Middle-School flashback: You're slouched in your chair, biting your nails and yakking to Susan about Katie—that is, until Mrs. Anderson yells, "Girls!" Fast-forward to last night: You're slouched at your kitchen counter, frowning at your chewed cuticles and yakking on your cell phone to Susan about Katie. Where's Mrs. Anderson now?
Bad habits afflict us all. But whether your particular fixation is merely annoying, wastes time, or could actually hurt someone (like poor, long-suffering Katie), there are tricks and techniques to nip it in the bud. Of course, serious habitual behaviors might require years—and even some bona fide therapy sessions—to break. But psychiatrists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists agree that recognition is the first step. So you're already on the road to recovery and a lifetime of good posture, manicures, and trusting friendships.
The Habit: Fidgeting
Why you do it: You have excess energy, perhaps from the surge in adrenaline caused by consuming too much caffeine or sugar, and it has to come out somehow. Just ask that pen you keep clicking. How to stop: If you’re a large-triple-mocha drinker, cut back. To control energy peaks and troughs, it’s also important to get enough exercise and sleep. And try converting the movement of your hands and legs into isometric exercises: Put your hands in your lap and concentrate on gently pushing your palms together. For your legs, place both feet flat on the floor and then push down. Do these exercises until the need to fidget subsides.
2 of 4Greg Clarke
The Habit: Smacking Gum
Why you do it: It’s another oral fixation that serves as a security blanket when you’re nervous or anxious. How to stop: The fastest and most effective solution? Switch to hard candy. But if you really don’t want to give up gum, have a friend stop you every time she hears you doing it. Then keep smacking long enough to hear yourself and recognize what an irritating sound it is. You might be embarrassed enough to stop.
The Habit: Running Late
Why you do it: The nice reason? You’re a pleaser and an overdoer, packing too much in. Not so nice? Deep down, you may think your time is more important than the time of those waiting. Either way, you lack some essential time-management skills. How to stop: When someone asks you to do something, don’t accept right away. Say you’ll get back to him, then decide whether you have the time. Also, figure out which tasks always seem to make you late. Maybe it’s drying your hair in the morning: Time yourself to see how long it takes, then allot enough time in your routine. Tricks: Set your watch five minutes fast and build in time for unexpected delays. And always call ahead if you’re running late. Not only is it gracious but the shame of making repeated calls might also be the incentive you need to be punctual.
The Habit: Procrastination
Why you do it: It’s a strategy for managing the anxiety of having to complete a task. How to stop: Recognize that when you procrastinate, others may think you don’t care about the job, and that’s worse than completing something less than perfectly. One trick to get you started: Make a check out to an organization you despise and give it to a friend to hold. If you don’t finish the self-assigned task by a certain date, have her mail the check. If you make yourself accountable for the consequences, it will motivate you to wrap up the task.
The Habit: Slouching
Why you do it: You may have slouched when growing up because you were self-conscious or taller than others or developed breasts before your peers, and the posture stuck. Or you might just be tired. How to top: Take dance lessons, Pilates, or yoga to strengthen the abdominals and upper-back muscles. A simple shoulder-shrug exercise―think of touching your shoulders to your earlobes―is an even easier way to combat slouching. Do 10 rotations forward and 10 rotations back, says Phil Haberstro, executive director of the National Association for Health and Fitness, in Buffalo. “This will raise consciousness of posture and help remind you to stand and sit tall,” he says. “Regular physical activity helps combat the mental and physical fatigue that can contribute to slouching.”
3 of 4Greg Clarke
The Habit: Disorganization
Why you do it: You may be a visual processor. You like to be surrounded by a mess because it’s stimulating―and it reminds you to do your work. But it backfires, since you waste time searching for things. How to stop: Separate papers into a pile you need to do and a pile you can think about doing. Use folders or boxes in different colors. “One of my clients has 12 clipboards hung up in her office: six for current projects and six for those she may get to later,” says Lynn Cutts, a Colorado-based certified life coach. “She’s still being visually stimulated, but her stuff is organized.” Set up a system that works for you, and start with basic steps, like putting your keys in the same place every day.
