Creating a New Habit: A Step-By-Step Guide

By: David Smith, CMC

‘Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits’, author James Clear writes in Atomic Habits.

Starting new, positive habits, and sticking with them, is arguably more important than ever while many Canadians are socially distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet building a new habit into your routine can be immensely challenging. Our team has found the MERIT™ PLE (personal leadership effectiveness) system to be quite effective at supporting colleagues, family members, and clients’ efforts to create new habits.

The method is summarized below in this simple acrostic:

H – Have a plan
A – Attach pain and pleasure
B – Build accountability
I – Internalize truth
T – Train consistently

Have A Plan
In this step, you identify a specific habit that you know you need to develop in order to support your professional or personal goals. Write down when exactly you will practice your habit each day. Does the time change on weekends versus weekdays? How long will you practice your habit? Where or in what situations will you exercise this new habit? Iron out as many details as you can before you move onto the next step.

*Example. I want to create a habit of daily reading to grow as a business professional. I will read for fifteen minutes in the morning before I begin my day. Another fifteen minutes during lunch and once again before I go to sleep. To keep things fresh and interesting I will read a classic novel in the morning, a business novel at lunch and an inspiring autobiography before I go to bed. *

Attach Pain and Pleasure
At a basic level of our psychology we are motivated to act in ways that move us toward pleasure and away from pain. Use this to motivate yourself by setting up small rewards for yourself after you complete your habit each day. You can schedule larger rewards if you complete a longer streak without interruption. This could be something as small as treating yourself to your favorite Starbucks drink.

Whatever it is make sure you also decide on something you are willing to endure if you slack off on your habit. Once again, no need to go overboard here.

*Example. When I complete my morning reading I will treat myself to my favorite Tim Horton’s drink on my way to work as a reward. If I complete a full week of reading I will treat myself to a favourite snack. If I slack off I will not permit myself to watch my favourite TV series after work in the evening.

Build Accountability
Creating a new habit is far easier when you have someone who supports your goal and keeps you accountable. This can be a friend, partner or business associate depending on the nature of your goal. Communicate your plan to them along with the associated rewards/pains you have attached to your habit. Create a time to go over your progress.

Internalize Truth
This is a short phrase or motto that communicates a truth that supports your new habit. It should be short enough to memorize but still meaningful to you and your goal. Repeat this motto every day and especially when you feel the urge to quit.

*Example. Warren Buffet, the great self-made billionaire investor, once said: “The more you learn the more you earn. Investing in my own education will allow me to offer more value at work. The more value I am able to give the more I will receive in return”. *

Train Consistently
The key to creating a habit is not volume but consistency. It takes time for the brain to rewire and create new “neural pathways”. When a new pathway is created by an activity it becomes automatic. This process takes around 66 days. I recommend spending a minimum of 21 days to begin the process of creating a new habit. Make small adjustments while taking feedback from your accountability partner and continue on for the full 66 days.

Final Thoughts
The process of turning a behaviour into second nature takes a surprisingly high amount of mental capital, so only work on one habit at a time. As the old saying goes, he who chases two rabbits catches none.

Acquire new habits in the right order. We all have unique “soft spots” in our character that make sense to addressed first. Knowing yourselves well enough to objectively identify these areas can often be difficult to do alone.


About the Author
David Smith is a leadership coach and consultant. He has enjoyed over 25 years of organizational leadership experience in multiple industries connected with regional, national and international leaders. In his past corporate finance roles, he honed skills in business and financial models and their impacts on organizational cultures.

Dave’s career path is dotted with major pioneering initiatives that have sparked innovation, strong business growth and healthy cultural transformations. Learn more at: