Old habits die hard. It may be a cliché, but it's undeniably true, especially when it comes to the bad ones. Nail-biting, fidgeting, and overspending can label you as someone who is obsessive-compulsive, overly nervous, and routinely stressed out, but you can make the break less painful with a few simple tweaks to your routine and by understanding how your habits work.
According to Charles Duhigg, reporter for The New York Times, habits form in a process called the habit loop. As Duhigg writes in his book, The Power of Habit, every habit begins with a cue, or trigger. This could be a time of day, a certain feeling, or a place that motivates you to feel or behave in some way. For example, thinking about that huge work project you have due next month might trigger feelings of anxiety or stress.
Once your trigger goes off, you react to it. From there, you develop a routine, and each time you face that same trigger, you respond in the same way. So, without fail, every time you think about that looming deadline, you begin to stress out, and as a result, put your fingers in your mouth and start gnawing at your nails.
The loop continues as your triggered behavior is followed by a reward. Responding to the trigger with that action, such as biting your nails, offers a gratifying feeling that motivates you to perform the entire behavioral cycle again. The reward isn't always pleasurable; it could simply be a distraction, or even a sense of relief, from your trigger.
After a while, this three-part cycle evolves into an automatic behavior that you can't quite shake—or, a habit. You cement a habit when you respond in the exact same way every time you react to that original trigger in order to feel the "good" consequences of your behavior.
In this sense, Duhigg notes that habits are basically rewards. We receive a positive response regarding our new action, so we continue to repeat it.
To eliminate a habit, it's best to tackle the root of their existence. We know that habits form as the result of triggers and cyclical behavior, but there's another factor at play—stress.
Bad habits spring up to address needs in our lives. In an attempt to deal with the stress of everyday life, we develop habits that help us cope. Because of this, you can't expect to immediately break any habit, good or bad.
According to James Clear, author of Transform Your Habits, stopping a habit in its tracks will leave your needs unmet, and you will be unable to successfully stick it out and defeat it cold turkey. This is why habits seem so difficult to quit—we need a new outlet that satisfies our needs and does us some good.
If you want to break a bad habit, you need to break away from the pack. Often, we allow bad habits to continue because everyone we know has the same vices. Habits are often cultural norms, especially when it comes to unhealthy dietary practices, according to Dr. Eric Robinson of the University of Liverpool's psychology department, so we believe that continuing the unhealthy behavior is perfectly fine.
To put an end to your nail biting, knuckle cracking, or anything else, you need to become a bit of a rebel. Make yourself different from everyone else by simply saying "no."
For example, it's very easy to dive into a Double Double from In-N-Out when all of your friends are ordering them, but that fatty cheeseburger won't feel so great later on. Next time you're confronted with piles of fast food and friends, consider choosing a healthier option.
Typically, tackling the task of breaking a habit results in failure. We are unable to control our behavior not because it's subconscious, but because we view ending habits as work rather than play, according to Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski, professors in marketing.
By making the choice to stop the rewards and positive feelings that come with performing habitual actions, we realize that we're making life harder for ourselves. Who wants to suffer when we could keep stuffing our faces with delicious candy?
Change your mindset by framing your habit-breaking process as an opportunity to have fun. In a sense, you must trick yourself. Those who enjoyed the piano stairs in the video above didn't realize they were getting exercise—they just thought making music on the way upstairs was more exciting than taking the boring escalator.
Give yourself something to play with by turning an everyday activity into something new. You might not want to install piano stairs in your house, but you can host a clothing swap night with friends rather than feeding your shopping habit.
In a vein similar to making habit breaking fun, it's easier to eliminate undesirable behaviors by swapping them out for improved ones. As we mentioned previously, habits are our response to needs. When we take away a habit, we're left with a void. In order to prevent this, habits need to be replaced with something that's enjoyable and positive.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse, says "...certain groups of patients who have a history of serious addictions can engage in certain behaviors that are ritualistic and in a way compulsive—such as marathon running—and it helps them stay away from drugs. These alternative behaviors can counteract the urges to repeat a behavior to take a drug."
While drugs may not be your problem, whatever it is, find an activity or behavior that reduces your stress level while keeping you engaged. Can't keep your fingers out of your mouth? Don't paint your nails with that awful-tasting polish; instead, take up an activity like knitting that keeps your hands occupied and lets your creativity run free. Always late to work? Make waking up a little easier by working a daily coffee run into your daily commute.
It's important to remember that the last step of the habit loop is reward. What fun is success without something to work towards? According to psychologist Alice M. Isen (RIP), rewarding your progress will make you happier, and in turn help you to make better choices each time you feel the glow of that "gift". Celebrating success towards eliminating a bad habit is the perfect way to keep yourself dedicated and on track—after, all you're encouraging yourself to continue the great self control.
Create a tiered reward system for yourself while working to combat a habit. Every milestone, such as going two days without picking at a scab, should be recognized, no matter how tiny of an accomplishment it seems.
Start small: spend a few hours lazing around in front of the TV to celebrate starting your research paper a week before the deadline rather than the night before. As your efforts begin to pay off even more, reward yourself accordingly. Did you make it a whole month without talking to your ex? Buy yourself those shoes you've been eyeing for a while.
Now, you're ready to take on your habits. Whether you swap procrastinating for working lunches with coworkers, or nose picking for hair twirling, your new, fun method of breaking the old habit won't take long. As soon as you change the behaviors of your habit loop, you'll be "cured" in no time!