The Best Excuse For Breaking A New Year’s Resolutions (M)

How to still look good if you are one of the two-thirds of people who give up on their New Year’s resolutions within a month.

How to still look good if you are one of the two-thirds of people who give up on their New Year's resolutions within a month.

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The Simple Key To Forming New Habits

How much are habits a product of what we want versus what we habitually do?

How much are habits a product of what we want versus what we habitually do?

Simple repetition is the key to hacking your brain to form solid habits, research concludes.

Just find a way to keep repeating the same action until it sticks.

It doesn’t matter whether the action provides you satisfaction or not — repetition is all.

At least, that is the message from a mathematical model of habit formation developed by psychologists at Warwick, Princeton and Brown Universities.

Dr Elliot Ludvig, study co-author, said:

“Much of what we do is driven by habits, yet how habits are learned and formed is still somewhat mysterious.

Our work sheds new light on this question by building a mathematical model of how simple repetition can lead to the types of habits we see in people and other creatures. “

The researchers created a computational model that involved digital mice pressing levers to get a reward.

The simulation showed that after training, mice will continue to press a lever even after it stops rewarding them.

In other words, the digital mice kept doing something they had done before, despite receiving no reward.

The habit continues, despite having lost all value.

While mice are clearly different to human beings, repetition has surprising power over us all.

The next step for the researchers is to test their model on humans.

Dr Amitai Shenhav, study co-author, said:

“Psychologists have been trying to understand what drives our habits for over a century, and one of the recurring questions is how much habits are a product of what we want versus what we do.

Our model helps to answer that by suggesting that habits themselves are a product of our previous actions, but in certain situations those habits can be supplanted by our desire to get the best outcome.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Review (Miller et al., 2018).

8 Ways To Stop Biting Your Nails

Stop biting your nails with these 8 ways based on the latest psychological research on habit change.

Stop biting your nails with these 8 ways based on the latest psychological research on habit change.

The bad habit of biting your nails is much more common than you might think.

Some studies have found about one-quarter of children bite their nails habitually (Ghanizadeh & Shekoohi, 2011), others say it may peak at almost 45 percent in adolescence (Peterson et al., 1994).

More surprisingly, the prevalence of biting nails amongst adults may be just as high, with some estimates at 50 percent (Hansen et al., 1990).

Here’s my 8-step guide on how to stop biting your nails based on the psychological research:

1. Motivation to stop biting nails

It might seem redundant to say, but any change, including to stop biting your nails has to be desired, really desired.

And for such a simple behaviour, biting your nails is surprisingly hard to quit, perhaps partly because it doesn’t seem that big a deal and our hands are always with us.

This is especially a problem if you are trying to change someone else’s behaviour.

One method for boosting motivation  to stop biting nails is to think carefully about the positive aspects of changing the habit, for example attractive looking nails and a sense of accomplishment.

Also, make the negative aspects of nail-biting as dramatic as possible in your mind.

If you tend to think it’s no big deal then you’re unlikely to make the change.

In addition, you can try mental contrasting, which has been backed by psychological research on habit change.

2. Suppressing nail biting does not work

It doesn’t matter if it’s you or your child that you’re trying to change, suppression does not work.

Punishing a child for nail biting is a bad move.

They will know it’s a way to attract attention and they will use it.

The same is true when changing your own habit of nail biting.

Trying to tell your unconscious to stop doing something is like trying to tell a child.

It reacts childishly by doing the complete opposite.

Here’s the technical explanation for why thought suppression is counter-productive.

3. Replace nail biting with another habit

One of the keys to habit change is developing a new, good (or at least neutral) response that can compete with the old, bad habit.

The best types are ones that are incompatible with your old habit.

So, for biting your nails you could try:

  • chewing gum,
  • putting your hands in your pockets,
  • twiddling your thumbs,
  • playing with a ball or an elastic band,
  • clasping your hands together,
  • eating a carrot,
  • or clipping or filing them instead.

4. Visual reminders to stop nail biting

If you keep your nails clipped short then there is less temptation to bite them.

Some people recommend having a manicure because the money spent, along with how much better your nails look, will deter you from biting them.

You could also paint your nails a bright colour as a reminder, although most men seem to find this look difficult to pull off—I can’t imagine why.

Another method is to wear something around your wrist, like a bracelet or elastic band, to remind you of your goal.

Remember that habits live in the unconscious so you bite your nails automatically.

Visual cues are a way of reminding you of the change you want to make.

Research has even shown that a wristband that is difficult to remove can be helpful (Koritzy & Yechiam, 2011).

5. Identify nail biting situations

Habits are heavily bound up with situations.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to spot habits because they are performed unconsciously.

However you may spot particular times during the day when nail biting occurs, like while watching TV.

If you can bear it, enlist those around you to help point out when you are biting your nails.

Painting your fingernails with that nasty tasting fluid can help pull you out of autopilot and alert you to situations in which the habit is performed.

But it probably won’t work on its own.

Some people even say they get to like, or at least tolerate, the taste!

6. Thoughts linked to nail biting

Just like situations, our thoughts and feelings cue up our behaviour.

If you can spot the types of things you are thinking about or feeling when nail biting, then this can help.

Some people like to use mindfulness as a way of increasing self-awareness.

When you notice the thoughts coming (for example, anxiety) you can prepare your alternative response (for example, getting the worry beads out of your pocket).

7. Repeat the new habit

Your new replacement habit will build with repetition, but at first it will have to compete with your old habit.

