My friend PP has a really annoying habit.
She bites her nails to oblivion.

Whenever I look to see her engrossed at work or with a nose in a book, her hands are at her mouth and she is chewing her nails.
Everytime I see that, I whack her hand like an irritated grandma.
And she sheepishly nods and puts her hands down…for all of 20 seconds before she is at it again.

I read a fascinating book a few years ago by Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit.
So did PP.

I grabbed said book and read out the paragraph to PP.
In the book was a case study about a girl called Mandy who used to bite her nails.
(You are going to have to read this book to find out how they helped her break this habit)

Needless to say it the technique involved being aware of the habit and then moving to what they call ”habit reversal training.”

Long story short, whenever Mandy felt compelled to bite her nails, the doctors recommended she replace that action with something else. Like holding a pencil, or putting her hands in her pockets. They gave her a bunch of exercises to do with cue cards and awareness and within a month her nail biting habit was gone.

Easy enough right?

Not at all.

Our habits are compulsive.
Sub conscious most times.

However the MAIN step needed to bring change is being aware. So often habits are so deeply entrenched that we aren’t even aware we are living them.

So every time PP bit her nails I would ask her to grab a pencil and she would. But she really was so engrossed most times in her work and her fingers would slowly creep to her mouth that unless someone drew it to her attention she wasn’t even aware.

There are 3 Steps to Proactive Change ~

Breaking Habits

Step 1. Recognising behavioural patterns. (self-awareness)

This one is tough.

It involves a deep commitment to the change and carrying oneself with a certain amount of self-awareness and mindfulness every day so one can immediately find the trigger for the habit and catch it.

Step 2. Interrupting the habits. (deliberate practiced behaviour change)

This would be a form of stopping and substituting behaviour.  (such as twirling a pencil for Mandy or PP)

When I work with clients, I work to get them to form new thought neurological passages in the brain.  When you do something everyday for years there is a neural pathway formed that over time becomes deeper and stronger.

Think of it as a river down a certain path. Every day the bed of the river gets deeper and stronger.  To change the path of the river it takes effort to plan and dig a new channel to redirect the river.

The idea is to form new synapse.

Catch yourself in the habit and do something different.

Step 3. Bringing Longevity and Stickiness (forming the new habit)

A few years ago I went to the Isha Foundation to do a yoga course. They have a philosophy of asking you to do your breathing practices twice a day everyday for a minimum of 40 days. I thought then, 40 days was the magical time required to get the habit to “set in”. (It seemed like some kind of ancient wisdom given that women were told to relax for 40 days after having a baby, a number of rituals and pujas are meant to be carried out for 40 days).

Other popular belief said it it took 21 days to break a habit.

However a recent and interesting new book by Jeremy Dean: Making Habits, Breaking Habits now points to research that says it takes 66- 84 days to form a new habit (depending on how big the change is).

That’s a minimum of a little more than two months.

But to make change stick, you need that new neural passage.

And the best way to form that is by doing that something new, everyday, in short spurts.

For instance, if you aren’t exercising, here is a good way to start forming a habit.
Forget doing 60 minutes x 5 days a week, or other such lofty goals.

Start with just doing 15-20 minutes.

It is in the getting up and doing that your new synapse will be formed, not in the duration of the exercise.

So to start a program and stick to it, do shorter bursts, just regularly.
Once your habit is formed, you can then increase your time and intensity.

If you chew your nails, stop yourself as many times as you can in a day.
If you eat compulsively, catch yourself and pivot.
If you don’t exercise, wake up and just walk for 20 minutes.

Start small. But bring rigour to the small.

Your body will rebel. You may even fall ill.  Your mind will rebel.

You will make up a 100 reasons not to walk, or chew your nails, or eat compulsively.

But if you want something bad enough just take that one small step.  These small steps will bring big change.

To your work, to the way you react to certain things or people, to the way you speak.

Chose one thing and work on it for 66 days. With awareness. 

As for PP, all the twirling pencils in the world didn’t make a difference.

But I now have the perfect remedy for the fashionista in her.
Get her to buy the new £495 Christian Louboutin Nail colour and make her use it on what little is left of her nails.

Every little bite will cost her big time.
And I think finally – that might just work.


PS:  My friend Gurpriett reminded me that commitment is key.
It is. Your intent is what needs to be inherent to change.

You can lead a horse to water etc…




The Power of Habit: Charles Duhigg


Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Jeremy Dean

jeremy dean


I would love to hear back from you if you try and seriously take change on; and get stuck somewhere in between.

I’m happy to try and help.







  1. AJ, spot on. I’ve realised too that the all or nothing approach doesn’t work. Each time I tried to quit, because I’d slip a few times, I stopped caring the rest of the time too. But I’ve known for a while now that when I next make this attempt to quit the nail chewing, I have to do a few things differently.

    For one, Duhigg definitely convinced me about the ‘replace the habit with a new one’ approach, so there will be a lot of pencil twirling in my future. Second, you’re right – it’s mindfulness which is most important. I have no doubt actually that if I do both, and if I push myself to the 60-day mark, I can ditch the habit for good. Without the Rs 50,000 nailpaint (for god’s sake, the person who puts down that cash for a nail polish is the one who needs this book. To break the compulsive spending habit ;)

  2. I read this book too and it is a classic. Thanks for reminding all of us how to break our habits. Much love to you oh wise one!

  3. i love this phrase a coach gave me once, “What is the smallest microscopic step you could make in the direction of the change you want to make?”


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