The Habit: Name-Dropping
Why you do it: You feel insignificant and want to be perceived as more special than others around you. You think people will be impressed with you if you’re associated with a particular person. In addition to that, name-dropping can serve as a form of intimidation. “It’s a kind of one-upmanship,” says life Cutts. How to stop: Listen to yourself! Would you want to stick around and hear all this? Remind yourself that you don’t need to resort to mentioning names as a way of increasing your value. If you can’t resist dropping a name or two, do so in a non-self-promoting way or with humor. Do it to share information, as opposed to putting someone down or making yourself look more important. And make sure to tell the full story, even if it’s “Oh, I passed Harrison Ford on the street. He didn’t actually speak to me, but he did glance in my direction.”
The Habit: Nail Biting
Why you do it: You use it to derive comfort and relieve stress. “Nail biting could be the adult version of thumb sucking,” says Alan Strathman, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. How to stop: First, note when you bite your nails, and then substitute another action. Keep a stress ball on your desk, or even play with Silly Putty the next time your fingers start tickling your teeth. You can also try wearing synthetic nails or painting your natural nails with a polish that has a foul taste. Or get a manicure. You’ll look good, and after paying for the service, you’ll think twice about ruining the results.
The Habit: Whining
Why you do it: You don’t feel confident that you have the power to request something. As a kid, you probably whined when you didn’t get what you wanted, and it paid off―then. How to stop: As an adult, you’re in for a big surprise if you think you’ll get the same results. If your husband or friends say you’re a whiner, take note. Simply state what you want by making a direct request. For example, instead of ruining an evening out by complaining that you got stuck at a table next to the kitchen, politely ask the waiter to reseat you. Remember: Most people will develop a resistance to whiners. “We rebel against the behavior because we recognize that giving in will only reinforce it,” says Strathman.
4 of 4Greg Clarke
The Habit: Gossiping
Why you do it: You try to take the focus off your flaws by exposing those of others. But a person who gossips by habit doesn’t truly believe she’s good enough on her own. How to stop: Focus your conversation on sharing your experiences, such as discovering a new restaurant or your latest vacation. Brush up on current events, music, or sports. This will give you something else to discuss besides other people. Plus, you never know who is listening in on your conversation. If you’re complaining about your coworker, be aware that her best friend might be the woman directly behind you on the train. Keep in mind that gossiping makes you seem untrustworthy. You may even lose friends and professional contacts when people realize you’re a gossip.
The Habit: Perfectionism
Why you do it: Mom and Dad, who were probably perfectionists, had high expectations. (“Only a B, Mary?”) You define yourself by what you do, yet nothing gets done. How to stop: Train yourself to care less. Deliberately do a poor job when performing a small chore―one that has no professional or personal impact, like doing the dishes or making the bed. “You’ll see the consequences aren’t so dire,” says Cutts. Set time limits for tasks, and use an alarm. There will be no room in the schedule for that “one more thing” to make it perfect. Finally, just for fun, do something at which you don’t excel. If you’re a shower diva (but know you’re no Streisand), try singing lessons. Or play a weekend sport with a team that judiciously ignores the score.
Five Steps for Changing Any Bad Habit
These tips come courtesy of Cherry Pedrick, coauthor of The Habit Change Workbook ($16, amazon.com).
Know when your habit shows up. Identify habit-prone situations. Record how often and where it presents itself.
Know the consequences. List the advantages and disadvantages of keeping—or changing—your habit.
Know an alternative behavior. Develop a competing response that you can employ instead of falling back on your habit.
Know your goals. Make a plan with short-and long-term goals, and reward yourself when you reach them.
Know you're human. Don't beat yourself up if you fall back into your old ways. This is a natural part of change.