How to Break a Bad Habit

Biting your nails is a bad habit many teens want to break. 


Everyone has bad habits they want to break, and some better habits they’d like to make. Fortunately, scientists say changing our routines can be easier than we think.

Annie Kinkead Dent, 16, of Denver, Colorado, can’t bring herself to start her homework. “I’m a procrastinator,” she says. “Instead of working, I’ll watch movies, sort my clothes, get on the computer, text—pretty much anything but study.”

Annie has tried to put systems in place that force her to do her assignments on time. “I’ll even make my mom watch me do homework so I don’t get distracted,” she says.

But it never gets better.

The next time Annie has a deadline she’s right back where she started—procrastinating. But surprisingly, that’s normal. New research shows that there’s a reason for your automatic behavior. It turns out that the brain creates habits to conserve energy.

Imagine how exhausting it would be if you had to stop and think about every little thing you do. By turning something into a habit, your brain frees itself to do more important work—such as learn a new language or help a friend solve a problem. The more actions your brain can put on autopilot, the more space it has to tackle new activities.

“The creation of a habit involves a three-step process,” explains Charles Duhigg, New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg explored tons of research on habitual behavior from sources as varied as the U.S. military, Starbucks, and the NFL. What he found was that no matter how complex a habit appeared to be, each one boiled down to a simple formula: “The cue (sometimes called the trigger), the behavior or routine itself, and the reward,” Duhigg says. “Once you can recognize those three parts, pretty much any bad habit can be broken or any good habit formed.”

What’s more, studies have shown that teens are pros at both forming habits and breaking them. Since your brain is still developing, it is pretty good at letting go of both the good and the bad. That’s where grit comes into play. “To change a habit, it really comes down to focusing on the cue and really paying attention to what’s driving the behavior,” says Duhigg. “Then it’s equally important to make sure you provide yourself with a reward. Rewards are the only way new habits will stick.”

Are you inspired to change your ways? If so, Duhigg has a plan for you.

Your Habits Transformed in 3 Easy Steps

Break a Habit

“I want to stop biting my nails. They’re stubby and look horrible.”

Our Expert Says: “Studies have found that typically, people who bite their nails tend to be of above-average intelligence,” says Duhigg. “Probably you’re doing this when you’re bored or lacking stimulation.”

The Fix 

  • Identify your cues. Every time you go to bite your nails, write down the circumstances. Is it right after lunch? Stressed about a test? Do this for about a week or until you find a pattern.

  • Pick replacement behavior. Grip a pencil, or take a deep breath—anything to keep your nails out of your mouth.

  • Reward yourself. Each time you engage in your new “habit,” give yourself a small treat—play a round of Angry Birds, or listen to a song you love. “Eventually, you’ll start to automatically do your replacement activity,” says Duhigg.

Make a Habit

“I want to start exercising every day, but I’ve never been able to stick with a workout routine before.”

Our Expert Says: Setting up a new habit is similar to breaking an old one, except that you’ll be creating a new cue instead of trying to identify an existing one.

The Fix

  • Create a bunch of cues. Pick a lucky T-shirt, wear the same sneakers, pick a song that you will always listen to right before it’s workout time. “The more triggers you give your brain, the better,” says Duhigg.

  • Reward each step. Treat yourself for completing each cue, no matter how small.

  • Don’t rush. “Building a new habit, especially one that involves time and effort, is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Duhigg. “Just concentrate on one small step at a time.”

Swap a Habit

“I have to stop gaming every night until I fall asleep and start reading instead. My mother said that if I don’t, she’ll take my Xbox away.”

Our Expert Says: Replacing video games with something better for you, like reading, doesn’t have to be boring. The secret to swapping one habit for another is to make the new habit something you enjoy.

The Fix

  • Trade for something else you like. Begin by picking something interesting, like a graphic novel or a magazine. If it’s not equally entertaining, it’ll be too hard to make the trade.

  • Go straight for the new habit. Replacing a bad habit with a good one needs to be a straight shot. Read for at least five minutes, and no matter what, skip the Xbox.

  • Keep trying. Eventually, you’ll become addicted to reading. Soon you’ll be studying your history textbook before bed!


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