Is it just me or is it harder to build a habit the older we get? My inability to stop hitting the snooze button approximately 11 times every morning leads me to think, “Well, I guess the habits I have now are the only ones I will ever have for the rest of my life.” Our reliable friend science will tell you one portion of this thinking is correct, and the other is, well, a bit dramatic. It is in-fact harder to form new habits as an adult, but still possible!
But why is it so hard to form new habits?
New habits are harder to form as we age thanks to this little-terrifying-sounding-thing called synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning is your brain’s way of making sure you can do things like take a shower, turn off lights, pour a glass of water, etc. without thinking twice (impressive!). Of course, getting really good at tasks you perform daily leaves less brain space for things you do less frequently- like remembering to send your friend a birthday card so it arrives before their actual birthday (it’s not me it’s my synapses!).
To summarize, we have lots of pathways in play for all our daily habits, and to solidify new habits, we need to make new pathways. This can be a lot of work for our dusty old adult brains, but we can use synaptic pruning to our advantage when we attach new behaviors onto existing ones with habit stacking.
What is habit stacking?
Pick a new habit you’re trying to build, like taking your vitamins daily. Next, pick a behavior you already do everyday without thinking, like brushing your teeth. Now, stack em’. After you brush your teeth, take your vitamins. After you have your coffee, you meditate. After you close your laptop for the day, you put on your walking shoes. You get it. Try this exercise with a new habit you have in mind. With a little self-awareness and planning, habit stacking is an easy trick to help you become more successful in your behavior change.
Here are 5 additional tips from our Nutritionists who know a thing or two about creating new habits:
1. Gina’s tip: Link your new habit to an existing routine.
Working out (pre-pandemic) was a social activity for me. When the pandemic hit, it was a struggle to remain active. To get back at it, I started to associate my workouts with other aspects of my day. The second I’m done with work, it’s time for a quick caffeine boost and into my workout clothes. That means no scrolling through reels, and absolutely no Netflix. Getting into my workout gear right when I’m done with work (and before feeling the tiredness kick in) helped me to follow through and stick to my exercise goals.
2. Hayley’s tip: Tackle your most daunting task first. You won’t regret it!
Working out in the morning helps me set my day up for success. I hop out of bed and head to the gym within 10 minutes, that way, I don’t have the time to dread the workout all day or put it off. I always lay my workout clothes out before bed and fill up my water bottle to just grab it and go in the morning. Working out in the morning helps me have a productive day.
3. Mackenzie’s tip: Look for patterns in your daily routine to help take existing habits and create new ones.
Working from a desk all day can make it hard to find time to get up and move. I really wanted to increase my daily steps, so I committed to taking walks on my lunch break to get my body moving. Now, this is a daily habit that I look forward to. It has helped increase my energy, allows me to get my daily dose of Vitamin D and gets me closer to my step goals!
4. Claire’s tip: plan! Think of one thing you can do to make your habit easier to accomplish and do it!
Set small goals at the beginning of the week and take time on day one to put things in place for you to be successful at that goal. When I wanted to start drinking more water, I made sure to get a 64 oz jug that I could fill up every morning and keep at my desk.
5. Karina’s tip: Set up visual cues, an aptly placed post-it note can go a long way.
I use little written notes or post-its to remind myself to do things. When I couldn’t remember to take my vitamins, I wrote “VITAMINS” in marker on my toothbrush. It ended up being super reliable and now I take my vitamins morning and evening.
If you’re struggling with taking your supplements, read 5 tips to make swallowing pills easier to help you out.
Allie is a spin-class-teaching, triathlon-winning nutritionist who loves to help others. She has a Master’s degree in nutrition and has published academic research on improving food access for underserved populations.
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