Picking up a new habit is both a science and an art. While you’ve got to have spirit, dedication, and all of the usual stick-to-itiveness required to make something previously alien to you feel rote, you’ve also got to know the mechanics of the human mind (and that, when it comes to new habits, you’re your own worst enemy).
This is all especially true if you’re over 40, and you’re someone who believes that old dogs truly can’t learn new tricks. (Fact: They can.) But here’s the thing: Picking up a new habit in middle age requires you to start small and build on your successes as you go along.
That said, here you’ll find the best advice, including all of the science-backed tricks and expert-endorsed tips that are certain to help you pick up a new exercise routine (or diet, or sleep schedule, or flossing ritual) and make it a permanent fixture in your life. Read on, and see your life get instantly optimized. And for ideas on what sorts of activities to turn into rituals, learn the 40 Best Habits to Adopt After 40.
Throw out the vision boards.
When creating a new habit, a common impulse is to create a vision board—a pedestal of inspiration to show you what, exactly, the fruit of your labors will be. Resist this impulse. “You are constantly looking at a fantasy. It’s going to slap you in the face and make you feel like a failure,” says Alok Trivedi, a Chicago-based performance coach and the author of Chasing Success. “In fact, I call them nightmare boards.” And for more on forming new habits, here are the 25 Daily Habits Rich People Swear By.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Ever wonder why you always brush your teeth before putting on deodorant? (Or vice versa?) According to research by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 40 percent of an individual’s regular habits are performed in near-identical daily situations. In other words, do something every day, and it will inevitably stick. So get your Groundhog Day on. And for some habits you’ll definitely want to drop, see the 25 Everyday Habits That Increase Your Cancer Risk.
Keep your load light.
Trying to adopt multiple habits simultaneously is a lot like carrying half a dozen grocery bags at once: There’s a good chance you’re going to drop everything. It can be tempting to want to, all at once, start exercising, eating healthier, and waking up earlier, for instance. But your best bet is to stick to one habit at a time, explains Adam Rosante, a New York City–based fitness and nutrition coach. And if you’re looking for some great habits to adopt, here are the 40 Amazing Habits to Adopt After 40.
Set realistic goals.
You want to do a hundred push-ups every morning? Or set aside 10 percent of every paycheck? Those are good goals. But a feverish pursuit—even in the event that you attain your goal—stands a high chance of backfiring. “When you swing the pendulum to the farthest end of one spectrum,” Rosante explains, “it inevitably swings all the way back to the other side.” Start small. In this case, go with 20 push-ups or 2 percent of your paycheck. And for more great habits, learn the 52 Ways to Be Better With Money in 2018.
Per research in the Harvard Business Review, the best way to keep a steady level of discipline, especially when adopting new habits, is to seriously reduce the number of decisions you’re making on a daily basis. Every day presents countless opportunities to automate and optimize your life, starting first thing. Wake up at the same time every day (yes, including weekends). Hammer out a permanent morning routine (and stick to it like clockwork). And decide on your signature Starbucks beverage (hint: make it a grande dead eye).
Break it down.
According to American Psychological Association recommendations, breaking a larger goal into pieces can work wonders on cementing a new habit. Say, for instance, your goal is to exercise more. Instead of simply trying to hit the gym more often, choose three days per week as dedicated gym days. Now, your goals are: Exercise Monday, exercise Wednesday, and exercise Saturday. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment as you check each off—and that will help you go on and on until exercising becomes a regular ritual. And for the things to drop from your routine, here are the 17 Daily Habits That Are Ruining Your Brain.
Measure your level of success against one person…
You. “Nothing ever good comes from [comparing yourself to others],” says Trivedi. “And it causes psychological confusion.” And for more stellar health living advice, don’t miss the 100 Best Anti-Aging Secrets.
Eat breakfast every day.
You’ve heard time and again that breakfast is the most important meal. It kickstarts your metabolism, grants essential early-morning energy, and is far and away the tastiest meal. (Eggs, bacon, potatoes, and pancakes? We’d gladly eat that for any meal.) What’s more, according to research in Nutrition Journal, breakfast can help reduce cravings throughout the rest of your day. So if you’re trying to get in the habit of snacking less, breakfast can work wonders.
Develop a social support system.
“Research shows that having friends or family members who support your goals improves long-term success,” says Cynthia Sass, a New York City–based nutritionist. “Even if they aren’t doing the same things you’re doing, just having someone to offer encouragement, or listen when you’re having a tough day, can help you hang in when you feel like giving up.”
