In the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed.

A quiet revolution has upended our concept of the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations. And much of what we have learned has come from studying the simplest of habits — such as why people bite their nails.

In the summer of 2006, for instance, a 24-year-old graduate student named Mandy walked into the counseling center at Mississippi State University. For most of her life, Mandy had bitten her nails, gnawing them until they bled.

Lots of people bite their nails. For chronic nail biters, however, it’s a problem of a different scale.

Mandy would often bite until her nails pulled away from the skin underneath. Her fingertips were covered with tiny scabs. The end of her fingers had become blunted without nails to protect them and sometimes they tingled or itched, a sign of nerve injury.

The biting habit had damaged her social life. She was so embarrassed around her friends that she kept her hands in her pockets and, on dates, would become preoccupied with balling her fingers into fists. She had tried to stop by painting her nails with foul-tasting polishes or promising herself, starting right now, that she would muster the willpower to quit. But as soon as she began doing homework or watching television, her fingers ended up in her mouth.

The counseling center referred Mandy to a doctoral psychology student who was studying a treatment known as “habit reversal training.” The psychologist was well acquainted with what has become known as the “Golden Rule of Habit Change.” Every habit has three components: a cue (or a trigger for an automatic behavior to start), a routine (the behavior itself) and a reward (which is how our brain learns to remember this pattern for the future.)

The Golden Rule of Habit Change says that the most effective way to shift a habit is to diagnose and retain the old cue and reward, and try to change only the routine.

The psychologist knew that changing Mandy’s nail biting habit required inserting a new routine into her life. “What do you feel right before you bring your hand up to your mouth to bite your nails?” he asked her.

“There’s a little bit of tension in my fingers,” Mandy said. “It hurts a little bit here, at the edge of the nail. Sometimes I’ll run my thumb along, looking for hangnails, and when I feel something catch, I’ll bring it up to my mouth then. I’ll go finger by finger, biting all the rough edges. Once I start, it feels like I have to do all of them.”

Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called awareness training, and it’s the first step in habit reversal training. The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail biting habit.

“Most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes it anymore,” said Brad Dufrene, who treated Mandy. “I’ve had stutterers come in, and I’ll ask them which words or situations trigger their stuttering, and they won’t know because they stopped noticing so long ago.”

Next, the therapist asked Mandy to describe why she bit her nails. At first, she had trouble coming up with reasons. As they talked, though, it became clearer that she bit when she was bored. The therapist put her in some typical situations, such as watching television and doing homework, and she started nibbling. When she had worked through all of the nails, she felt a brief sense of completeness, she said. That was the habit’s reward: a physical stimulation she had come to crave.

At the end of their first session, the therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Carry around an index card, and each time you feel the cue — a tension in your fingertips — make a checkmark on the card.

She came back a week later with 28 checks. She was, by that point, acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit. She knew how many times it occurred during class or while watching television.

Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation — such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk — anything that would produce a physical response. It was the Golden Rule: The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.

They practiced in the therapist’s office for about half and hour and Mandy was sent home with a new assignment: Continue with the index card, but make a check when you feel the tension in your fingertips and a hash mark when you successfully override the habit.

A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times. She rewarded herself with a manicure but kept using the note cards.

After a month, the nail biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic. One habit had replaced another.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it,” Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training, told me. “It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Today, habit reversal therapy is used to treat verbal and physical tics, depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive- compulsive disorders, and other behavioral problems. And its techniques lay bare one of the fundamental principles of habits: Often, we don’t really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them. Mandy never realized that a craving for physical stimulation was causing her nail biting, but once she dissected the habit, it became easy to find a new routine that provided the same reward.

Say you want to stop snacking at work. Is the reward you’re seeking to satisfy your hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom? If you snack for a brief release, you can easily find another routine, such as taking a quick walk, or giving yourself three minutes on the Internet, that provides the same interruption without adding to your waistline.

Human fist breaking cigarettes on white background

If you want to stop smoking, ask yourself: Do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, or a way to socialize? If you smoke because you need stimulation, studies indicate that some caffeine in the afternoon can increase the odds you’ll quit. More than three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs— a piece of Nicorette, a quick series of pushups, or simply taking a few minutes to stretch and relax — makes it more likely they will quit.

