Build Habits Over 50: Surprising Keys to Change Your Mind


Build habits to stay productive and stay sharp. Defy the myths about aging and improve your mental game. Neuroscience is your friend.

If we work to build habits, we can live more effectively, more productively, and seemingly with less effort. We can tap into the latest advances in neuroscience, and create durable neural pathways that make our new, positive, and productive habits like second nature.

Why Are Habits Important?

According to a study conducted by Duke University, about 40 % of what we do on a daily basis is performed without too much thought. Our repetitive behaviors influence how we think and how we react to what life throws at us. In many ways, we are the sum of our habits, both good and bad. 

Although they reside outside the spectrum of conscious thought, habits can still be programmed and reprogrammed by first changing our routines on a conscious level. By repeating a routine over and over, it will become an automatic behavior — a habit.  As Stephen Covey shared in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “we become what we repeatedly do”

As we age, constant change (technological, social, professional, and interpersonal) puts us in a position where old habits may no longer be useful. By looking for ways to review, reframe, modify, or reprogram our habits, we can build mental resilience and foster a sense of mastery over our lives. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by life, we feel on top of it.

How Long Does It Take to Build a New Habit?

Regularity and consistency are key to generating automaticity and turning a routine into a habit. The more often you reinforce a habit, the more embedded in your brain it gets.

Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon from the 1950s, was one of the first to come up with an estimated number of days to form a new habit. He noticed a pattern among his patients that after he would perform plastic surgery, it took a minimum of 21 days for them to adjust to the new change. 

More recent research suggests that the process can range anywhere from 18 to 254 days. The length of time is dependent on the difficulty of the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In my own work, I’ve narrowed the process down to a 4-5 week window for most simple behavior changes and habit formations. 

Make Your Habits S.M.A.R.T.

This acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Although we usually apply it to goal-setting, it can be applied just as easily to habits. 

This is how S.M.A.R.T. works when it comes to habits:

  • Specific means that you have to really get granular about the habit you’re trying to build and the process you’re going to use to learn it. For example: “I will meditate for ten minutes before 9 AM every weekday Monday – Friday” is specific enough for you to hold yourself accountable.
  • Measurable means that you can quantify it and keep track of it by setting up a tracking system. Remember the words of productivity guru Peter Drucker: “What gets measured gets managed.”
  • Achievable means don’t over-reach: you’ll disappoint yourself. Make your habit goal at least 50% believable. This means — it’s a stretch, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. 
  • Relevant means that it is important to you and applicable to helping you solve a current problem or set of problems. If you have a stake in the outcome, you’ll be more motivated to adopt a habit. 
  • Time-bound can apply in two ways. First, it means that there’s an urgency to your habit goal. Second, it can refer to a regular time of the day or the week when you perform the habit, such as a morning routine that you do when you wake up every day.

Read Up! Two Books to Support You to Build Good Habits

Two of the most popular recent books to help you build habits are The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habits by James Clear.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the science behind habits: the different levels of habit formation, why habits are at the core of everything we do, how they influence our lives, businesses, and society, and how we can change them to work to our advantage. 

While Charles Duhigg provides a deep dive on the subject, in the book Atomic Habits, James Clear gets straight to the point with an easy-to-understand systematic way of changing our behaviors for the better.

Both books are great, only the vantage point is slightly different. Duhigg’s book is great if you want to familiarize yourself with habit development in individuals, organizations, and global society. 

If you already know the theory and wish to step up the game in your life and career, Atomic Habits is the ideal instruction manual that provides a concrete model to make or break a bad habit. 

You Don’t Need Willpower

When we talk about willpower, we make the assumption that a) some people have more of it than others, and have stronger and “better” abilities to concentrate their focus, and b) that our failure to build positive habits is an indication that we lack willpower. 

James Clear (and modern neuroscience) turns that idea on its head. Decouple the notion that you need willpower to build habits. Clear’s prescription: make it easy and strategic. Stack the deck in your favor by picking a new habit that is easy. If you want to stop eating sweets, throw out all the sugary snacks in your pantry and replace them with celery and carrots. To start a new workout routine, schedule yourself for 5 or 10 minutes per day.

Being a “habit hacker” is more effective than having willpower: be creative and build incentives into your habit-building process. 

Here are six steps that will help you build habits that stick for a lifetime:

Step One: Start Small

Building off the idea of making habits easy, adopt Thrive Global’s “Microstep” technique (we’ve talked about this in the Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone article).  

This technique involves breaking down a routine into tiny, incremental actions or small building blocks that are too small to fail. By definition, a micro-step should feel ridiculously easy to do to the point that you can’t believe it’s moving the needle.