Or recruit a buddy.
Having a support network helps, but having someone work right next to you will supercharge your efforts. According to the American Psychological Association, when two people strive towards the same—or a similar—goal, both are more likely to achieve it.
There’s a long-held colloquial theory that it takes 21 days to develop a habit—and it’s totally bogus. According to new research out of University College London, the average amount of time is actually 66 days. So hang in there. And for more great suggestions, here are the 20 Nighttime Habits Guaranteed to Help You Sleep Better.
According to the Mayo Clinic, meditation slashes stress and anxiety, helps you sleep longer and more restfully, and can even boost your happiness. In turn, you’ll feel increased motivation to stick to your guns, thanks to your newfound energy levels. It takes just 15 minutes. You can easily slate this in after your morning coffee, during your lunch break, or before climbing into bed. Bonus: Meditating is one of the 40 Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure After 40.
Set your savings to stun.
If you’re interested in getting in the habit of setting aside more of your paycheck, an app like Digit or Qaptial can help big time. You choose a preset amount of your paycheck—most experts recommend 20 percent—and the app will automatically put it into your savings account. In no time, you’ll be stunned by how much dough you’ve saved. For more ways to pad your accounts, learn the 40 Ways To Seriously Boost Your Savings After 40.
Drink cherry juice.
Everyone wants to get in the habit of sleeping better. Luckily, there’s a simple solution: Cherry juice. According to a study in the American Journal of Therapeutics, drinking a glass of the stuff before bed can add nearly an hour-and-a-half to your average sleep cycle. Be sure to opt for natural juice. The processed stuff is loaded with sugar. And for more ways to regularly get eight hours, master the 65 Tips For Your Best Sleep Ever.
Take the stairs.
10,000. Among experts, that’s how many steps you should take in a day. Staying active helps improve many facets of your wellbeing, from energy levels to cardio health, so it’s an excellent habit to adopt. But it can be tough to hit that magic number. To help, skip the elevator and take the stairs—every time. You’ll see your daily step count climb in no time.
Break out self-affirmations.
Whether it’s “You are stunning” or “You are unstoppable,” saying a positive phrase in the mirror every morning can help you stick to your guns. According to research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, folks who uttered daily self-affirmations were more likely to complete their tasks. (Yes, adopting a new habit is a task.)
Tackle easy items first.
“Small change makes big things happen,” says Noam Tamir. “Start with one goal, and once you’re successful, do the same thing for the other goals on your list.” So once you’ve started flossing daily, for instance, move on to bigger, tougher habits, like applying monthly white strips. And whiter teeth are indeed your goals, here are the 20 Secrets for Whiter Teeth After 40.
Eliminate your deadline.
“Society already makes us feel as if we’re not moving fast enough these days,” says Joanne Encarnacion, a San Francisco–based integrative health and life coach. “The world can be demanding and you deserve every moment you can to pause.” Setting a hard deadline for yourself (“I’m gonna start running every day by next month!”) will only set yourself up for failure. And remember: It takes on average about two months to turn an action into a second-nature ritual.
Get in the weeds.
According to the American Psychological Association, setting yourself up with a highly-specific, detail-oriented plan will boost your chances of success. (Just, again, don’t make it a vision board.)
If you want to get in the habit of eating healthier, throw out anything that could stand in your way. Start with potato chips, milk chocolate, and processed grains, then move on to sugary cereals and frozen foods. Before you know it, you’ll be snacking on healthy options—fresh produce, garlicky hummus, that sort of thing—like it’s second nature. And for ideas on what not to throw out, learn the 40 Best Heart Foods You Should Eat After 40.
Focus on the numbers.
Keeping track of your progress will help you stick to it, says Leslie Bonci, founder of ActiveEatingAdvice. “We respond well to numbers and this is much less vague and much more tangible. This puts things directly in your face so you’re confronted with what you have or have not done.”
It’s human nature to respond positively to rewards. If you’ve hit a benchmark on your goal, treat yourself. Maybe it’s a bottle of top-shelf whiskey. Maybe it’s a Bloomingdales spree. Creating something to strive for will work wonders.
Yes, changing years of your hard-programmed function in the name of picking up a new habit is going to be uncomfortable. “If you want positive change, you have to challenge yourself,” says Rosante. “Just know that on the other side of discomfort and doubt is a much stronger version of yourself.”
