As far back as I can remember, I have been trying to quit a bad habit. First, it was sucking my thumb. Then it was biting my nails. Eventually, as an adult, I was able to leave my nails alone. Instead, I would pick and chew the skin around my nails, often to the point of bleeding. I remember vividly an encounter I had with a customer during my first restaurant job. She noticed the redness and scabs around my nails and told me I needed to quit chewing my fingers, and what a nasty habit. I was embarrassed, but I knew she was right. (I also laughed a bit at the irony as she was a smoker.) I have tried so many times to quit; I had about lost hope it could ever happen. However, I am thrilled to share that I have not picked or chewed for more than a month! I can say unequivocally that I have quit. I committed to doing it, and I followed through. Here are the strategies that helped me accomplish this major milestone:

Embrace the Need for Accountability

A couple of years ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies, motivated by hearing her interviewed on KERA Think. In the book, Rubin explains how any given individual has a certain pattern in how they respond to expectations. When I read the section about “obligers,” it just clicked. I finally understood why I had so little success in attaining the goals I would set. Obligers respond only to outer expectations. Therefore, the key to successful habit change is to have accountability (so you’re meeting an outer vs. inner expectation). This can be accomplished in many ways, though sometimes the solution is not obvious. Nobody cared as much as I did if I quit chewing my fingers. I did, however, seek accountability in a couple of ways. First, I gave my daughter permission to chastise me if she saw my fingers in my mouth. She would say, “Mommy, don’t chew on your fingers, I don’t want you to bleed.” Second, I was very open and public about the fact that I was trying to quit, in person and on social media. I added “Quit chewing cuticles” to my “20 for 2020” list (also a Gretchen Rubin idea) and posted the list on Instagram. A longtime friend commented, laughing that I still had not quit (she’s allowed, she knows me well) which produced a healthy, motivating shame.

But this alone was not enough.

Attack the Underlying Problem

My habit was two-fold: picking and chewing. I think that the picking was mostly due to anxiety, and the chewing was motivated by the desire to smooth (it doesn’t work, but that’s what you think you’re trying to achieve). I noticed that an abundance of caffeine or sugar could easily lead to obsessive picking, so I tried to avoid too much of either. I am somewhat prone to anxiety, but I am able to keep it at a low level by exercising, sleeping enough, practicing self-care, and meeting with a counselor consistently. When faced with extra stress or anxiety, I had to consciously choose to manage it in a way other than picking and chewing my cuticles.

The difficult fact about this habit is that, since the skin has been stripped and regrown over and over again, it becomes pretty rough. I finally got it entrenched in my brain that chewing would only increase the roughness, so instead, I chose actions that would actually produce smoother skin. I use cuticle nippers on any area I am tempted to pick. I have become a lotion junkie, applying it frequently. I like this JR Watkins one the most but have used many other brands. I’ve found that shea butter is the key ingredient for my skin. I keep tubes of lotion in my purse, my car, on my desk, and by my bathroom sink. Plus, the action of rubbing in the lotion has replaced the action of picking. At bedtime, I use this amazing Neutrogena lotion. It really sped up the healing process.

Level of Investment = Level of Commitment

If I could afford it, I’d get a weekly manicure at a salon. Since that’s not in the budget, I purchased tools to do at-home manicures. Yes, it takes time and intentionality, but that’s not a problem if you’re really committed to the goal. I have found that Sally Beauty is the best place to buy “fine” nail files and buffer blocks which both smooth away roughness (on the nail and cuticle) without being too harsh. I also swear by Essie’s Apricot Cuticle Oil. My nails themselves have really benefitted from this strengthening clear coat—wearing even just a base coat motivates me to leave my nails and cuticles alone so it won’t peel.

Meaningful and Relevant Reward

In December, when I initially committed to quitting, my reward was the ColorStreet nail strips that I had ordered. I had participated in an online party, curious about this product that would make my nails look stylish without the dry time and would last longer than regular polish. (Side note: I have tried acrylic nails, gel polish, and the powder “dip” — they all damaged my nails.) The first set I tried did not go on as easily or as perfectly as I had hoped, but I have a couple more sets to play with. In other words, the jury is still out.

The satisfaction of knowing I finally conquered this habit is a great reward in and of itself. However, in addition, I am loving wearing fun colors of polish. I have had my nails painted at the salon a couple of times (much cheaper than a full manicure). I’ve also purchased various brands of polishes and top coats that are highly recommended. So far, the combination of OPI color and Seche Vive Instant Gel Effect Top Coat is pretty killer!

I hope this is helpful for others who are trying to kick the same habit, or even for those who have different bad habits. If you are interested in reading more about quitting this specific habit, check out these great articles:

Every Strategy I’ve Tried to Stop Picking My Cuticles, Ranked

8 Expert-Approved Strategies To Finally Stop Picking & Biting Your Cuticles

How I Conquered My Picking Habit, Once and For All