January’s Challenge: Breaking Bad Habits

posted in: 30-day Challenges, Thoughts | 0

Habits defined

During this challenge, I read a significant amount of material covering the topic of habits. A habit can be defined as a set of actions, often repetitious, that are so deeply rooted into our brains they develop into an involuntary behavior. That of course is my own personal definition based on this newly acquired knowledge.

The dictionary defines a habit as:

“Hard to give up” feels like an understatement after foregoing this 30 day challenge. You know exactly what I mean if you participated along the way.

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Sharing Moment: What bad habits have you tried to combat over the last few years? Have you had any successes in breaking these habits? If so, what helped you make permanent changes in your behavior? If not, what prevented you from breaking the habit?

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The Challenge

This month, as the title and intro suggests, I decided to challenge myself to break a bad habit. For me, that was picking and biting the skin around my nails, including putting my hands in my mouth—period.

Some History
Image of Jenni biting her nails with nervous look on her face.

From childhood to well into my 20’s, I would bite my nails to the quick. I’d mindlessly gnaw at my fingertips like a squirrel who discovered a cob of corn on a cold winter’s day. Over time, my habit has taken on many forms.

Initially, I was a run-of-the-mill nail biter until I introduced the biting of the skin around the nail, specifically the cuticle. Eventually, these actions turned into picking the skin around the nails with an occasional finger finding it’s way into my mouth. At the start of this challenge, I now have a picking technique which revolves around two specific digits (one on each hand for no apparent reason), that occurs during times of boredom, stress, concentration and/or periods of extreme nervousness. And there you have it, the evolution of my habit.

Over the years, I have tried to quit this disgusting habit more times that I can count. I knew that it was going to take something more drastic than pure will power to make a change. That’s when I started doing some research.

Side Note: I’m excited to share with you all of the amazing concepts and practical tips/tools I’ve learned over the past month. Whether you read and stew it over alone or choose to actively engage in discussions by interacting in the comment section below, the choice is up to you. The amount of participation available is endless so take advantage! Hopefully you enjoy the blog, but more importantly, I hope you get something out of it! I look forward to hearing what YOU have to say.

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Knowledge IS Power

Well, I should say knowledge is power IF you do something with it! In my last blog post, I introduced the 21/90 rule. As a quick review, this is the idea that it takes 21 days to create a new habit and an additional 90 days to make that action a behavior. Many researchers, doctors, and psychologists alike would argue that there is no magical time frame that make habits stick. I would agree! According to Dr. Jay (youtuber) and James Clear (author of “Atomic Habits“), habits are formed as a result of FREQUENCY not TIME. Makes sense! You can’t just sit on the couch and think about what you need or want to do, you need to GO DO IT!

Sorry ya’ll. There is no quick fix for changing bad habits or creating good ones—it’s going to take some work! The good news is, I know I can do it, and I believe YOU can too. How? By gaining the knowledge and understanding that we need in order to create positive changes in our lives THEN acting on it!

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Understanding Habits

Image of a human brain

Here, I will share some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the past month. There have been some interesting findings and I encourage you to do some of your own research as we all have different goals and challenges we’re facing. Educating oneself generally leads to eye-opening experiences. I know I’ve had my fair share of them and I hope you discover some of your own as well!

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Get Your Geek On

I’m sure you’ve heard the statement, “We are all creatures of habit”. Come to find out, there is a lot of truth to that! A group of MIT researchers led by Ann Graybiel were the first to discover a neurological component to habits back in 1999. I could write an entire blog post about the corticostriatal circuit, basal ganglia, and the prelimbic cortex, but don’t fret, I’m not going to do that! First of all, I’m NOT an expert and secondly, I don’t want to put 89.9% of you to sleep!

I simply want to make the connection that our actions and behaviors are completely controlled by our mind. Of course, most of us know that the brain is our control center. But, how many of us think about the power we have to rewire our brains to change the way we think and act?

Neuroplasticity is real ya’ll!