Specific. (“I want to get in the habit of cooking more.”) Measurable. (How many times did you cook this week? This month?) Achievable. (How many times can you cook this week? This month?) Relevant. (Cooking at home will improve quality of life by both reducing expenses and the frequency of unhealthy meals.) Time-based. (How soon can you start?) SMART is an age-old system for a reason: It works.
Focus on almost meeting your goal.
Perfection is overrated—and can even prove inhibitive to your goals. “If you mess up, don’t beat yourself up,” says Rosante. “You should have a plan that you can stick to at least 80 percent of the time.”
Pre-pack your exercise gear.
Getting your workout clothes, shoes, and accessories ready the night before will help you get in the habit of working out more. “This will prevent you from leaving home without your exercise essentials or from not taking time to assemble your gear in the morning if you’re running late,” says Wayne Westcott, a professor of exercise science at Quincy College.
Be loud and proud.
Tell everyone under the sun that you’re planning on hitting the gym more regularly. “Telling others when you plan to train during the week will make you feel committed to keeping your word and doing your workout as announced,” says Westcott.
Lower the fork.
It’s a great idea to get in the habit of eating slower. Rapid eating can lead to rapid weight gain. (It takes your brain about 20 minutes to “catch up” to your stomach, meaning you could potentially be eating long after your body is full.) Sass suggests putting your utensils down between every bite. It’s mere seconds for each bite, but that compounds over the course of a meal.
Enforce the 80-20 rule.
To eat less—a noble habit that many of us would do well to pick up—think about it in terms of numbers. Recall that 20-minute “catch up” stat? Eat about 80 percent of your normal portion size, pause, and then wait 20 minutes before eating anything else.
Get your nightly shuteye.
A recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that folks who sleep less than seven hours each night consumed nearly 400 more calories than normal the following day. So if you want to get in the habit of eating less, be sure to sleep more.
Weigh yourself in the morning.
On the journey to significant weight loss, stepping on a scale can be discouraging—sometimes to the point where you avoid the habit altogether. But, if you weigh yourself first thing in the morning, you’ll clock in at a lower number than you would later in the day. And take it from us: That’s very encouraging.
Designate a monthly date night…
With yourself. “Most people live life on autopilot and are not intentional about designing their life or being clear about how they want to live and be,” says Shefali Raina, an executive coach at The Wall Street Coach. Your monthly “date night,” per Raina, should be an evening dedicated to reviewing your goals. You’ll get a chance to see how far you have left to go—or how far you’ve already come.
Invest in that standing desk.
Every second you spend at your desk leads to added pressure on your spine, which can lead to disc degeneration or, in extreme cases, pinched nerves. But it’s tough to get in the habit of standing on your feet for eight hours (or more!) each day. If you buy an easily-adjustable standing desk—like any of the models from Varidesk, for instance—the option will be right in front of you all day long. At that point, it’s just too tempting to stand up for a bit.
Yes, gambling can be an excellent motivator. We suggest Pact, an app where you and others pay into a collective pool and set individualized goals. If you meet your targets, you get to cash out. If you miss them, the money’s gone. It’s the best type of gambling: On yourself. Because if you don’t bet on yourself, no one will.
Pack up and move.
According to a new study by the data firm Dstillery, folks who travel 3.7 miles to their gym—as opposed to 5.1 miles—show up with five times the frequency. In other words, if you’re looking to get back in shape, joining a gym in close proximity to your home is an excellent place to start.
Every single thing you purge from your life will leave a hole. Let’s say you’re trying to get in the habit of a eating healthier. “If you give up soda, replace with sparkling water. If you give up chips, replace with another crunchy food, like roasted chickpeas,” suggests Bonci.
Keep a food journal.
According to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, folks who write down their eating habits daily are twice as likely to stick to a new diet.
Scale back your workout time.
“Our lives are busy and time is our most precious resource, when things get tight, our workouts are usually the first thing to land on the chopping block,” says Rosante. “Unless you’re preparing for a bodybuilding competition, there’s no reason for your workouts to be much longer than 45-minutes, tops.” Once you realize you can fit a whole routine in less than an hour, you’ll be more inclined to stick to it.
By using an app like Todoist—which is available on desktop and smartphone, and integrates data between the two platforms—you’ll incentivize yourself to stick to goals. For every item you check off, Todoist will grant you points. And studies suggest that even digital notifications like these act as a sort of reward system.
You can do this. (Remember: 66 days.) And once you’ve successfully developed these habits, learn the 40 Best Ways to Keep Them Every Day.
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