But achieving small and consistent victories builds your sense of success and gives you the confidence you need to continue building more self-honoring habits and developing more resilience.

Step Two: Daisy—Chain Your Success

Use habit-stacking to grow your repertoire. Once you’ve got one habit established, simply add another to the first one. For example, once you’ve mastered your daily meditation, add a few minutes of breathing exercises. Then think about adding a few minutes of stretching exercises. Habit-stacking can become a virtuous cycle where the more you stack, the easier it gets to stack more positive practices and routines.

Step Three: Clear “Open Loops”

Time management guru David Allen defines “open loops” as any task or set of tasks that are overdue and have been weighing you down, consciously or unconsciously.

Cleaning out your garage, donating old clothes, fixing a cracked window, getting your car washed are some familiar examples. Even though you can go through your day letting that task drag on uncompleted, on some level, the lack of completion is distracting you from focusing on more important tasks. 

Checking these items off your list will give you more energy and a greater sense of mastery and control over your life.

Step Four: “Look the Part”

“Look the part” is an expression actors use to develop a character, especially when they go into a casting meeting. If they can take on every aspect of the character, from wardrobe to attitude to speech patterns and facial expressions, they have a good chance of convincing the director that they’re the right person to play the role.

It’s more than “dressing for success.” It’s about reframing your sense of yourself. Act as if you are the kind of person who effortlessly follows through and lives by the habits you’re working on acquiring.

What else does that kind of person do? Have fun playing the character. Even though it’s a bit of a game, the attitude shift can make it easier for you to build the habit.

Step Five: Track It

Remember that to build habits, you have to make them measurable. There are many tracking systems you can try, from paper planners’ to Excel spreadsheets, to dedicated apps. Following are two top-rated smartphone apps that are available on both iOS and Android.

Please note: I have no involvement with either app and have not been paid to include them in this article. I encourage you to do your own research and find an app that works for you. These two provide a sense of the kinds of features you can expect to work effectively for your needs.

Habit Bull

HabitBull is a habit tracker mobile app that helps you track your habits by day, week, or month and helps build positive habits or break the negative ones. With its simple interface, it is easy to set up and can be customized according to your needs.

This habit tracker allows you to log your goals and detail how often you want to reach them. You can also set up notifications to remind you about ongoing new habits and tasks and sync everything across all your devices. Additionally, the app includes detailed calendars and generates charts based on your entries to help you monitor your progress.

The HabitBull app has a free version that allows you to track five habits at a time (the premium version tracks up to 100 habits).  

 Fabulous Self-Care App

Fabulous is another great app that helps build routines by breaking habits down into small, easy steps — much like the microstep technique. It works like a “coach” and uses behavioral science to help people build habits in a smart and efficient way.

In 2018, it won “The Best Self-Care App” title in the Apple Store and was one of the finalists in the Best App Google Play Awards. 

The app centers around creating healthy routines each morning to set yourself up for a successful day. For example, if you want to read for 30 minutes during your morning coffee or drink a glass of water straight after waking up, the app will send you a reminder at a given time to notify you of your new routine.

Over time, you can add more routines that will help you either build healthy habits or eradicate the bad ones. 

The app is easy to navigate and has a dashboard with your goals and the progress of your new routines. It has a 7-day free trial, but then charges a yearly subscription.

Bonus: Google Calendar

Although you might already be using Google Calendar for appointments and meetings, it can also help you keep track of your habits, set new goals, and improve yourself.

The app allows you to set alarms and notifications, and works very much like a smart assistant that reminds you when you should be preparing to start your newly desired routine — start exercising for 15 minutes, build a skill, network, complete small tasks, and so on.  

Google Calendar is free and simple to get around, and if you are already using it — it’s also familiar.

Step Six: Reward Your Success—AND Ignore Your Failure

Keep focused on what you’re achieving, not on what you’re missing. As humans, we tend to be our own worst critics. Our self-judgment is probably the biggest obstacle to our success.

Try using the technique that trainers and behaviorists use when working with large animals (think elephants or orcas). They never criticize or tell the animal they’re doing something wrong. They either praise them and reward them for good behavior, or they totally ignore their behavior. This technique puts all the attention on the positive behavior and the attendant reward. This makes that positive behavior more attractive and easier to accomplish. Focusing on the “bad” behavior is essentially a waste of everyone’s time. 

What is Your Next Productive Habit?

Pick one right now. Yes! The one that you were just thinking of. Is it S.M.A.R.T.? Are you willing to follow the six steps to build habits successfully? Please share your experience in the comments and let me know if you have any other tips, tricks, or suggestions!

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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