Quit Biting Your Nails! How To Make & Break Habits

“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle

I was just on the phone with my brother Connor, trying to figure out a title that would get you to click on this post. Not only because I want blog traffic (which I do, duh), but also because this is important shit.

Look, I get it, learning about habits and how they affect our lives is sexy and fun to me, but to the average person who actually has a life, it’s not that cool. But it’s essential stuff to know.

We think life happens in these big events. We get married, we make $1 million, we land our dream job, we act in movies with Matt Damon, and because of those big events, we become happy, successful, fulfilled, famous, etc.

In reality, life works like this: gradually, gradually, gradually, suddenly.

We do things day after day, year after year, and then it’s like all-of-a-sudden we are working our dream job, married to our dream person, or have a $1 million in the bank.

But those big events come as a result of the actions we do over and over.

So today I am going to teach you how to do the “gradually’s” so that some day you can have the “suddenly.” When we know how to break bad habits and start good habits, we can begin changing our lives.

Breaking Bad Habits

To say what is bad or good is not my place. If you find picking your nose a pleasurable habit, and you don’t mind not having friends to high five, or people to date, then that’s your call.

But we all have habits that we want to break, or habits we want to make. Biting my nails to shreds, balling out on my credit card, and watching TV are all habits I want to break, but it’s up to you to which habits have the biggest impact on your life.

Therefore, step one is to pick just one thing to focus on. If you try to change everything at once, you don’t stand a chance. For the sake of me, let’s choose to stop our nail-biting habit as an example; since that is the one I need to focus on before my girlfriend kills me.

Charles Duhigg, who wrote an entire book on habits (yes, I read it), talks about the Habit Loop. The Habit Loop is the cycle that your habits run on, and what we need to tune into in order to stop biting our nails.

The Loop has three steps:

  1. Cue: The trigger or initiator that begins the habit
  2. Behavior: The actual habit
  3. Reward: The good feeling or result of performing the habit

The more you go through this cycle, the deeper the habit gets programmed into your brain, and the harder it is to break. For example, my cue for biting my nails is anxiety. When I get anxious it leads to me biting my nails (the routine or habit), which then leads to a reward (I feel a pleasurable physical sensation when clearing a hangnail).

The best way to change bad habits is to keep the same cue and reward, while replacing the behavior with a new, more productive one.

Therefore, when I feel anxious (cue), I can drop down and do 10 push ups or scratch my arm (habit), and I get the physical sensation (reward). Now, dropping down and doing push ups at a work party or dinner with my mother may not be the best habit, but hey, it’s my habit so leave it alone.

Get it? Got it? Good. To review, here is how we are going to change a bad habits:

  1. Identify Your Cue. What triggers your bad habit? Does TV make you eat a bunch of crap? Does the color yellow make you smoke a cigarette?*
  2. Identify the Reward. How do you feel after the bad habit? Does the TV relax you? Does swiping the credit card empower you (even for a brief moment)?
  3. Replace the Habit. Use the same cue, replace the habit with something more positive that produces the same reward.

Okay, now that you’re no longer a terrible person, let’s talk about starting good habits.

Starting Good Habits

There is a study by the University of College London (2009) that floats around the internet. People quote the study and say “Ah ha! It does NOT take 21 days to start a new habit. In fact, it takes 66 days!”

But they are falling prey to the same scrub status as the 21-day people. The study out of London says that it takes an average of 66 days before a new habit becomes automatic.

The problem is that that is the average, not a hard and fast rule.

For some, new habits showed up in as little as 18 days, for others, it took a whopping 256. The difference between 2.5 weeks and 3.5 months is a heavy one.

Not only that, time is not the only factor when it comes to starting new habits. Here are some other things that impact how long it takes for a new habit to kick in:

  • Habit Frequency: If you practice the habit multiple times/day vs. once/day.
  • Habit Type: Depending on who you are, your quirks, your style, your moves, starting various habits can be more difficult or easier. 
  • How Different is the Habit? If the new habit is so drastically different from the “old you,” it will be much more difficult to implement. If you already run 6x/week at 8am, starting a weights program will be easier for you than if you eat potato chips and watch Netflix everyday at 8am.

This means that habits are in constant movement. Authors Jason Selk and Tom Bartow of Organize Tomorrow Today say it best:

“Our habits aren’t so much formed as they are in a constant state of formation. They’re either getting stronger or getting weaker, based on how much attention and reinforcement they are getting each day.”