Try to avoid beating yourself up for nail biting slip-ups, as they are bound to happen.

It’s a gradual process. (See: The Surprising Motivational Power of Self-Compassion)

8. Take photos of attractive nails

Keeping the new response going can be hard.

One method to make your progress to stop nail biting more obvious to yourself is to take pictures of your nails on your phone every few days (Craig, 2010).

When you see how far you’ve come (or, alternately how little progress has been achieved), this should help push you on.

Remember that old habits do not die; they lie in the unconscious waiting to be reactivated.

Go easy on yourself if you slip-up and start biting your nails again, but remember that a lot of the battle with bad habits is about self-awareness.

Does nail biting reveal psychological issues?

People often wonder if biting your nails is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Perhaps if that deeper problem were fixed, the nail-biting would go away on its own?

Opinion is divided on whether this is true.

Counter-intuitively, there is no strong evidence that biting your nails is related to anxiety.

Worse, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to use introspection to probe the unconscious for the reasons for our behaviours (yes, that’s why they call it the unconscious!).

Most, though, agree that whatever the cause, the learned habit needs to be targeted.

So start with these approaches and see how it goes.

If it’s not working, try making small tweaks, like using a different replacement habit, and then have another go.


How Long To Form A Habit? 66 Days Is A Rough Average

Forming a habit takes an average of 66 days, but it depends on the habit and how you build it.

Forming a habit takes an average of 66 days, but it depends on the habit and how you build it.

Say you want to build a new habit, whether it’s taking more exercise, eating more healthily or writing a blog post every day, how long does it need to be performed before it no longer requires Herculean self-control?

Clearly it’s going to depend on the type of habit you’re trying to build and how single-minded you are in pursuing your goal.

But are there any general guidelines for how long it takes to form a habit before behaviours become automatic?

Ask Google a few years ago and you used to get a figure of somewhere between 21 and 28 days.

In fact, there’s no solid evidence for this number at all.

The 21-day myth for how long to form a habit may well come from a book published in 1960 by a plastic surgeon.

Dr Maxwell Maltz noticed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and he argued that people take 21 days to adjust to any major life changes.

Unless you’re in the habit of sawing off your own arm, this is not particularly relevant.

Forming a habit takes 66 days

Psychological research on this question is available, though, in a paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London recruited 96 people who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15-minute run each day Lally et al. (2009).

Participants were then asked daily how automatic their chosen habits felt.

These questions included things like whether the potential habit was ‘hard not to do’ and could be done ‘without thinking’.

When the researchers examined the different habits, many of the participants showed a curved relationship between practice and automaticity of the form depicted below (solid line).

On average, a plateau in automaticity was reached after 66 days.

In other words, it had become as much of a habit as it was ever going to become.


This graph shows that early practice was rewarded with greater increases in automaticity and gains tailed off as participants reached their maximum automaticity for that behaviour.

Although the average was 66 days, there was marked variation in how long habits took to form, anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days in the habits examined in this study.

As you’d imagine, drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication (above, dotted lines).

The researchers also noted that:

  • Missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit.
  • A sub-group took much longer than the others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are ‘habit-resistant’.
  • Making other types of habits may well take much longer.

Making a habit: there is no small change

What this study reveals is that when we want to form a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 10 minute walk, it could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour becomes a habit.

And, while this research suggests that skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.

Unfortunately it seems there’s no such thing as small change: the much-repeated 21 days to form a habit is a considerable underestimation unless your only goal in life is drinking glasses of water.

Note: This question of how long to form a habit so intrigued me that I wrote a book on it.


This Insight About Habits Helps People Change Their Behaviour (M)

Many people believe that a lack of willpower is the reason they cannot change, but this study finds otherwise.

Many people believe that a lack of willpower is the reason they cannot change, but this study finds otherwise.

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A Trick To Help You Keep New Year’s Resolutions

The “question-behaviour effect” can help motivate you.

The “question-behaviour effect” can help motivate you.

“Will you exercise this year?”

Just being asked that question could be enough to change your behaviour.

That’s the result of a survey of 40 years of research in this area.

The study found that the so-called “question-behaviour effect” can be powerful in many different areas of life.

Asking a question is probably better than making a statement for influencing behaviour.

Dr Dave Sprott, one of the study’s authors, said:

“If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change.”

When people are asked whether they recycle, of example, it is a subtle reminder that it is good for the environment.

If they don’t already recycle, or exercise, or eat healthily, it can lead to uncomfortable feelings.

Recycling — or whatever the behaviour is — will alleviate those feelings.

Professor Eric R. Spangenberg, the study’s first author, explained:

“We found the effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior with personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy foods or volunteering.

But it can be used effectively to even influence consumer purchases, such as a new computer.”

The relatively simple technique has been found to work in a variety of different domains.

These include cheating less in college, reducing gender stereotyping, encouraging exercising and recycling.

Dr Sprott said:

“It is pretty easy to ask a question, and it can be done in a variety of means, such as ads, mailers, online media, and interpersonal communications.”

Sometimes, though, the technique does not work as well — usually when people already perform the target behaviour a lot.

For example, asking someone if they will be doing a lot of drinking or skipping classes can cause them to increase these behaviours.

Questions can work much better, the researchers found, than statements.

→ Read on: 10 Step Guide for Making Your New Year’s Resolutions

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (Spangenberg et al., 2015).

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