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The Upside of Changing Your Habits in Midlife

The author of 'The Power of Habit' says older people are less inclined than the young to change their ways, but when they do, the results can be dramatic

posted by Caroline Mayer, June 7, 2012 More by this author

the power of habit bookcover

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


the power of habit bookcover
Can an old(er) dog learn new tricks? Or in my case, can an aging, routine-bound reporter change her habits?

And can you? Should you?
 
That’s what I wanted to know after reading The Power of Habit, the new bestseller by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. It’s a fascinating read that explains, as the subtitle puts it, “Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It.” The book also shows how companies use consumers’ habits to sell them more goods and services.
 
Curious to learn more, I recently chatted with Duhigg. Here are highlights of that interview:
    
Your book shows how stores track their customers’ purchases and buying habits. For instance, Target looks for evidence that a female shopper is pregnant — when she starts buying a lot more vitamins and scent-free lotion — and then subtly sends her coupons for baby goods. Do stores do similar tracking of older customers? 
 
They certainly do. Stores are tracking every single person who walks through their doors. So they are definitely profiling older shoppers, trying to predict the habits of someone in that age group.
 
What they’re ultimately trying to figure out is when people are going through a change in their life stage, because that’s when habits are particularly malleable. For older people, that could be when they retire or when they have grandchildren.
 
Should we care that we’re being so closely tracked? And if so, what should we do about it?
 
Every consumer has to choose between convenience and privacy. If you don’t want companies knowing what you’re doing, that’s easy to accomplish: You always use cash, you never use credit cards, you never register and shop online, you never use any of the coupons they send to your house, and you never use any loyalty programs. You don’t create traceable activity.
 
Using a credit card is more convenient than using cash; signing up to be on an email list is more convenient than going into a store and picking up the coupon booklets there. But every time you do something that’s more convenient, it usually generates data. Stores are willing to give you more convenience in exchange for the data capture.
 
The truth of the matter is, most people don’t really care if Target’s tracking them. They get better coupons in the mail — coupons for stuff they actually want.
 
That’s true, but it's sort of creepy sometimes.
 
It is creepy ... Amazon says, "You liked that book, so you’ll probably like this book," I don’t think most people think that’s creepy.
 
For some reason, the creepy factor goes down when it’s online. It’s when it’s in the real world that people feel like it’s creepy. People are uncomfortable being reminded how much these online tactics exist in the physical world.
 
Did you come across any research that says the older you get, the harder it is to break a habit?
      
Older adults — and particularly those over 55 — tend to change their habits less frequently than younger people, not because it’s harder, but because when they change, the change is almost always permanent. They actually know who they are much better. The impetus to change is much less.
 
Weight loss is a great example. There are lots of people in their 40s and 50s who wish they could lose weight but don’t change their habits. Why not? They actually don’t care that much, compared to the amount of effort it would take. If you are in your late 40s or early 50s, who you trying to impress?
 
Any advice on how to change a habit?

Older people are in this unique position to effectively diagnose the cues and rewards that are driving their behavior and then use that information to find a new routine that delivers a different reward. People in their 50s and 60s know what makes them happy much better than younger people, and once they achieve a change, they don’t go back.

Alcoholics who become sober in their 40s and 50s have very small incidences of relapses.
 
So you can teach an old dog new tricks?
 
If anything, once you teach an old dog a new trick, he is never going to forget it.
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