Who is Mandy?
In Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, ‘The Power of Habit’ he tells the story of a chronic nailbiter named Mandy. Mandy is a healthy and happy 24 year old graduate student at the Mississippi state University. She’s friendly, confident and approachable on the outside, but internally, her nail biting habit gets so bad, she starts looking for professional help.
This post provides more insight into how Mandy managed to stop biting her nails. In my opinion, this is the only powerful success story in Duhigg’s book.
What can you learn from Mandy’s success story?
You need to identify your habit cues: To change a debilitating habit, you need to identify the most common triggers that lead to your downfall. Here’s a list of the triggers that would spark Mandy’s nail biting sessions:
- Attending classes at University
In Mandy’s case, she used a simple index card to keep track of her urges, and every time she managed to overcome the urge.
She looked for help and found habit reversal therapy: I think it is safe to say that if Mandy had never been introduced to habit reversal therapy, she could still be a chronic nail biter today. This is not to say that therapy is required, but the feedback and emotional support that a therapist can offer can be a gamechanger for a lot of people.
Also, it is actually quite lucky that Mandy was matched up with a habit reversal specialist. Most nail biters won’t be so lucky. The good news is that by practicing the techniques of habit reversal therapy, it is entirely possible that you can break your nail biting habit without seeing a therapist.
She understood the destructive power of the domino effect
This is arguably the most destructive force that chronic nail biters have to contend with. It starts off with a lie that we love to tell ourselves. “I’ll just bite this one nail. Then my cravings will be gone, and I can go on with my life”. But it never plays out this way. I need to recite Mandy’s thoughts on this particular point:
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.
This is why you have to identify the habit cues. Once that first nail is in your mouth, it’s too late. Whether you like it or not, you have just committed to a nail biting session that you will soon regret.
How exactly did Mandy stop biting her nails
Here is the summarized version of what Mandy did to stop biting her nails
1) She used an index card to measure her cues (habit triggers)
With this card, she would jot down a checkmark every time she felt the urge to bite her nails. She would also jot down a hash mark every time she managed to override the nail biting urge.
2) She practiced competing response therapy. The goal here is to practice a new routine every time you feel the urge to bite your nails. This excerpt clarifies exactly how Mandy practiced competing response therapy.
“Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, her therapist 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”.
In other words, she would do something else, like rubbing her arm, that would provide a mild physical sensation without causing any harm. The intention was to replace her destructive default response (biting her nails) with a benign alternative (rubbing her arm). If practiced repeatedly over time, competing response therapy can help you eliminate a bad habit. It is the basis of habit reversal therapy.
3) She received therapy sessions with a habit reversal specialist: In some respects, Duhigg discounts the importance of the therapy sessions in Mandy’s recovery. Clearly the emotional support and accountability that a therapist can provide can be hugely beneficial for chronic nail biters. In the case of Mandy, she had weekly sessions and very clear instructions that she needed to follow as part of her treatment.
How long did it take Mandy to stop biting her nails?
This is probably the most amazing aspect of Mandy’s story. She managed to reverse a lifetime of nail biting in approximately 30 days. This shows you just how effective habit reversal training can be if you are committed to stopping, and you practice these techniques daily.
Can you achieve similar results?
There are no guarantees in the troublesome world of bad habits. However, I will say this.
If you use an index card to measure all your nail biting cues, and you practice competing response therapy in your own capacity every day for the next 2 months, there is a strong possibility that you can break this habit.
If a Mississippi graduate by the name of Mandy was able to break her nail biting habit using these simple techniques, it stands to reason that you can to.
What should you do next?
1) Start measuring your habit triggers: To do this, I would suggest that you download a ‘counter app’ that will allow you to measure your urges, and every time you overcome the urge (this is essentially what Mandy did, but you are just using a smartphone)
2) Commit to a competing response: I would recommend clasping your hands together 4 times. You need to spend at least 10 minutes a day practicing this competing response. First prize is to initiate the competing response, every time you feel the urge to bite your nails.
3) Do this every single day for the next 60 days: That might sound like a lot, but forming a new habit actually takes about 66 days. By committing to a 2 month challenge, you could literally knock this habit out of your life, forever.