3 High-Performance Habits of Productive Leaders

October 19, 2020
5 Min Read
Photo by
Anton Kakhidze

Whether you’re looking to pursue a new project, start a business, or change your day-to-day behaviors, habits are key. But how can we actually form good habits and make them stick?

Before we take an in-depth look at habit forming, take a peek at our leadership guide where we discuss the do's and don'ts, famous leaders, and how to develop your unique skills as a leader.

What is a habit?

According the American Journal of Psychology, a habit is a fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through repetition of a mental experience. Habits often go unnoticed by the person exhibiting it because there's no need for self-analysis when doing routine tasks.

Research found that when asked directions where the kitchen was, patients who were suffering from memory loss couldn't provide the proper directions. However, when those same patients got hungry they would directly head to the kitchen. This is an example of a habit formed so strongly that it's automated.

What is a habit loop?

In The Power Of Habit, author Charles Duhigg writes that habits are responsible for most of what we do. The brain is on autopilot and becomes efficient to the point where we don’t consciously think about every single action. When we make habits that contribute to our success, we remove many barriers to productivity.

This is made possible by the habit loop of cue, routine, and reward. The cue makes the brain find the routine as it anticipates the reward. A classic example is stress and smoking. The cue is stress, the routine is smoking, the reward is the feeling the cigarette brings.

Think about it like this: If the reward can reinforce the habit whenever you sense the cue, changing the reward can eventually extinguish that habit.

Take a look at Charles Duhigg's model on habit looping and using that to reinforce or redirect your habitual actions to get to your desired performance output. (Illustration from Charles Duhigg)

How do I change my habits?

Let’s face it, we all have habits we want to change. To accomplish lasting change, we need to sustain our habit cues and rewards, but change the routine.

For example, let's say you love eating chocolate and have a habit of indulging at night. You can change that habit by keeping the cue (nighttime) and reward (sensation of eating), but altering the routine to use apples instead of chocolate.

Make it tiny. To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.

— BJ Fogg, Stanford professor

Advertising pioneer, Claude Hopkins, famously changed the course of toothpaste demand with habits. He created the demand for toothpaste through "cravings.” Hopkins decided to get people to feel the mucin plaques on their teeth by calling them “the film” and suggesting that “beauty” comes from eliminating the film. By identifying a cue (the film that is almost always there) and suggesting a reward (getting rid of that film), he established a multi-million dollar product.

The key to forming high-performance habits are changing one element. Building keystone habits will encourage widespread change, prompt other healthy habits, and create cultures where new values become ingrained. Don't believe us? TED speaker, Tali Sharot, describes how forming habits can lead to a growth mindset.

How do you build a habit?

Just like picking up any new skill, there comes a level of discipline. Here are some tips we've compiled when it comes to building high-performance habits.

Start small. At the beginning, it's easy to get carried away and burn out. Try breaking down your big ambitious goals into bite-size pieces that you can use to build upon and gain momentum. For example, if your goal is to wake up at 6 a.m., set your alarm for that time once a week. Once you have a grasp, gradually increase the days.

Create reminders. Sometimes we genuinely forget the habits we're trying to build. That's OK. Set daily or weekly reminders on your phone or Google Calendar to help you remember your habits.  

Timebox yourself. They say it takes 30 days to build a habit, so commit yourself to a certain time. Well, it doesn't have to be a whole month. But while you're building up your habits, think of a realistic timeframe that best suits your comfort level.

Partner with a friend. Bringing a friend along the journey can make sticking to your habits easier. Find a close friend or peer who is willing to create this habit with you. This is a great way to keep each other accountable and motivated when you feel like throwing in the towel.

Slipups happen. Don't be too hard on yourself. If you take a misstep or skip a day, don't dwell on it. Just pick yourself back up, celebrate the small wins, and keep pushing forward.

How do you break a habit?

Knowing how to build productive habits is well and good, but how do we break bad habits that work against our goals?

  • Identify triggers. Are you aware of what sets off your bad habits? For example, do you procrastinate when you're stressed? Then stress may potentially be your trigger.
  • Find a better replacement. Remember that chocolate example from earlier? When you're trying to break a habit, it's best to find a healthier and productive substitute.
  • Reward yourself. If you find that you've been able to focus on your work without hopping on your phone, reward yourself. Take time to celebrate the wins, no matter how small they may be.


There are real-world implications to habit forming and changing. This logic flows into much larger problem sets such as organizations and communities. The key is to focus on changing one small thing, the keystone habit from which a cascade of other habits will form.

If you want to live more productively and purposefully, re-examine your actions to see if they are serving you. Especially how those high-performance habits build a better version of you. Remember to seek clarity and constructive feedback to track your progress.

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