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The Best Way to Quit a Bad Habit Is to… Replace It With Another Habit

Unless you’re biting your nails, in which case just wear gloves

Like the people they occupy, bad habits come in all shapes, forms and sizes. Whether you’re a nail biter, a chain smoker or a shopaholic, everyone has experienced that near-reflexive urge to continue to do something you know isn’t good for you. It’s not addiction with a capital “A’”— if it doesn’t meaningfully light up those reward pathways in the brain, it’s not addiction — but even in their most minor forms, bad habits can feel relentless.

While there are many outlets for people trying overcome more serious addictions and compulsions, those of us on the lower end of the habit spectrum are usually left to our own devices to figure out how to stop cracking our knuckles or constantly checking Twitter. For some help, we reached out to Dr. Carlo DiClemente, who studies addiction and changes in health and behavior, to find out how to quit the minor habits they don’t have meetings for.

Be Clear About Why You Want to Quit

“The first thing you need to do is be convinced that you need to change,” says DiClemente. “If you don’t believe you need to make a change, the goals you establish won’t carry any weight.” It’s important, he continues, to define why you need to quit a habit. If you want to quit drinking, for example, he recommends doing research to understand the tangible health risks of continuing to drink. The same goes for any other bad habit — it’s vital to put them in context. “Ask yourself, what would it mean to your loved ones if you continued to drink the way you do?” he says.

Make a List of Pros and Cons

“You have to deal with all of the ambivalence that comes with trying to quit a bad habit,” says DiClemente. He advises that it’s useful to write out a list of all the reasons quitting is a good idea, but stresses that it’s not the length of the list that counts, but the value of the reasons on it. “Before I quit smoking cigarettes I was researching the health risks associated with smoking, but that only led to cognitive dissonance,” he says. “Once I realized that I wanted to see my children’s children grow up, I’d established an important value to support my change.”

Put Together a Detailed Plan

After deciding to quit, the next thing you need to do is make an effective plan — one that’s easy to stick to. “If you’re a nail-biter, you need to establish some sort of strategy for when you feel the urge to bring your hands to your mouth,” says DiClemente. “One example is deciding to quit biting your nails in the winter when you’re going to be wearing gloves a lot. Or you can buy some worry beads so that when you’re stressed your hands don’t automatically go to your mouth. These short-term strategies will help you break the habit until you establish more long-term strategies — like going to the gym when you’re under a lot of stress.”

Revise Your Plan

One key to a successful plan is remaining adaptable. Perhaps the winter was warmer than expected, so you’re not wearing gloves all the time — what’s another way to keep your hands out of your mouth? Being prepared to revise your plan as necessary is the key to its success. “If you’re trying to get in the habit of exercising more but you don’t have as much time as you thought, revise your plan so that it includes walking around the office during lunch,” says DiClemente. “It’s all about finding ways to keep the goal and change the plan, instead of abandoning the goal.”

Manage Your Stress

“The reason a habit becomes a bad habit is because it reinforces regretful behavior,” says DiClemente. “Buying clothes online if you’ve had a bad day may relieve a little stress for a moment, but afterward, you’re looking at the shopping list and you’re feeling like shit. It’s important to find another reinforcing behavior that you like, but that doesn’t make you feel bad. Instead, take a deep breath and get to a more relaxed state, then distract yourself with something else that you also find exciting. Maybe that means exercising more. Or getting a pet.”

Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that puppies make everything okay.