10 Hardest Habits to Break

groom biting nails
Pre-wedding jitters or just a bad habit? Either way, nail-biting made our list. See more in our nail biting image gallery.
Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

If you don't smoke or do drugs you may think you're clear of bad habits. But what if you bite your nails or pop gum repeatedly? Bad habits aren't addictions. They're repetitive, negative behaviors that often start as coping mechanisms -- ways to reduce stress, relax and generally feel better. They aren't generally dangerous, just annoying to those around you.

So, how do you stop doing them? It's not so easy. Habits can trigger the release of dopamine, a chemical that's part of the brain's reward system. You get positive reinforcement from your brain for performing these habits, so that compels you to keep going. In addition, researchers have found that habits form familiar neural pathways in your brain. If a behavior is routine, this frees your brain to concentrate on other things [source: Contie].


That's great if you've gotten into the practice of meditating each evening, but it can be bad news if you're downing a pint of ice cream in front of the TV instead. We've got a list of 10 really hard habits to break and ways you might overcome them. And speaking of ice cream, let's kick off our look with one that plagues most of us.

10: Snacking

family snacking
Snacking in front of the TV is often learned from parents.

I mentioned eating ice cream at night because snacking is not only one of my bad habits; it's my hardest one to break. If I chose to snack on nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, it'd be one thing. But chips and ice cream call my name. So why do we snack, and why do we reach for the high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie foods?

One simple reason: Our brains tell us to because they make us feel good. Foods high in fat and carbohydrates raise our mood by producing neurotransmitters like serotonin and anandamide. Back in prehistoric times, when eating was all about survival, it made sense for your brain to reward you for seeking out high-caloric foods. These brain chemicals work with others like opioids that can relieve stress and even physical pain [source: Smellie]. But these are temporary effects; the negatives, like feeling sluggish and guilty or even gaining weight, aren't worth it.


For those times when you're legitimately hungry between meals, the solution is to make sure you have satisfying foods on hand that will fill you up, like small amounts of nuts. If you find yourself mindlessly snacking in front of the TV, make a rule only to eat when you're focused on your food. Look for other ways to make yourself feel better -- hanging out with a friend, going for a walk or watching your favorite show on TV. If only carbs will do, keep the serving as small as you can.

9: Nail Biting

nail biting
Nail biting isn’t harmful to your health, but it can make your nails look pretty unattractive.

Biting your nails isn't as unhealthy a habit as snacking, but it's still a bad one. It's embarrassing to have ragged, chewed nails. And since it's a habit associated with anxiety, it can feel like people learn all about your mental state just by glancing at your hands.

Interestingly, the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies nail biting as a body-focused repetitive behavior disorder, along with hair twirling and skin picking and relates them all to behaviors characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) [source: Grohol]. One big difference is that most people with OCD want to stop their practices because they don't get any pleasure from obsessively lining up their shoes or washing their hands. Nail biters, on the other hand, usually find gnawing on their tips pleasurable and stress-relieving [source: Standen].


While nail biting is not generally harmful, if you attack the cuticles you can risk bleeding and bacterial infection. One way to stop the habit is to keep your nails impeccably manicured, so you won't want to ruin them. Some people put bitter-tasting polish or even a bandage on a finger to remind themselves to stop the biting and find something else to do.

8: Procrastinating

man throwing paper in basket
Procrastinators sabotage themselves to avoid doing something that they don’t want to do.
Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

I've put off this article because I work best under pressure! OK, not really. Although we often joke about procrastinating, it can be a really bad habit. Procrastinators sabotage themselves to avoid doing something that they don't want to do. They're the ones who cram all night for a test, routinely pay late fees for bills and buy gifts on the way to the party. The outcome is often poor test marks, wasted money and a late arrival at the event. It's not about running out of time; it's about failing to regulate behavior.

It's difficult to understand the motivation behind procrastination but here are some common reasons [source: Marano]:


  • fear of failure or success
  • fear of making a bad decision
  • seeking a pressure-fueled adrenaline rush
  • rebelling against controlling parents or other authority figures

No matter what the reason, if procrastinating is a problem in your life, you have to be proactive. Set clear goals, with rewards if necessary, and imagine how great you'll feel when you finally complete that project with time to spare. You might even consider enlisting somebody to keep you honest and check in with you on your progress. And you have to do it right now.

