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I Consulted a Behavioral Scientist to Learn How to Stop Biting My Nails

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsDecember 16, 2019

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I’ve gnawed on my fingernails for as long as I can remember. It happens when I’m bored, anxious, or basically anytime my hands aren’t occupied with typing or eating. There’s no denying that the habit is pretty darn gross, but ask anyone with chewed nails, and they’ll tell you: quitting ain’t easy. In fact, BJ Fogg, PhD, a behavioral scientist at Stanford Univiersty and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, says that the question of how to stop biting nails is one he’s asked about with great frequency.

According to Dr. Fogg, every habit—be it nail-biting (the scientific term is “Onychophagia”), procrastinating, appsturbating, or mindless eating— has three components: motivation, ability, and a prompt. “If you can take away any one of those items then the behavior won’t happen,” he tells me. Below, you’ll learn about each factor, and how—with a little patience—you can unravel one aspect to kick the habit to the curb. For good this time.

How to stop biting your nails, according to a behavioral scientist

Ability,  motivation, and prompt all come together to encourage bad habits. But luckily the trio work a lot like the three legs of a stool—knock one out and you break the habit as a whole. For nail-biting, Dr. Fogg says the three components look like this.

The 3 components of any habit

1. Prompt

According to Dr. Fogg, attacking your prompt for nail-biting isn’t as simple as it is for other habits. A prompt is the actual scenario that incites the habit. “If you can remove the prompt for nail-biting, then you’re done,” he says. “However, unlike social media, where you can turn off notifications, the prompt comes from inside you.” In other words, you can’t hit “do not disturb” on your inner-reflex to bite your nails. If any idle moment (elevator rides, commercial breaks, long lines) cues the behavior, it may be more difficult to attack the habit from this angle. In this case, Dr. Fogg recommends moving right along to ability.

2. ability

To approach habit-breaking from an ability angle, Dr. Fogg recommends asking yourself the question: “Can I make this harder to do?” You have to make nail-biting less accessible or less desirable—and there are a few ways to do that.

  • Make your nails taste bad: Anti-nail biting polishes (like this one) make your nails taste genuinely terrible. Like sewer water terrible. Sadly, I’ve turned to this polish many times after falling back into my usual nail-biting patterns. As long as you’re reapplying it consistently, it can really work! Just don’t let yourself skip a week—take it from someone who’s learned the hard way.
  • Wear gloves during the moments that tend to prompt you: For me, this would look like gloving up anytime I’m watching a movie or sitting in class (the two times when my hands naturally gravitate toward my mouth). Although this may feel annoying at first, you’ll eventually train your brain so you’ll feel like you’re wearing invisible gloves 24/7 (which, I imagine, is how the non-nail-biting population feels all the time).
  • Swap the behavior for something else: “If nothing else works, then you look at what other habits you can create,” says Dr. Fogg. “So when I have the urge to bite my nails, can I draw smiley faces on a piece of paper instead? Can I simply just rub my hands together to take up my energy and attention. You explore what behavior would be easy to do, and then satisfy whatever urge the nail-biting is trying to address.” For me, Dr. Fogg recommends fulfilling the desire to bite my nails with some impromptu clapping. That way, it’s like I’m celebrating the fact that I resisted.

3. Motivation

Remember when I mentioned that boredom and anxiety were the two major culprits of the compulsion to obliterate my nails? Well, according to Dr. Fogg, these are my motivations—and addressing them could render the nail-biting, well, useless. “If you’re dealing with the root cause, then the motivation to bite your nails won’t be as high,” he says. “For example, if people are stressed out at work, they can have calming moments throughout the day to keep the anxiety level low.”

Of course, coming at your habit from this particular angle requires a lot more inner-work than attacking your ability to bite your nails. You may need to talk out what particular emotions are causing you to create a coping mechanism (ie, nail-biting). If you choose this route, treat yourself with all the compassion you deserve. As Dr. Fogg points out, bad habits form as a way for you to protect yourself in some way. So don’t diminish that.

A note on perseverance—because quitting once might not mean quitting for good

I’ve quit biting my nails 10 times now. And I’ve fallen back into the habit 11 times. After hanging up with Dr. Fogg, I make a plan: I’ll take up his special, celebratory clapping exercise. I’ll wear gloves while I’m watching televisionI’ll write down “I really want to bite my nails.” in moments when I really want to bite my nails. And, if I make it a few weeks without nibbling, I’ll make myself a manicure appointment.

For a couple of days, I part with the habit. Then, like falling back into an old relationship, I’m biting my nails again. Work picks back up; I have countless assignments do for my graduate program. And then there’s my home, New York City—the Most Stressful Place on Earth™.

As I look down at my nails now, they’re bitten down to the quick. My thumbs seem to have gotten the worst of it, and one is even painful to run underwater. But I remember something Dr. Fogg said to me. “Really, you can think of nail-biting not as as breaking a habit, but untangling this habit,” he says. “You might do it driving to work, you might do it while you’re editing a piece, you might do it while you’re watching a movie. All of these are like tangles in a bigger thing that we call ‘nail-biting.’ And so what you want to do is focus on the easiest one first.”

In my case, the “easiest” time to control the habit is while I’m watching television. By slipping gloves on, or turning my hands’ attention to my knitting, I can “untangle” the behavioral patterns of that particular moment. “Untangle that, and then go to the next one and the next one. What you’ll find is you’ll build momentum and eventually, the whole thing will become untangled,” Dr. Fogg concludes.

Today, I’m focused on not biting my nails while I’m watching TV . And hey, that sounds like a pretty good place to start untangling.

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