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How to break a habit

How do you break a habit? How do you stop doing something that you have always done?

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“You bite your nails,” she laughs.

That’s the line every manicurist gives me. Evidently, it’s important to clear the air, to acknowledge that I’m requesting an unusual service. The laugh is usually warranted, and certainly was in this case—clipping the nails of a compulsive nail-biter is like trimming a bald man’s head. What I want is perhaps closer to a medical operation than any sort of beautification. I don’t want polish or gel or whatever that fancy blue-light machine can do for me. I want my fingernails and cuticles cleaned up in the hope that maybe—just maybe!—if some of the dead skin is removed, the jagged edges smoothed, then I will be less tempted to constantly chew on my hands.

“Manicures sometimes help,” I offer in response to the non-question. That’s true. Each of the dozen or so manicures I’ve received in my life has kept me from gnawing on my hands, at least  for two or three days.

But my habit always comes back. I constantly bite my nails down to nubs, my cuticles until they bleed. It’s my main vice and nervous tic. I don’t depend on alcohol, drugs, or sunny days, but sometimes I feel like if I don’t bite my nails, everything else in my life will fall apart. It’s a habit I’ve always longed to quit. But nothing seems to help for long.

So, in part for journalism, and in part for myself, I set out to discover: How do you break a habit? How do you stop doing something that you have always done?


The basics of habit

Habits are a way that we learn through doing and are much more about behavior than intention, says Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. Wood is an expert in making and breaking habits, and she wrote a (very good) book on it called Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.

Breaking bad habits sometimes means replacing them with good ones. In her book, Wood outlines the three fundamentals of habit formation:

  • Context: Our habits are cued by our environment, our surroundings, and convenience. Want to change a habit? Change the context. Want to exercise more? Join a gym that’s on your way to your office.
  • Repetition: The key to forming a habit is repetition. When we first start a behavior, it is deliberate, but over time it becomes increasingly automatic. When we get into a car, we put on a seatbelt. That’s because we’ve done it a million times. We want to make good habits automatic, not the bad habits.
  • Reward: We can incentivize new habits when there’s an element of reward or pay-off associated with them. We can also disincentivize bad habits. Try putting your smartphone in grayscale and see if using it is as appealing.

What habits aren’t

There’s some confusion about what habits are and what they are not. Though these things are different from bad habits, the two can have an impact on one another.

Willpower. Willpower—a fancy word for one’s intention and commitment to a task—is good for making one-off decisions that don’t require repetition. One thing it’s not good for? Changing habits. Wood said in an interview. “So if you’re trying to talk yourself into doing something like doing your taxes this year or signing up for your retirement program at work—those kinds of one-off decisions—it can work. But for changing repeated decisions, willpower is not that helpful.”

Addiction. “Addiction is a term that you use to describe typically some substance that you use and start to crave, and [you] experience withdrawals if you don’t have it,” Wood said. “If you sat in your car and didn’t put your seatbelt belt on, you wouldn’t experience symptoms of withdrawal.” But habits play an important role in addictions. Addictive substances can, in fact, speed up habit-learning by hijacking the dopamine systems in our brains.


How to stop biting your nails

Did Wood think I’ll be able to stop biting my nails? She had some advice.

“So you’ve changed the cues—and then you can practice other behaviors. If your nails are still raggedy, that’s still going to activate the desire and the response of chewing them. So getting a manicure is great. I would recommend that you do that regularly, maybe once a week, and then find other behaviors that you could practice to try to make a new habit at times or places when you typically bite your nails.”

Wood makes it sound simple, but to me it’s anything but. Yes, I might have changed those cues—keeping my nails clean reduces the trigger to bite—but the desire is still there. As a writer, my fingers are usually in full view, typing away at my laptop, so I’m always aware of my hands. She recommended a standing desk, which I recently bought, but I don’t think that has made much of a difference. It’s not so easy to forget about your own hands.


Work in progress

It’s been three weeks since my last manicure, and I’m mostly happy with the results. I’ve been able to keep from biting them—the edges of my nails are now even semicircles, slightly raised from the fingertips, not sharp jagged edges flanked by bloody cuticles. This is the longest and cleanest my fingers have looked in my memory. But as my nails and cuticles grew in the days after my last manicure, so did my desire to start nibbling again.

I haven’t completely knocked the habit, but I’ve made progress. The combination of the first manicure, the pressure of writing this essay, and a new commitment to certain at-home tools—a nail file and purple foam nail buffer—have somewhat helped.

I went back to the nail salon today and my manicurist didn’t laugh. She didn’t feel compelled to comment that I bite my nails. Surely, she knew, but it didn’t require an air-clearing pronouncement as it may have once. Once again, my nails look and feel perfect, and, at least for a moment, I’m not tempted to bite.


Have a great weekend,

—Scott Nover, emerging industries reporter (and men’s manicure evangelist)


One 😮 thing

In her research, Wood found that about 43% of our daily behaviors are done habitually. That’s not just bad habits like nail-biting, but also daily rituals or mental shortcuts we might not even think of as habits. As Wood writes in her book, “We assume that, out of love for our children, we read to them each night before they go to bed. We believe that, out of the desire to save money, we check the specials each time we enter the grocery store. We think that, out of safety concerns, we buckle our seat belts whenever we get in the car.”

In other words, habits are important—they help us get through each day. We’d just prefer to keep the good ones, and get rid of the bad ones.

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