7: Swearing

man swearing
Swearing may be funny on TV but it's often not so funny in real life.

When a character starts swearing on TV or in a movie, it can be pretty funny. But it's often not so funny in real life. Many people consider swearing vulgar, low class and unprofessional. They see the swearer as lacking in self-control and unable to express himself properly.

On the positive side, swearing has been shown to calm a person down and let her express anger without hurting anybody. A British researcher found that swearing helped his subjects to bear pain better than those who said a neutral word. Swearing turned on the subjects' fight-or-flight responses, allowing surges in adrenaline [sources: Sharples, Joeliving].


However, the researcher cautioned that swearing loses its emotional potency the more it's done, lessening its ability to dull pain [source: Joeliving]. That's probably true of swearing in general – it has less potency the more you do it. One way to stop is through using a "swear jar." Put in a set amount of money every time you swear when you shouldn't, and make it enough to hurt. Decide what you're going to do with the money, and make it something that's not fun, like putting it into your retirement account or paying off a debt. (Otherwise you've just given yourself a good reason to keep on swearing). You could also try substituting innocent words. Everyone will be laughing for real when you yell "Suffering Succotash!" next time something goes wrong at work.

6: Gum Snapping

blowing bubble
Much like nail biting or hair twisting, gum snapping can become an unconscious behavior used to relieve stress or boredom.

Learning how to blow bubbles is one of those childhood rites of passage, like whistling or riding a bike. But by the time we reach adulthood, we're not normally chewing bubble gum, but the kind that freshens breath. That gum isn't ideal for blowing bubbles, so some people resort to snapping, or popping it instead. Much like nail biting or hair twisting, gum snapping can become an unconscious behavior used to relieve stress or boredom. However, there are some positives of gum chewing. Researchers found that it made people focus better on tests of mental agility for about 20 minutes [source: Lehrer].

Maybe that's why some people do it at work. The problem is, the endless popping sound can be so distracting for the people around you that they may be tearing their hair out or even complaining to their human resources manager. If you're a gum-snapper, think about why you're doing it and find a quieter way to deal with that emotion. If you're worried about bad breath, stock up on mints or keep a toothbrush at work.


5: Tardiness

white rabbit
"I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date!" Don't be like the White Rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland."
© Neale Osborne/Lebrecht Music & A/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

I hated being late to school because I'd have to go the attendance office for a tardy slip – and too many tardies might mean a detention.

You may not get a detention as an adult for being tardy, but you can get fired from your job if it happens often enough. Even if it doesn't reach that point, being late makes you look disorganized and unprofessional. In private life, your friends and family can get resentful really quickly if you're always the last one to arrive to a gathering, or if you miss the big moment at events.


Tardiness may stem from a lack of self-motivation or from an overscheduled life. Additionally, some people actually get an adrenaline high from keeping others waiting. Others are just overly optimistic about how long it really takes to get from Point A to Point B [source: Schocker].

But you can become more punctual if you work at it. First, stop trusting your internal clock. Actually time how long it takes to get you to work, for example, including rush-hour traffic, as well as the time to walk from your car to your office building to your suite. If you're a very busy person, or get so wrapped up in one thing that you easily forget about other commitments, set appointment reminders on your smartphone or laptop and be sure to schedule some down time during the day.

4: Interrupting

"Talk to the hand!" Why do some people always interrupt?

Life is full of constant interruptions. I've been interrupted by a needy cat, multiple buzzing noises from my phone and the sound of someone edging their yard in just the past few minutes. But I find verbal interruptions the most irritating, especially when it's the same person doing it repeatedly. The implication is that what the interrupter has to say is far more important than what I was saying. Yet, even though interrupting is considered rude, we all do it.

One reason is that sometimes interrupting is necessary. If you have an important question to ask during a presentation that won't be relevant if you wait until the end, sometimes getting the speaker's attention is acceptable. You just have to do it politely [source: LaFrance].


