How To Actually Change Habits

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Our life is a reflection of our habits.

We’re all exposed to the winds of chance and luck. But when we focus on our circle of control, habits play a leading role.

Because habits are, by definition, the things we do over and over and over again.

As the saying goes, “Good habits are hard to form, but easy to live with. Bad habits are easy to form, but hard to live with.”

But once we are in an unhelpful groove, changing bad habits can feel like struggling out of quicksand.

Believe me. I know firsthand.

The nastiest and most embarrassing habit of my entire life has been the compulsive gnawing down of my fingernails. Until just a few years ago, it was a constant source of shame.

Not only did it make me insecure about how many fingers looked, but it was frustrating as hell. After all… why couldn’t I stop doing it?? I didn’t WANT to rip up my fingernails. But for the life of me, I couldn’t resist my urges. I reluctantly accepted that after years and years of ingraining the pattern, I was stuck. Forever. And ever.

(Dearest Reader, I almost used the term “Sisyphean.” I have so much RESTRAINT.)

Then something interesting happened.

I went to Burning Man.

(oh boy, there he goes again with a “one time at Burning Man story…”)

Seriously, hear me out, there’s a takeaway for you here!

But first, take a quickie look at what habits are and how they’re formed.

Habits 101

Habits are deeply grooved, patterns of behavior. Their promise AND peril is they function on automatic. Author James Clear (author of the excellent Atomic Habits) breaks habits down into four steps:

  1. Cue – Something that triggers the craving (environments, emotions, etc.)
  2. Craving – The urge to execute your habit
  3. Response – The act itself that “scratches the itch” of the craving
  4. Reward – A pleasurable outcome and/or release of tension that trains you to repeat the circle

Looking to change a habit? First, unpack the cues that trigger that habit.

The cue is usually an environment, an emotion, or both.

  • When I get stressed, I eat chips
  • When I get bored, I drink soda
  • When I walk by the kitchen table, I snag a piece of candy from the bowl
  • When I finish dinner, I eat something sweet
  • When I watch TV at night, I snack on granola
  • When work is done for the day, I pour myself a big glass of wine

(Here’s an important distinction; you’ll notice we rarely have to break “bad exercise habits” or “bad recovery habits.” Working out regularly or improving our sleep routine are about building good habits, not breaking ones we already have. So when we discuss replacing existing habits, we’re usually addressing unconscious patterns around food.)

Here was my personal pickle: I had ripped up my fingernails for so long, basically everything was a cue; stress, reading a book, flying on planes, being in a meeting, sitting at my desk, etc. etc. etc.

This made it a particularly tough habit to kick. It wasn’t just a matter of avoiding the cues. Cuz it was kinda my whole life.

But here’s where we get to your takeaway:

You can’t “stop” a habit. You can only replace it.

For the rest of my life, on some deep primordial level, I may be dancing with the urge to pick at my nails. But the past few years I’ve massively reduced the frequency.

And importantly, I’ve created a workaround when the urge gets overwhelming…

Breaking Habits Pro-Tip: An Ego- Death Inducing Heroic Dose of LSD


(More of a moderate and reasonable dose of LSD.)

Jkjkjkjk again

But in all seriousness, after Burning Man in 2016, I had a break in this decades-old habit. There may or may not have also been some personal discoveries during a particularly impactful experience (a story for another time…). But I attribute much of my habit break to a more mundane cause.

In the desert, everything is dusty. Dust covered my fingers for eight days. So I lost the compulsive (irrational) desire to “groom” my nails. Because they were under dust. Furthermore, I wasn’t exposed to the many “triggers” that caused me to pick at my nails.

Upon return to the Default World, my nails had grown out a bit. And I learned about how normal people care for their nails.

I got nail files.

I got a pair of clippers.

I got a manicure.

And because my nails were now smooth — and not gnawed-down-jagged — my urges were massively reduced.

And when they started to get long enough to bother me, and the impulse to “groom” them reared its ugly head, I replaced the response.

Instead of picking at them, I used a file and/or clippers to manage them. You know… kinda like a normal person.

Over time, my nails have gotten healthier and stronger. Which has further blunted my desire to pick.

When I’m under extra stress and the urge threatens to overwhelm, I do still pick. Sometimes I file them too short by anyone’s standards. But from where I’m sitting it’s still a massive win.

It’s an aesthetic improvement, sure. But more than that…

It’s proof I can change.

I am not the helpless victim of my personal history.

By understanding how habits work, unpacking cues, and intentionally replacing my trained response with other actions, my life is better.

And you can do this too.

But you’ll have to be a P.B.D. (Personal Behavior Detective).

Here’s your playbook:

  1. Identify the habit/pattern you want to change
  2. Make careful note of the cues that trigger the behavior (usually emotions and/or environments)
  3. Instead of trying to “willpower” your way out of it, identify alternate behaviors that could provide some relief

For example, if boredom = drinking soda, try club soda instead.

If stress = eating chips, try eating carrots instead.

If end of day = glass of wine, try going for a walk instead.

Listen, you know I like to real talk with you. There’s a biochemical reason we crave sugary, salty, fatty foods. They’re “hyperpalatable.” They taste good. They create a powerful pleasure response that’s perfectly designed to build habit loops.

And it’s reasonable to crave some food pleasure to comfort yourself. But if you’re not happy with your habits here, this is your playbook for making change.

It won’t happen overnight. And you’ll likely need to experiment with which actions you want to sub in.

But the goal isn’t to become perfect anyway.

The goal is progress.

After all, you’re already enough exactly as you are. This is just a game you’re playing to move a bit closer to the life you love to live. Because this is the road that leads to your most energetic, vibrant, self-confident self.

You’re great!

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