Whether it’s finger tapping, leg shaking, hair twirling, or knuckle cracking, nervous habits have a tendency to take control. Working on the root causes of anxiety can take significant time and effort. But when your nervous habit is causing you physical pain and discomfort, it might be time to take a tactical approach. For me, that habit was definitely nail-biting.
I’ll start this off by saying that it wasn’t easy. Nail-biting had been a 16-year habit for me, and an unpleasant one at that. For context, I’d say I was a middle-of-the-road addict: I would bite them right up to the nailbed, but usually not beyond. The exception was back in middle school, where a combination of stress and boredom really took a toll on my fingers. It hurt! Not to mention the hangnails, infections, and inability to scratch or grasp anything that needed nails. At that point, I knew it was time to stop, but I didn’t really know where to start. It was so ingrained in everything I did.
My Early Attempts to Quit
This was my starting point in 2014 — and this was nowhere near the worst of it!
Like most people, the first thing I tried was straight willpower. It was just a habit, right? All I needed to do was not bite my nails. Simple enough — but not easy. I could last about a week or two this way (and only when I was really trying). But when it came time to clip my nails shorter so they wouldn’t break or tear, I’d just bite them off and start all over again. The second one of my nails had a jagged edge, I knew I was screwed. It took me a long time to finally figure out that I should carry a nail file with me, but even that solution wasn’t very effective since I was prone to forget about it.
Next I tried keeping my nails painted. A number of problems arose from this:
- It was hard to keep up — every time the polish started to chip off, I’d be back to biting.
- My job at the time only allowed clear nail polish. Since I couldn’t see it to remember it was there, I’d end up biting anyway.
- I ended up not minding the taste of it. Gross, I know, but that’s the truth.
Then there were the drastic measures: bandages on my fingertips, gloves everywhere all the time, that gross-tasting polish stuff. They all failed. None were consistent enough to make a lasting difference.
Could Apps be the Key to Quitting?
About a year ago, I started getting really excited about apps for everything — games and stores and fitness and organizing and finance and writing… And it finally occurred to me that there must be an app to help people quit nail-biting habits. When I sought them out, I found lots!
Unfortunately, most of them didn’t suit my needs exactly. In fact, many were general habit apps, and a lot of them tracked on a day-to-day basis. Back then, it had become so bad that I couldn’t even make it a day without biting my nails. It was pretty demotivating to see long streaks of “missed” days. Not to mention, if I happened to bite my nails in the morning, I would treat it like a free-for-all and end up biting them straight through the day. it would all look the same on a habit tracker anyway!
Much further down on the Google Play search list, however, I found a funny little app simply called “Nail Biting“. It turned out to be exactly what I needed.
App #1: “Nail Biting”
Yes, that’s the front screen of the app — and that’s basically its entire functionality. You open up the app and press the “I DID IT” button whenever you bite. To be clear, it was a little annoying to have to open the app every time (I would have preferred a widget). But because the app itself is so simple, the loading time was negligible.
The best part was the granularity of the statistics:
Hourly! So exciting! I used this app on its own for a few weeks. I had slip-ups now and then, but my successful stretches were definitely increasing in length. It was time to level up!
App #2: HabitBull
Once I was able to go a day or two without biting, I added another app to the mix: HabitBull (the free version). It’s a multi-habit tracking app, with comments, reminders, and streak tracking.
This is my real progress back in April. The speech bubbles indicate that I’ve added comments to those days.
I would log my nail-biting in the Nail Biting app throughout the day, and then transfer the number of times in the day over to HabitBull before bed. I would also add comments to days when I filed or clipped my nails, since those were they days I struggled the most. It was the combination of mindfulness and accountability (in the form of red “missed” days) that made the difference. Plus, I love charts.
It took me a few false starts on HabitBull, but I can finally say that I no longer bite my nails! I stopped using HabitBull in August, and haven’t had to look back since.
To clarify: I no longer bite my nails. I still do, on occasion, pick at them, tear them, or randomly find that I’ve got my fingertip in my mouth after zoning out for a while. I’m working on those things. The longer I go without biting my nails, though, the easier the other pieces of the puzzle are to leave behind.
Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed that my nail-bed doesn’t seem to be growing back. Every time I clip my nails, it sort of looks like I’m starting from scratch (but still more put together). So a warning to you nail-biters out there: even if you quit, your nails may never be as good as new.
Do you struggle with nail-biting or other nervous habits? Share your tips for kicking them to the curb in the comments below!