Habit Change: You Most Certainly CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks!
Many of us after 50 and 60 are continuing to look to make changes in our lives. We might want to do the thing we always wanted to do but never got around to. Maybe we want to retire and spend more time with grandchildren or traveling. For many of us, we are looking to change a life role in some way – which can be a major life redefinition.
There are also many of us in this demographic who are perfectly happy with where we are in terms of our major life roles. We like our job or our retirement life. We see our kids and grands the perfect amount. We travel the perfect amount (when there is no global pandemic, anyway).
But maybe we have a habit we’d like to change or create in our lives. And we are afraid that we’re too old or have been doing what we’re doing for so long that it will be impossible to change.
As a career behavior analyst, I can tell you that’s incorrect. Any person can change any behavior at any time. It’s a matter of using a few tools and techniques and knowing that “slow and steady wins the race.” When we jump in too quickly, we become overwhelmed and then we throw in the towel.
Where to Start?
Typically, we have an idea of what the general habit is that we want to create. We might want to exercise more, eat better, start journaling, keep better in touch with our friends – the list is endless.
The first step is to take your general habit change idea and turn it into a very specific and measurable goal. Some examples would be:
- Instead of saying, “I’m going to exercise more” you might create a goal such as, “I’m going to walk for 45 minutes each day and do strength training 3 times per week.”
- Instead of saying, “I’m going to start eating better” you might say, “For lunch and dinner each day, ¾ of my meal will be plant-based.”
- Instead of saying, “I want to start journaling,” you can create the goal of, “I will set the timer each morning for 20 minutes and journal with my coffee before I look at ANY screen.”
It’s always important to phrase your habit and goals in the positive. State what you WANT to do, rather than what you don’t want to do.For example, instead of saying “I’m going to stop eating junk food,” you might say, “I’m going to eat 5 fruits or vegetables every day.”
Next – Break Your Goal Down into Manageable Chunks
It is important when creating a new habit to do it every day. So, when breaking it down into chunks, do it daily and slowly build up the time.
For example, if you’re wanting to walk for 45 minutes each day and do strength training 3 times a week, start off by setting the goal of walking for 20 minutes each day. Do this for three weeks, then increase it to 25 minutes each day with once per week of strength training.
Three more weeks, then 30 minutes each day and twice per week of strength training. By this time, you will have been walking every day for 9 weeks. The walking itself will be an ingrained habit.
Most Importantly – Reinforce Yourself Frequently and Consistently
This is the key to behavior change. Reinforcement. When you start pairing the habit change with something that you look forward to, you will be much more successful.
The reinforcement at the outset must be frequent. Telling yourself when you first embark on your habit change journey that after you exercise for a month you can get a new pair of shoes will be setting yourself up for failure. A month is too far in the future.
Sit down and make a list of everything that is reinforcing to you – from the smallest to the most extravagant. Once you’ve done that, go through your list and number the top 10 from the easiest and least expensive to the hardest to obtain and most expensive.
Each and every time that you successfully complete your daily goal, immediately reinforce yourself with the small thing. So, after your walk each day, treat yourself to a delicious sparkling water. Or, while you’re journaling each morning, buy yourself a yummy creamer to put in your coffee.
These are things you ONLY get when you are working on your habit. That way, in your brain, they will become paired with your new habit.
Increase the reinforcer as you continue your habit with time. So, if you’ve successfully journaled each morning for 3 weeks for 10 minutes, treat yourself to a pretty new journal. But continue with your yummy coffee and creamer.
If you’ve walked every day for 15 minutes for 3 weeks, treat yourself to a new pair of yoga pants but continue with your refreshing sparkling water after each walk.
Last Couple of Tips
Work on only one habit at a time. Do not decide that you’re going to exercise, eat differently, drink 64 ounces of water a day, and journal all at the same time. This will not allow you to effectively use the goal setting and reinforcement tools without becoming completely overwhelmed.
Create affirmations around your habit – write them down and put them up where you can see them. On your fridge, on your bulletin board in your office, on your mirror. These will be constant visual reminders for you.
Leslie has started an online book group for women over 50. If you’re interested in further information on this, feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is there a habit that you’d like to change or create? What motivates or reinforces you along the way? Have you tried creating new habits? What affirmations have worked for you? Please share below!