I will include a link in the reference section below for more information on neuroplasticity for those of you who may be interested in learning more. Simply put, it’s like the brain control’s the brain. Ultimately, we’re just a bunch of neural signals running around doing things we don’t always understand. Let’s change that! Let’s be creatures of desired actions. It may not have the same ring as creatures of habit, but it’s far more empowering!

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The Habit Loop

The habit loop is best defined as the neurological loop that governs any habit and is comprised of 3 major elements: Cue, Routine, and Reward (Habitica Wiki). This same concept is discussed in great length in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. A very nice overview can be found on the website as linked below in the section, Delving Deeper into Habits.

The Habit loop is comprised of 3 elements: Cue, Routine, Reward. Image created by Jenni Davis using InCollage.

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Cue/Trigger: The cue is anything that triggers the habit and generally falls under the following categories: time of day, location, another person, a state of emotion, or following a specific action or event.

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Routine: The routine is the action/behavior we wish to change. Easy to identify, difficult to alter!

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Reward: The reward is the ultimate reason behind why we do the behavior in the first place. Rewards can be identified as something tangible, intangible, or perhaps something with no value that we give value to.

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Personal Conclusions

Personally, it took some time to identify each element in my habit loop, but I came to some interesting conclusions. It wasn’t easy.

  1. Figuring out the behavior I wanted to change was easy. That was the challenge after all! So, mentally, I was already there—I wanted to stop biting my nails.
  2. The cue/trigger was relatively easy to figure out as I had already put my bad habit into conscious mind and was fully aware of it. I noticed that I generally picked/bit my fingernails during periods of stress, nervousness, and/or boredom (a few obvious triggers). However, by focusing my awareness, I also discovered I demonstrate these behaviors during times of extreme concentration and after prolonged water use (ie: after a shower or washing dishes). Being mindful of these cues exposed the automatic nature of my behaviors and brought them into conscious awareness. It was then, I realized that I was easily picking my fingers and/or putting them in my mouth over 100 times a day! Insane.
  3. The reward was the most challenging of all three. Why did I have this habit? What did I get out of it? At first, I had no idea! It took me almost the entire month to figure it out. Read on to see what I learned.

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Time Out: I urge you to take the time to think about your personal habit loop. You can share these thoughts, or simply have an internal dialogue, whichever you prefer. What are your triggers? What are some rewards that help keep you in “the loop”?

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Setting a Framework

photo of a hand missing fingers, a knife, and missing fingers on the other side of knife. Joking about my desire to chop my fingers off so that I won't pick them.
One of the things I thought about doing during the challenge, but, mostly, I just needed a photo to keep you interested!

“A framework is a particular set of rules, ideas, or beliefs which you use in order to deal with problems or to decide what to do” (The Collins Dictionary). In the book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg lays out his framework for breaking bad habits. I will outline them here and provide some examples in hopes that it will help you with your journey as well.

* Identify the Routine *

Done. We established this in the sections above. Stop biting/picking nails.

* Experiment with Rewards *

Experimenting with rewards is like playing detective. It’s figuring out the WHY—the Who Done It Moment—the REASON behind the behavior in the first place. Speaking for myself, that wasn’t easy.

Dughigg suggests that what you choose to do instead of the behavior your trying to change isn’t important, but rather, “the point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine.” 

So I asked myself several questions and tested a few hypotheses. It wasn’t until a random conversation with Eric (we have a lot of those—they’re my favorite!), I subconsciously blurted out, “I pick my nails because it feels good”. And, just like that, the hidden reason, that shiny golden reward locked inside my brain surfaced. It seems a bit counter intuitive considering that after a session of nail picking, my fingers hurt like crazy. But, yeah, while I’m doing it, it feels oddly sensational.

Sharing Moment: Did you figure out your reward? Did it come to you easily or did you have to work at it a bit?

* Isolate the Cue *
Cue, not CLUE. The only thing all over this glove is saliva from my sad attempts to get at my healing fingertips!

