Much of what you do daily is the result of habits formed over many years. For example, the time you wake up in the morning, whether you wash your hair first or last in the shower, and where in your mouth you begin brushing your teeth are likely the result of a lifetime of subconscious routines. In fact, one Duke University study concluded that about 40% of daily decision-making is actually habit.
Researchers have concluded that without habit loops, our brains would be overwhelmed by the thousands of decisions we have to make each day. Habit loops are customary routines that allow us to accomplish tasks without having to devote much mental energy toward them. To illustrate, even though it required intense concentration at first, over time, things like tying your shoelaces and buttoning your shirt now take no thought whatsoever. Similarly, learning to drive initially required careful attention. But now you can drive to the grocery store without even being consciously aware of the route you take – you are literally on autopilot.
At the beginning of an activity, your brain searches for a cue to determine if there is a habitual pattern that it can use to reduce your mental workload. The cue is a subconscious trigger that tells the brain to execute a prescribed routine, which could be physical, mental, or emotional. After the routine is performed, a reward validates the routine. Over time, this three-step cycle – cue, routine, and reward – not only becomes more and more automatic, but it also creates an anticipatory craving (a fourth step to the cycle). Like Pavlov’s dog, the cue creates a craving that unconsciously drives you toward accomplishing the routine so that you can receive the associated reward.
Retirement Calls for New Habits
Greg Bishop, a Utah-based attorney, suggests that because much of what you do each day changes as you move into retirement, habitualized behaviors learned over the course of your employment likely will not fit your new lifestyle. For example, during your career, your work obligations created deeply ingrained habits such as waking up at a specific time, getting ready for the day, eating (or skipping) meals, exercising (or not), running errands, doing projects around the house, and eventually going to bed. Even weekend activities were largely dictated by what you were unable to get done during the workweek because of the demands of your job.
Although transitioning out of the workforce provides an opportunity to establish new habits, there is growing evidence suggesting that older adults are more reluctant to make changes in their lives than their younger counterparts. That said, experts also advise that the best way to create new habits is to modify old habits. Take, for example, a person who wakes up early in the morning to beat the rush-hour traffic. In this case, the cue for the habit is the alarm clock going off at 6:00 AM; the routine consists of waking up, showering, getting ready for work, eating a quick breakfast, and driving into the office before the traffic gets bad. The reward is getting a good start to the day.
Rather than trying to establish an entirely new habit – for example, exercising – researchers suggest modifying an existing habit by keeping the cue and the reward largely the same, and changing the routine primarily. In this case, the cue of setting the alarm and the reward of getting a good start to the day remain the same. However, the routine is changed from getting to the office early, to exercising instead.
If the cue, the reward, or even both are strengthened, it can create a very powerful craving to accomplish a new routine. For example, a cue (in our hypothetical, the time cue of a 6:30 AM alarm) could be strengthened by adding one or more of the other four types of cues – a specific place, the presence of certain people, an emotion, or a proceeding action. A strong cue that would eventually help you crave exercise would be to meet the same group of close friends at the same gym at the same time every day.
Similarly, the reward could be strengthened to create an additional craving for the behavior – even if the reward is only temporary. A study in Germany demonstrated that 58% of the participants of an exercise program who rewarded themselves with a small piece of chocolate after exercising were more likely to continue exercising than those who didn’t have the chocolate. Interestingly, once the participants were also rewarded by the endorphins released through exercise, they all stopped using chocolate as a reward.
In summary, by learning to modify existing routines – while using current and even strengthened cues and rewards – older adults can leverage the habits learned throughout a long career and successfully apply them to their lives in retirement.