn donut!”.


The next four steps of my productivity system depend on your ability to master habits. The best systems in the world fall apart if you can’t stick to them. Putting into practice active design and management of your daily habits is the foundation for personal productivity. I would like you to take 15 minutes and complete the action plan I just outlined. See the bottom of this post for a free template to help you with that. The template will help you track good, bad, and new habits over the course of a month with a scoring system. Note that simply using some form of tracking itself provides a cue and a reward (in the form of an all green score meaning you did all your good habits and avoided all your bad for a month)

In the next post in this series, we will start the process of breaking up the day into phases that I suggest and designing the habits and systems we want in each phase.

Call to Action

Start actively managing your habits today by downloading my free habit tracking template! This template provides a monthly tracking and scoring system for your habits. It includes instructions and a sample month fully populated.

Get you free download