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Dr. Paul LatimerAt some point in life, most of us develop a bad habit or two. Repetitive behaviours such as nail biting, throat clearing, hair pulling or picking at skin can be harmful to our bodies but can also be irritating to those around us.

Kicking a bad habit can often seem like a high hurdle in the race of life, but is not an impossible task. Here are a few tips to help:

  1. Get rid of self-defeating attitudes about your habit. Instead of thinking that you will never figure out a way to break the habit, consider that you simply haven’t found a way to do it yet. Habits can be broken.
  2. It is important to be aware of the habit. You might realize that your nail beds are sore and bleeding from biting them, but not notice when you are actually in the process of doing the damage. Habits become automatic, and the first step to kicking a habit is to become aware of it.
  3. Start by consciously paying attention to your behaviour and thinking about it as you do it. Sometimes it is helpful to wear a wrist counter and keep track of every time the habit occurs.
  4. If you have difficulty paying close attention to the habit on your own, it can be beneficial to ask a spouse or other trusted loved one to point out the behaviour whenever he or she notices it. You cannot stop something that you are unaware of. Not only will this help to raise your awareness, but involving someone you trust will give you support.
  5. Take note of when the behaviour occurs. Do you pull your hair or bite your nails while you watch TV? Or when you are feeling thoughtful? Sometimes, improvement can occur simply by reducing the associated activities.
  6. Engage in reciprocally incompatible behaviours whenever the habit is about to occur. For example, every time you notice your hand straying to your mouth (in the case of nail biting), make a fist, or squeeze something in your hand for 30 to 60 seconds.
  7. A written contract with yourself can also be useful. The contract should include details and a timeline for breaking your habit. Setting up written rewards and penalties for your progress can be a helpful motivator.
  8. Set a big reward for fulfillment of the contract and small rewards for progress along the way. Similarly, have penalties in place for times when you don’t reach the goals set out in your contract.
  9. Know that including a loved one in your quest to kick a bad habit might help you stick with your contract. Social reinforcement, such as praise for doing better, is usually very powerful.

These techniques can help in an attempt to quit most habits. Addictions such as smoking may also be improved using these techniques, but keep in mind that these are more than simple habits and may require the assistance of peer support groups and/or professionals.

Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.

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