Why I Added a Habit Tracker to My Productivity System

by Jesse Lahey on February 22, 2017

The Productive habit tracker is an app that reminds you of things you’d like to do on a regular basis. I look at it a few times each day to see if there is anything I forgot to do. Its interface makes it fun and easy. Previously, I tried putting these types of activities in other components of my productivity system, such as my daily todo list, but that had several disadvantages.

There are certain activities or disciplines I want to do on a daily or weekly basis — for the sake of my physical, mental, and family wellbeing, as well as my personal effectiveness and growth. For example, as I have gotten older, I’ve learned that I need to do daily calf stretches, or else within a couple weeks I will develop ankle pain or even plantar fasciitis.

There are four challenges that get in the way of doing these activities or disciplines:

  • Unlike my true “habits” like brushing teeth, which I do automatically and never forget, these are what I’d call “aspirational habits.” I’d love to develop to a point where I do them automatically; but for now, the reality is I do not remember to do them consistently without some sort of list or reminder.
  • If I put them on my daily todo list, it will make that list too long to focus on the work I want to accomplish for the day. To stay focused on what’s most important, my daily todo list ideally only has 1–3 things on it (maximum 5). By the way, I maintain a backlog of other todos in a separate place, from which I select the 1–5 things I want to focus on for the day.
  • If I put them in a reminder app such as iOS Reminders, I get distracted and annoyed by so many notifications popping up on my phone throughout the day. Perhaps it would be different if I had only one or two aspirational habits per day.
  • Some of these activities require extra motivation for me (at least early on, until they become true habits) beyond their intrinsic value — for example, hitting the gym or avoiding evening snacks. These are “hard” disciplines where adding gamification such as a bit of fun or reward can help.

Enter a habit tracker, which is an idea I learned about from the ebook Work Smarter, Not Harder: 30+ Productivity Hacks To Get More And Better Work Done In Less Time by David Burkus.

A habit tracker could be very simple, such as a paper list of activities that you want to remember to do every day: Brush teeth, use mouthwash, kiss wife (in that order, or else she’ll avoid your kiss next time). You could take it a step further by organizing the activities into three lists — morning, afternoon, and evening — so you can quickly scan the list to remind yourself of any things you’d like to do during a certain portion of the day.

And of course, there’s an app for that — in fact, many apps you could choose from. After reading some reviews, I selected the app Productive (iOS only) for these reasons:

Easy interface

The screen shots made it look simple, and it is!

Fun icons and swipes

These make it quick to see at a glance, and they add a bit of fun (psychologically motivating) each time I complete an activity.

Flexibility to keep it simple

I don’t want any notifications adding stress or distraction to my day, nor do I want guilt when I decide to skip an activity because I’m too busy that day. While you can add bells and whistles like these in the app’s preference, I simply want to skim my list so I don’t forget any habits that I’ve decided are important to me.

Keeps track of how often I completed an activity and how many days in a row

In addition, with another click, I can see a visual “chain” for each habit — where each completed day is another link in the chain, for the extra motivation of not breaking the chain. Momentum is another popular habit tracker that makes this the primary feature of its interface, but I prefer the way Productive makes it a secondary screen.


Here is how I decide which activities to put on my app tracker, rather than on my todo list or on another tool like the iOS Reminders app.

  • If I think it must be done on a certain day or time, and bad things will happen if I forget it, I put it in Reminders so that I get a notification that doesn’t disappear until I check it as done.
  • If it’s something I’d like to do every day (or a certain day[s] each week), but it’s OK to skip and just let it renew for the next day or week, I put it in Productive.
  • For the critical 1–5 things that I’ve decided are must-dos for today’s work, I put them in my Pomodoro-style focusing app (FocusList).
  • All other todos go in my personal todo app (ToodleDo) or my team todo app (Basecamp).

“Routine is the best life hack,” said bestselling author Carrie Wilkerson. In other words, when a positive discipline or healthy activity becomes a true habit — something you do automatically — you become more productive. You don’t waste time thinking, worrying, or procrastinating about doing what you need to do; you just do it. A habit tracker such as the Productive app can help you turn your aspirational habits into routines — without messing up your todo list or other productivity tools.

Have you found any apps or other hacks that are helping you turn aspirational habits into true habits?

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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