But like many bad habits, interrupting can also be about power -- who is allowed to speak and who isn't. You might not hesitate to interrupt a subordinate at work, but you would never interrupt your own boss. No matter what the relationship is, though, it's usually still better to wait until the other person finishes speaking. Try to focus on what she's saying and formulate a thoughtful response. If you feel the urge to interrupt, ask yourself what would happen if you waited. (Probably, nothing.) You might even take notes if you're afraid that you'll forget what you're going to say later.

3: Gossiping

Some of us just can’t resist sharing a juicy piece of information.

If gossiping weren't fun and entertaining, there wouldn't be so many TV shows, websites and magazines devoted to talking about what celebrities are doing. Most have chosen to be in the public eye, and to a certain degree, they expect their personal lives will be under a microscope. We regular folk, however, usually don't appreciate having our foibles and quirks as the topic of conversation in the office break room.

Some of us just can't resist sharing a juicy piece of information though. It's a way of connecting with other people and even raising our social status in their eyes. Sometimes it helps boost our own self-esteem: "At least I'd never make that bad of a mistake," we might think.


Gossiping may seem like a harmless way to pass the time, but it has significant repercussions. In the workplace, gossip can be a huge problem because it can lower morale, decrease productivity and increase turnover. Families have been torn apart by secrets that were not to supposed to have been revealed. Gossip can also be about power: One person has information the others don't have and keeps the power by deciding who to share the tidbits with.

If you're concerned that you're a gossip, pay attention to your topics of conversations. Are you telling positive or negative stories about others? If it's difficult to stop gossiping (because it just feels so good), try putting yourself in the subject's shoes. How would you feel if everyone was talking badly about you?

2: Fidgeting

While many babies can't sit still, some grownups have the same problem.

Fidgeting simply means that you're incapable of keeping still. Like nail biting and other so-called "nervous habits," it can be a way to fight boredom, expend excess energy or relieve stress.

This bad habit isn't all bad, though; some researchers believe that fidgeting reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Since cortisol can negatively affect learning, fidgeting during a test might actually make you perform better on it. Because the parts of the brain that control movement and speech are in the same area, fidgeting or moving may also help you formulate a thought before saying it out loud [source: BBC]. You might even burn an extra 350 calories from fidgeting throughout the day [source: Grady]. But fidgeting is one of those bad habits that can have a social impact, especially if it is constant, loud or distracting.


Usually when someone calls attention to fidgeting, the person will stop doing it, or at least find a way to be unobtrusive about it. But if he can't stop, the fidgeting is constant, or he seems to be involuntarily twitching or making noises, there could be something more serious at work. Extreme fidgeting is a possible symptom of several conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and Tourette's syndrome. Professional help is necessary in those cases [sources: Ungar, NHS].

1: Excessive Screen Time

staring at phone
Too much screen time can hurt your eyes and your brain. And your relationships.

It's incredibly easy to spend almost every waking hour of your day staring at a screen -- whether from a computer, TV, tablet or phone. Most of us have to use computers at work, so being in front of a screen for at least 40 hours a week is nonnegotiable. But what about binge-watching a TV show or spending hours on Facebook? How does that affect you?

Scientists have found that too much screen time can cause eye fatigue and blurred vision. These symptoms are not permanent, but they are unpleasant [source: Adams]. Research also indicates that excessive screen time can actually hurt your brain -- scans of Internet- and gaming-addicted teenagers showed damage to the frontal lobe [source: Dunckley].

While watching TV or surfing the Web certainly has benefits, if you put off spending time with friends, hear complaints from your family, or fail to accomplish something that you needed to do because you were too busy online, you might need to start setting some limits.

If you always take your phone with you to the bathroom, make a conscious effort to leave it in another room. Eat meals at the table instead of in front of the TV. Read an actual paper book on occasion. Or download some great, informative podcasts and listen while you go for a stroll.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Hardest Habits to Break

I very much related to the subject of this article. I don't want to say exactly how many of these habits I share, but at least most of mine don't really bother anybody but me (my family and friends might tell a different story). I find that I can keep most of them at bay, but they creep in at times of extreme stress. Like anything else worth doing, I have to work at it.

Related Articles

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