How to Break Your Nail-Biting, Face-Touching Bad Habits
Recent events have made us all hyper-aware of some of our not-so-healthy habits. We don’t always cover our coughs and sneezes correctly, we rush through hand-washing, and we touch our faces a lot.
If you keep catching yourself absentmindedly touching your face, you know how hard it can be to break a bad habit. Through repetition, our habits become ingrained — the more you do something, the less you have to think about it.
Luckily the same process that helps us form those bad habits can help us to break them as well. Whether you’re a nail-biter, a nose-itcher, or an eye-rubber, here’s how to teach your brain to develop healthier habits.
1. Be Mindful
“The first step to overcoming a bad habit is becoming aware of it,” explains Brian Wind, PhD, adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, former co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance, and a clinical executive at JourneyPure. Take note of any emotional or environmental triggers connected with your face-touching habit: Is it connected to a certain task, body position, emotional state, or time of day?
2. Remove Temptation
Once you understand which cues are triggering your bad habit, you can start to address them. If a rough nail edge tempts you to start chewing, remove the trigger by giving yourself a weekly manicure, keeping nail files stashed around the house, or painting your nails with a bitter-tasting nail polish. If you’re a face-toucher, you might benefit from keeping your hair pulled up and off your face, or attaching a strap to keep reading glasses from slipping.
3. Reshape Your Context
The cues that trigger your habits — both good and bad — exist within a context such as time, location, or a preceding behavior. (Maybe you keep running shoes by your bed so you’ll work out when your alarm goes off, or you grab a glass of wine when you get home from work each day.) Research suggests a change in context may help to impede unwanted habits — for example, if you tend to prop your chin with your hand when you’re working at your desk, it might help to adjust your chair height or your monitor position so you don’t have to slouch.
4. Start Small
Vowing to never touch your face again is just setting yourself up for failure. Goal-setting tends to be more effective when it comes in bite-sized chunks, so think about creating a small, specific goal that’s achievable. Instead of swearing off face-touching forever, try to avoid touching your face in one particular situation, like when you scroll through your news feed over morning coffee or stream your favorite show at night. Small victories can make it easier to expand the new habit into more areas of your life.
5. Replace Bad Habits with Healthier Ones
Instead of focusing on what habit you want to break, think about what new habit you want to form. “One of the simplest tips for creating a new habit is to have a positive habit at hand to fill the space of the old, unwanted habit,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, wellness expert, and author of Joy From Fear. For example, if you touch your face when you’re feeling anxious, Manly suggests carrying a “worry stone” or prayer bead necklace in your pocket as a comforting alternative.
6. Keep a Record
Bad habits are usually mindless, so use a habit tracking app — or even a blank piece of paper — to keep a tally of how many times you catch yourself touching your face each day. That might sound a bit intense, but becoming more aware of your bad habits may help you change them: Research on nail biting suggests that self-monitoring is a key component of modifying the nail-biting behavior.
7. Don’t Let Slip-Ups Derail You
“When you embrace the attitude that an occasional hiccup does not equate to complete failure, you’ll accept the relapse as part of the learning curve,” Manly says. Slip-ups will happen, so expect them, accept them, and get back to your plan. “Occasional back steps simply provide a learning opportunity that allows you to resume your course with a little more self-awareness,” Manly adds.
8. Remind, Do, Repeat
“We are what we repeatedly do,” as the saying goes. (Fun fact: This quote is often attributed to Aristotle, but it’s actually from Will Durant’s 1926 book The Story of Philosophy.) So how long does it take to build a new habit? It varies from a person. In a 2009 study, participants took an average of 66 days to make a new task automatic — but the actual data ranged from a mere 18 days up to 254 days.
Wherever you fall on that spectrum, the more you do something, the easier it will become. So file your nails every night, or leave a “no face touching!” sticky note on your computer. Remind, do, repeat. And in the meantime, make sure you’re washing your hands often.
- Shifting the balance between goals and habits: Five failures in experimental habit induction www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29975092
- Experiences of habit formation: a qualitative study www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21749245
- Psychology of Habit www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033417#
- Self-administered behavior modification to reduce nail biting: incorporating simple technology to ensure treatment integrity www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004689/
- How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674
- When and How to Wash Your Hands www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html