How to rid yourself forever of a behavior that’s getting in your way

From as early as I can remember, I was a habitual nail-biter. I tried everything — bitter-tasting nail polish, glue-on nail tips, even professionally applied acrylics — but nothing worked.

Habits, says psychotherapist and Siena College psychology professor Mo Therese Hannah, are often picked up when we’re younger — as mimicry of our parents, or in response to some stress or trauma. “Sometimes it’s how we cope with things as a child,” she says. “Our habits bring us some form of comfort.”

It wasn’t until my mid-40s that I tried a “brain trick” I learned from a book called The Power of Habit, published in 2012 by former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Duhigg, and within days — and to this day some 10 years later — the urge to bite was gone. 

To understand our habits, we need to identify the components of what Duhigg calls “habit loops” — the cue-routine-reward cycle that feeds them. Once the habit loop of a particular behavior is diagnosed, we can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines, he says.

It works. At least it worked with my habit, and research shows it can work with yours, too. (Of course, every person and every habit is different.)

“It’s as if I were never a nail-biter,” I wrote to Duhigg in 2013, thanking him for changing my life with his book. He responded, asking me to tell my story for The Power of Habit paperback release the following year. 

“Congratulations on breaking such a hard habit,” Duhigg replied. “Each habit is different, as is each person, each case. … I know from my research that many habits follow the same cue-routine-reward. I can say that with work and time, even deeply ingrained habits can be changed.”

Duhigg and I caught up again for this article and I asked him to repeat the steps I took to break my bad habit.

“Well, first, we don’t ‘break’ a habit,” says Duhigg, who left New York in 2020 for the West Coast but continues to write for The New Yorker. “You can change habits, but once you have those neural pathways associated with a habit, they won’t go away. So it’s important to think about changing it rather than breaking it.”

To change a habit, you have to first recognize it and figure out what triggers or cues the behavior, Duhigg says. “Is it the time of day, a place, the presence of certain people?” he says, advising to try to note the behavior or emotion that precedes the habit. 

“Pay attention to yourself and ask, ‘When I feel the urge for this particular behavior, who’s here? What time of day is it? How am I feeling?’ and usually it only takes a day or two to figure out what that thing is that’s triggering what’s happening.”

The next step, says Duhigg, is discovering the “reward” your brain is seeking by the behavior. “Sometimes it takes some experimentation to figure out.”

Breaking Habits: How to Get Started 

A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day. Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD. Obviously, changing some habits can be more difficult. But this framework is a place to start.

  • Identify the routine: What needs to change?
  • Experiment with rewards: What reward is your brain craving?
  • Isolate the cue: What precedes the habit?
  • Have a plan: What is a healthier reward?

—From “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg, Random House, 2012

“Age 55-plus is really a period of transition,” says Mercier. “Habits can be guideposts for people but they can also be disconnected and likely are changing at this point in life. I also think this is a good time to reassess those unhelpful habits.”

In her life-coaching work, Mercier says, habits are one of the first places to start when assessing a person’s life and goals. “It’s that important,” she says. “I really believe once I can figure out what a person’s routine is, what they are doing on the regular and how these routines are serving them, that’s a lot of information to work with.”

Mercier says she often sees “avoidance” as a habit people want to change. “We don’t necessarily think of this as a habit, but avoidance of the difficult, avoiding difficult relationships, avoiding activity or exercise, avoiding uncomfortable conversations with our kids, these things can become a really unhelpful habit for some people,” she says.

Being curious, recognizing the habit and exploring the reasons for it are good places to start when wishing to change, she advises. “One of the best things we can do is engage in what we’re avoiding, engage in the behavior that you want.”

Creating meaningful, measurable goals — I want to stay healthy for my grandchildren by walking every day, for instance — can be helpful, she says. “It’s important to create a goal that speaks to what’s valuable to you,” she says. “Is health valuable to you? If it is, then you set a goal that gets you up off the couch … because going for a walk shows yourself that ‘being healthy has value to me.’ If you don’t value exercise, you’re a lot less likely to be connected to a goal that’s related to that.”

Habits, Hannah adds, many times are “simply those go-to behaviors” that people use to manage their anxieties. Obsessive-compulsive behavior, repetition, hair-pulling, even fingernail-biting, she says, “are like these little glitches that people engage in that work temporarily, but ultimately they desert us because they don’t work well as far as the rest of our life is concerned.

“Irrational isn’t it?” she asks. “People have this mistaken idea that human beings are these logical machines, but we’re really not. A lot of times, those parts of our psyche are at war with each other.”

The real mark of growth is the ability to postpone immediate gratification for longer-term rewards, says Hannah, adding, “The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit.”

For Duhigg, his habit had caused him to put on weight; he explains in The Power of Habit about his workday walks to the company cafeteria every afternoon for a chocolate chip cookie. “Was it that I was hungry, in which case eating an apple would work as well?” he says. “Was it that I needed to get up and stretch my legs? Well, I could take a walk around the block instead, or go to someone’s desk.

“You have to conduct a little experimentation and pay attention to yourself,” he says, “and if you do, you’ll hopefully figure out what the reward is for the behavior.”

The third step, he says, is finding a new behavior that delivers something similar to the reward your brain is seeking, “but healthier.” Again, experiment with the new behavior until you get it right, he says.

For me, once I realized I bit mostly in the car and began paying attention to it, and that my brain was seeking the “reward” of a signal from my fingertips (steps 1 and 2), the rest was simple. When I found my nails in my mouth, or felt the urge to bite, I’d rap my fingertips on the dashboard (step 3), sending a signal up to my brain and giving it the “ahh” effect it, for whatever strange brain reason, was craving.

After about a week, using some other advice from Duhigg’s book, my habit had vanished. I was blown away and still can hardly believe it was so simple to change such an ingrained habit.

Creating a new habit works much the same way, says Sarah Mercier, a licensed master social worker and life coach at Root & Thrive LLC Life Coaching in Albany. Mercier takes Duhigg’s “don’t say ‘breaking’ a habit” a step further: She doesn’t call habits “bad” or “good.”

“I stay away from terms like good and bad and instead use helpful and unhelpful — is this a helpful habit, and if so, how?” says Mercier. “Assessing what this habit is doing for me … that’s really important to figure that out.”

Our brains, she says, really thrive on predictability — the type of predictability that’s upended around midlife, when children leave the nest, elderly parents require care, retirement nears and our routines are less ordered than they once were.