Five Ideas To Help Break Bad Habits

Mar 28, 2013 | Creativity

bruce nauman

(Bruce Nauman) 

I have a habit to break in a big way, so never have I been as focused on the science of habit breaking as I am right this moment.  I’m masterful at changing a routine (a pattern of behavior) and I am awesome at organizing and scheduling… but when it comes to the full cycle of an addictive habit, I have no idea where to begin.

I have been biting my nails for about, oh, my whole life, and now it has to stop.  I won’t even wear rings and sit on my hands in meetings. Its not a good thing.  So, where to begin to unravel a really deeply-ingrained habit?  

Some interesting ideas about habits and how to break them: 

1. Its unclear how long it takes to make or break a habit. Some suggest it takes 21 or 28 days to create or un-create a pattern. No one has even really proven this as a standard for every addictive behavior. Some suggest it is 60 days to create a new habit.  No matter the length of time, most agree that there is decisive action needed to break a habit.

2.  Awareness is key.  An addictive habit has a three part cycle- a cue or trigger, the actual behavior and the reward for the behavior.  Many researchers say that once you become aware of your triggers, as well as the rewards you crave in the cycle of behavior, it becomes easier to tackle the issue.

3. There are many “flavors” of behavioral change. Dr. BJ Fogg is my Stanford University hero of behavior change, and I am so upset that I am not studying with him right this moment!  His Behavior Grid is amazing because it shows the nuances in behavioral switches.  For instance, you can swear off a behavior for a set amount of time “Span Behavior” or you can decide to take a step in a new direction with an action, like a one-time donation to a cause “Dot Behavior”, etc, etc.  When you see this grid you realize that there are many different gradients of behavioral change, and its not always all-or-nothing.  Fascinating. Helpful.

4. Changing your environment helps changing habits.  In Charles Huhigg’s  book “The Power Of Habit”   he writes about how vacations are the best time to break habits, because the cues in your environment are not there to reinforce your habits.

5. Trying to suppress behavior seems to only make the desire intensify.  Jeremy Dean, author of “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick” explained in the New York Times: “You can’t totally eradicate old patterns of behavior. What you can do is replace them with new ones. The research suggests that the best strategy is to replace a bad old habit with a good new one.”

From all of the above I see that I need to be in this habit switch for the long haul. Mine is not a one-shot deal, its an actual commitment to change.  I have to know what triggers my bad habit of nail-biting (too much tea,  hunger, and for some reason, typing on a computer all tend to trigger me!).  I am in the process of moving, so bonus points for changing my environment! I think I am going to work with snacks beside me in an orange bowl (orange= healthy, attractive  warm) from now on while I write, an environmental “switch” that I think can help!  Now, maybe I can find some sort of hand reflexology to do when I am thinking of biting my nails? I will find something!

Do you have a bad habit to break, too?! I know we can do it! xoxo Dana


  1. arwa

    I have heard of people who start getting manicures to stop biting their nails (intensive nails look pretty so not to ruin them- also serves as a reminder not to bite nails) as well as people who coat their nails with garlic or some nasty tasting tincture to stop kind of like a Pavlovian technique.. it is hard to break habits I agree you need to replace it with a new one or it all comes tumbling down..

    • danaclaudat

      looking for some reflexology or something to do 😉 and taking your advice and getting a sad maniucure on my sad nails to make them a little happier!

  2. Rachel

    Reading about your nail-biting habit first made me think how glad I am I was able to kick the habit when I was about eleven years old (I wish I could remember what did the trick for me), but then I realized I was engaging in my own bad habit/nervous tick the entire time I read this post- twirling my hair (this time it was my bangs). There is something about keeping hands busy that is soothing. I like the idea of replacing a bad habit with a good one- I try to pet my dog (who can usually be found right next to me when I’m at home), instead of twirling my hair.

    • danaclaudat

      I am glad you kicked the habit early 🙂 Its a bear for me. It seems like a small thing but your comment just reminded me that behind every one of these habits is a nervous response… And that’s another good reason to get past it! Thank you for this!!!

  3. JP

    Agree with the above comment, however, I HIGHLY recommend purchasing a bottle of Orly’s No-Bite and brushing it on a time or two each day. While the manicure is a visual reminder that is helpful, this serves as a taste deterrent when you are at the point of biting without even looking. I bit my nails for over twenty years and this worked for me. Also, once or twice I would “relapse” on just one nail, so this was always good to have around…and to share with others! 😉 Best of luck! And keep us posted on your progress…

    • danaclaudat

      Great tip! Thank you! so far I did a mock-manicure last night and now, I will go out & see if I can find some Orly No Bite locally! 🙂


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