So now that I’ve overwhelmed, depressed, and crushed hope for you, let me inspire and convince you that this stuff is indeed possible. Here are two rules for staring new habits —

The 90/90 Rule

I stole this idea from Tom and Jason, but I came up with the name, so it is now mine. So there.

The 90/90 Rule is this.

Implement ONE idea for the next 90 days and succeed in completing the task 90% of the time

Let’s break it down:

  1. Choose ONE Thing. Just one. This prevents overwhelm, confusion, and your friends calling bullshit on you when you announce you’re going to make “all these wonderful changes.”
  2. 90 Day Commitment: The biggest problem with starting new habits is quitting too soon. Whether you are an 18-day person or a 254-day person, 90 days is a good target to focus on. If nothing else, you’ll gain confidence for actually sticking with something in your life
  3. You must do it 90% of the days: Be light on yourself if you miss a day here or there. That’s okay. The goal is to hit the 90% mark.

The Midnight Snack Rule

One of my clients, we’ll call him Bob, had fat around his gut that just wouldn’t go away. He was getting results, but just not the kind of results we wanted. Going through his daily routine he mentioned that he had a midnight snack.

Every night between 12-2AM he would wake up, crush some food, and good back to bed.

Rather than trying to change this habit by telling him not to get up, we implemented a rule that he could have one of three things for his snack: 1) a protein shake 2) BCAAs or 3) a cocoa drink

Once we did this, he started to lean out like crazy.

This is the midnight snack rule: Use already established habits to make positive changes.

This is similar to The Habit Loop discussed above. Bob was going to eat that snack no matter what, so we chose to work with it, rather than against it.

Using these two rules will help with starting new habits. Pick one thing, practice it for the next 90 days, and try to make it work in concert with how you already live you life.

Final Round: The Fight Thru

Times will inevitably get tough, and you will not “feel like” progressing on your goal or working on your new, badass habits.

“I can’t afford to save money right now, I’ll do it next month.”

“I’m so tired, I’ll exercise after work instead.”

We all run into these thoughts when the excitement of a new goal wears off.

When we have these types of thoughts, we have entered a phase that Tom and Jason call the “fight-thrus”

These moments are essential to win because every time you win, the next fight-thru becomes easier. But when you lose those fight-thrus, the next one will be even harder to win. Tom and Jason list four steps to win these fight-thrus, and I didn’t even rename them, so the credit stays with them. Here is their system to fight thru — 

4 Steps To Fight Thru 

  1. Ritualize: Schedule the new habit at the same time everyday.
    • this goes hand in hand with the Midnight Snack Rule.
  2. Recognize: Recognize when you are in the “fight thru” stage. Remind yourself that it is important to win these because each fight thru win makes the next fight thru easier to win (or lose)
  3. Ask 2 Questions
    • How will you feel if you win the fight thru?
    • How will you feel if you don’t win the fight thru?
      • This brings emotion into the equation and emotion is a powerful motivator
  4. Life Projection: Take 30 seconds, and think where your life will be in 5 years if you’re able to consistently win your fight thrus and make this positive change

Now you know how to make habits, you know how to break habits, and you know how to overcome that tiny little voice in your head that always says negative crap.

The thing I’m leaving you with is to pick ONE thing. Either one thing to make, or one thing to break for the next 90-days. That’s it! And to hold you accountable, leave a comment below with the one habit you’re going to make, or the one you will break.

Good luck!


*Not likely, but a typical cue for smokers is stress. When they feel on edge, they light up. This is why cigarette warning labels like “WARNING: this will give you cancer, give your herpes, and cause a certain death” don’t actually work. Those warnings stress smokers out which leads them to default into their stress coping habit: smoking. 


2 thoughts on “Quit Biting Your Nails! How To Make & Break Habits

  1. Kaci Cheeseman Reply

    Yes…just yes to everything about this! The Power of Habit is an excellent read for understanding all the details of the habit process. I listened to a podcast the other day with some parallel concepts. It was geared towards the importance of having a strong vision and well defined idea of what outcome you are working towards in order to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. It also detailed the 4 step process of anything worth doing. It was episode #60 of The Competitive Edge, in case you are interested 🙂

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