If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine.

Ok, now that you have the tools to take care of your bad habits, let’s start some new ones?  History has shown that even the tiniest of habits can spur major changes in your life, especially habits known as “Keystone” habits.

Keystone habits lead to the development of multiple good habits. They start a chain effect in your life that produces a number of positive outcomes.

For example, say that your keystone habit is to sleep 8 hours every night.

Your initial goal is to get more sleep.  But this habit can also lead to positive, unintended outcomes like:

  • Becoming more productive each day
  • Reducing the consumption of junk food before daytime
  • Having more time to exercise
  • Improved communications with your spouse because you’re not cranky

At first you wanted more sleep, but this keystone habit generated a number of additional habits.

The development of keystone habits can become a critical part of your personal development journey because You don’t have to change dozens of habits to get to your goals, you only have to change a few keystone habits that will have a ripple effect on your outcomes.

A perfect example is a daily exercise habit.  Let’s say you want to start exercising 20-30 minutes a day.  This one habit can lead to other great habits such as eating healthy foods, avoiding junk food and becoming more efficient at work because you need that extra hour to work out.

That one exercise habit can form major breakthroughs in other areas of your life.  This particular example really resonates with me because I found that by getting in better physical shape it led to many positive outcomes including an increase in self-confidence.  Had I not started my gym habit I wouldn’t have had the self confidence to step out of my comfort zone and move half way around the world.  A move that was the best thing I have ever done for myself.  Other keystone habits include;

Eliminate negative self-talk. 

Let’s say you want to eliminate negative self-talk.  This can have a positive effect in many areas of your life. When you stop talking negative, you start talking positive.

When you start talking positive, you start thinking positive then positive things start to happen to you.

Eliminate the perfectionist mindset.

Obsessive man laying on grass, perfection

Eliminating the ‘perfectionist mindset’ helps you open up and experience new things.  When you’re a perfectionist you tend to not do things out of fear of failure.  This makes it difficult to move forward with your dreams and aspirations.  Once you stop this habit, it allows you to explore life more and you start taking action towards what you really want.

This particular keystone habit reminds me of an interview I once read from a successful business executive who recounted that every night at the dinner table, when she was growing up, she and her brothers would have to tell their parents one thing that they failed at that day.  It was a requirement and her parents rewarded her for her failures.  With no fear of failure, she was able to try, try and try again until she succeeded at a very high business level.

Eliminate the excuse habit.

Things that you want in life won’t fall into your lap.  You have to stop making excuses in order to get the things you want out of life.

Once you stop this habit, it affects other aspects of life because you stop making excuses for a lack of results.  This causes a major breakthrough because you’ll focus on achieving positive outcomes.

Start saving money. 

By saving money you will have emergency funds for the unforeseen.  This can often lead to a more money-conscious lifestyle for you and your family.

By saving money you’ll pay closer attention to the trivial purchases you’re making in life.  Often this will reduce the amount of clutter in your life, another unintended positive outcome.

Keystone habits work because they focus on making a dynamic change in your life.  They produce a trickle-down effect.  Soon you will notice more opportunities for self-improvement from the keystone habits that you’re forming.

Success with a keystone habit happens when you take that first step.  Right now, make a list of all the habits you’d like to develop.  Pay close attention to the ones that can have a ripple-effect in your life.  You’d be surprised at how this small change can generate many positive outcomes.

And the good news is that you can start small.  For example, if you are used to waking up at 7 am, waking up at 5 am is a big leap so instead set your alarm for 06:45 because 15 minutes is doable.  As you get more accustomed to waking up early set the alarm another 15 minutes earlier. Eventually, over the course of a week or two, you will reach your two hour goal. Of course, you’ll also need to start going to bed earlier, he says. That’s something you can also do gradually as you progress.

You really don’t know how big a small change can be because it snowballs so quickly.  By getting up earlier you’ll have the benefit of have more time to exercise, prepare healthier meals, read, or simply plan your day.

Almost all successful people are that way because of the positive personal habits they have mastered.  Start with small changes that are easy to accomplish and you’ll be amazed at the results you’ll achieve in short order.

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