According to Duhigg, researchers have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

While, I shall save my eating habits as a challenge for another time, it makes for a good example on how we can Isolate the Cue, and I think many of you will be able to relate. So, I have a tendency to eat when Eric eats (primarily dinner) or when the clock cues me it’s “time” to eat even when I’m not necessarily hungry. This is a perfect example of TIME and OTHER PEOPLE influencing our cues and triggering a specific behavior—in this case, to eat.

In regard to nail biting, I was able to identify a cue for each one of these categories! WOW. It was an eye opening realization.

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Location: Pretty much anywhere and everywhere unless I’m hiking or biking.

Time: Generally, in the evenings while zoning out to a video or movie.

Emotional State: Stress, nervousness, and anxiety were the top 3 emotional triggers.

Other People: Unpleasant encounters with other humans (which likely falls equally under emotional state if I’m being fair).

Immediately Preceding Action: This was probably the biggest discovery! I realized that prolonged water use (ie: doing dishes or taking a shower) was a HUGE cue for biting and picking my nails due to the softening of the skin and irritation that followed.

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Time Out: I encourage you to scrounge up a piece of paper, and while you’re thinking about it, jot down a few ideas that can help you isolate YOUR cues. This is an extremely helpful exercise! If you’re having some trouble finding patterns, try keeping a daily journal. There are some great examples and more information in the book, “The Power of Habit”, for those interested.

Have a Plan
Photo of Jenni and her hand with Band Aids on each finger.
No, a REAL plan. No quick fixes here—Band-Aids, gloves, and a chopping block are not solutions!

Having a plan is key. You can change the routine by planning for the cue. Once the cue occurs, choose the behavior that delivers the reward you are craving (Duhigg). I’m not an expert, but I also feel you could choose to plan for a more positive, healthy reward if you so choose. This is what I decided to do.

My plan: I was craving a pleasurable sensation so I decided that every time I caught myself trying to bite/pick my nails, I would do something pleasurable. Sometimes, I would rub my shoulders or neck. Other times, I’d scratch or brush my body (usually arm, leg or head). You get the idea. I planned to replaced a bad habit, with an enjoyable one, so that eventually I would think less about my fingernails until I didn’t need a replacement action to avoid putting my hands in my mouth.

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SIDE NOTE: While the solution is simple, the implementation process is not. The important thing to remember is, we CAN change our routines by becoming more aware of the cues and rewards. The second most important thing to remember is CHANGE TAKES TIME! Be patient with yourself, nobody is perfect.

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Things to Remember

  • Incremental change, over time, will provide massive results
  • Negative self talk. Don’t do it.
  • Change doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, those real, break-through moments are a result of MANY previous actions.
  • Your goals will not carry you, your systems (or habits) will. Goals = momentary change. Habits build positive reinforcement, form our identity, and lead us to permanent change.
  • Habits are formed by FREQUENCY not TIME.
  • Whether we like it or not, our family, friends, and online community influence our behavior. It is so important to join a culture where your DESIRED behavior is the NORMAL behavior.

*Ideas in this section can be found in “Atomic Habits” by James Clear or a wonderful book summary completed on YouTube: Med School Insiders (see link in references).

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Without risk of losing you from writing a novel of a blog post, I’m going to stop here. There is so much information out there it can be overwhelming to sort through it all. I hope this helped to spark an interest, get you motivated, or provide a useful outline on conquering your challenges head on I know it helped me!

Sharing Moment: Do you have some knowledge, tips or tricks, or ideas you’d like to share? This is a great opportunity to interact as a group! If you so, please don’t hesitate to comment below. I would love to hear what you have to say.

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Progress

Image of Jenni's nails day 1. Nails are bitten, misshapen, and cuticles are dry, rough, and torn.
Painful fingertips—I had to start somewhere.

The first week was tough! I felt like I was constantly fighting the urge to put my fingers in my mouth and rigorously pick them as usual. They were sore and begging me to gnaw, pick, and attend to their every need. I knew I had a problem the moment I couldn’t stop obsessing over my nails. They throbbed and not allowing myself to touch them was, at times, too much to bear.

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Left and Right hand photos which show progress at day 7.
Some visible improvements
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Oh, I clipped my nails. They were getting WAY too long.

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VERY slow progress, but each day gets easier!

Progress continues to be slow during the skin regrowth period. Often, the scratchy dryness around my nails gets snagged on something and draws in my attention like a moth to a flame. I find myself rubbing instead of picking, which is an improvement but not the action I desire. I continue to be patient and forgiving with myself and let the process happen. It isn’t perfect, but it is getting easier, day by day.

Stay tuned for final results!

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Side Note: The idea behind the 30-day challenge is to use this time as a building block to create permanent, lasting change. This can be done by setting small goals each month that can be built upon in later months. Basically, the idea isn’t to go all out thinking you only have to do IT for 30 days. The month is more of a kick-start to work towards permanent change.

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Well isn’t THAT Interesting

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Scientists believe habits emerge as a byproduct of our brain’s quest to make its life easier. Fact: If our brain couldn’t find short cuts to daily tasks, it would become overwhelmed and shut down.

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Do you sometimes feel like you lack control over your life? Maybe you do things and you have no idea why? Perhaps you drove to the store, something so routine that you don’t remember 99% of the drive. Fact: It’s mostly our subconscious mind that has control over what we do. Yikes! All the more reason to change our brains for the good! That way, our autopilot is aligned with what we want to get out of this life! They say, “You are what you eat”. One could argue that, we are also what we THINK.

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Fact: Pathological nail biting, also known as onychophagia, is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) under Impulse Control Disorders.

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Final Results: Breaking Bad Habits

Something magical happened around day 25 (or was it day 26?). I’m not sure what clicked in my brain, but I finally stopped obsessing about picking my fingers. By day 28-29 I noticed that I barely even looked at my hands. If I wasn’t working on this blog, I’m not sure I would have noticed them at all. You have NO idea how huge this is for me. A habit that I honestly had reservations about quitting considering it was such an unconscious obsession that occurred hundreds of times a day. It almost feels like a miracle.

I’m going to chalk this experimental month up as a huge success! It’s quite possible that I may be addicted to 30 day challenges (watch out!)

I still have a long way to go in repairing the damage that has been done to my nails over the years, but I feel like I’m off to a great start.

Sharing Moment: Inquiring minds want to know! Did you finish a challenge this month? Perhaps you are now planning one? Feel free to share your results or some ideas for a new challenge in the comment section below.

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Just in case you missed my last blog, Discovering Your Word of the Year, you can read it here. This year is all about personal growth, positive mindset, and not just setting goals—but reaching them! The remainder of the blog will be a brief summary and discussion of some of the educational materials I used to learn and work towards breaking my own bad habits as well as a list of references. For those of you interested in books, videos, websites, and research—READ ON!

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Delving in Deeper into Habits

Here are some books, videos, and websites that enhanced my learning on the topic of building better habits. Some I read/watched thoroughly, others I skimmed. No matter how you do it, remember, knowledge is power IF you take action.

Books

Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits by James Clear promises remarkable results through tiny changes. I wouldn’t say that the information presented in this book will blow you away, but sometimes, that’s a good thing! In most cases, it’s that simple, straightforward conversation that leads to more self awareness. Building good habits isn’t rocket science after all!

The overarching idea that I got from this book is the realization that the ‘little stuff’ really does matter. You may be thinking, “Yeah Jenni, duh!!” But how many of us are guilty of desiring and focusing on immediate results—Instant gratification? I don’t think I’m the only one raising my hand here.

While it doesn’t happen EVERY time, of course, we’re all guilty of placing our thoughts and emotions in the wrong basket and then get frustrated when we don’t achieve the results we’re looking for.

CHANGING YOUR BELIEFS –> CHANGES YOUR IDENTITY = MOST POWERFUL AGENT OF CHANGE

Here are a few quotes from the book:

“Success is the product of daily habits, not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”

-and-

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits
The Power of Habit
Cover of the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Space

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg acknowledges that there ins’t a one-step formula to breaking habits, but thousands of ways to make change. Initially, that may not seem helpful, but keep reading. It gets better! Duhigg discusses a framework for understanding how habits work and a creates a guide for setting up your own personal experiments to encourage change.

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UNFU*K Yourself: Get out of your head and into your life

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This book may seem a little ‘out there’ and unrelated to breaking bad habits, but I think it’s worth a mention and here’s why. Gary John Bishop takes a no BS look at how we often stand in our own way of a happy life. He examines negative outlooks, questions ones WILLINGNESS to do what needs to be done to get what you want out of life, and offers a simple approach—taking action.

If you want to be RICH are you willing to work 80+ hours a week 7 days/week for that extra zero in your salary? Are you someone who dreams of being FIT? If so, are you willing to plan meals, be mindful of what you eat, and incorporate daily fitness into your life? Let’s say ASSERTIVENESS is what you’re after: are you willing to stand up for what you believe in or perhaps speak up to defend yourself against a bully? If you don’t do the things you SAY you want to do, it’s because you are NOT willing to really do them. Otherwise, you would meet your goals 100% of the time.

I AM WILLING to learn to things in order to create a better me AND I AM NOT WILLING to live with painful fingertips any longer!

What are you WILLING to do to HAVE the life you want?

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Do you like to read? I found a website that lists the 29 Best Books specific to building good habits. Click here to check it out.

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Videos

Willpower vs Progressive Extremism

In the 7-minute video above, Nir Eyal discusses moral licensing, progressive extremism, and the phenomenon of self image. If you don’t have time, I recommend watching the last 3 minutes (minimum) to see what he has to say. It will make you think! What type of person do you want to be?

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Rethink goals, habits, and motivation!

Above is a short video (11 minutes) on the topic of breaking habits and staying motivated. James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits”, provides information that will make you rethink goals, habits, and motivation.

Two statements that really stood out to me during the video:

“The cost of your good habits is in the present. The cost of your bad habits is in the future.”

“Your habits reinforce a particular identity”. That leaves me to ask, What do your habits say about you?

Excellent video.

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The final video is by Youtuber, Doctor Jay. This is a breakdown of the S.C.I.E.N.C.E behind change and summary of the book, “Stick with It”, by Sean Young, PhD. This video offers some excellent pointers on ACTUALLY making change!

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Websites and Research Articles

Charles Duhigg’s explains more on Habit Loops, his Framework for understanding how to break bad habits, and discusses how to explore rewards to help break the loop and form better habits. Click here for more. I highly recommend this short read!

Basic information on Neuroplasticity can be found here.

Read some of Ann Graybeil’s research on the science of habits here.

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Disclaimer

I am a regular person—not a doctor, psychologist, or run of the mill know-it-all. The ideas expressed in this blog post are based on my own personal research and were completed to help ME make the changes I wanted to see in MY life. I put the information here as a guide, resource, or some extra motivation for doing your own research and making the changes YOU want to see in YOUR life. The information presented has been cited and is honest and accurate to the best of my abilities.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it useful.

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References

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. New York, NY: Avery.

Duhigg, Charles. (2020). How Habits Work. Retrieved from https://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/.

Med School Insiders. “BEST Book on Building New Habits-Atomic Habits Books Summary [Part 1]. YouTube. October 31, 2018, http://youtube.com/watch?v=KlPmfgRJ_Y0&t=505s.

Med School Insiders. “BEST Book on Building New Habits-Atomic Habits Books Summary [Part 2]. YouTube. November 3, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOQd9Uwpu5E.

Rodrigues, Joseph. “The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Study Notes)”. YouTube. January 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQu_JmVem2I.

Smith, K.S., & Graybiel, A.M.(2016). Habit Formation. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 33-43. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4826769/.

The Habit Loop. (n.d.) in Habitica Wiki. Retrieved January 11, 2020, from https://habitica.fandom.com/wiki/The_Habit_Loop.

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, January 4). Nail biting. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:39, January 14, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nail_biting&oldid=934131975.

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