Emmy Nicholson vividly remembers the day in May that she threw her JUUL out of her bedroom window in Bushwick, New York. The 25-year-old was on her second glass of Malbec. She lived in an apartment overlooking a neighbour’s backyard, and — although she felt a little bad about littering — she was desperate to get rid of a habit that was haunting her. She chucked the USB-like pen out overhand, like a celebrity throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game. “It was a little dramatic,” she says. “But it was worth it.”
Emmy took an important step towards breaking an addictive habit she’d been at for months. But she didn’t quit that day because she was worried about her lungs — it would be months before the first death tied to vaping, and even longer before health- and death-related allegations would be lodged against JUUL. It was a bit more complicated.
In April, she noticed her skin had been suffering. “I was getting bad acne, even though I never had a long-term problem with it,” she says. “Even my mom noticed. I Googled ‘nicotine effect on skin,’ and, sure enough, results popped up. I felt ugly and insecure, and I knew I just needed to get away from it.” So she started to separate herself from her habit: She went to her hometown in Colorado for a week without her JUUL. She also stopped seeing a friend with whom she used to vape. Plus, her favourite JUUL flavour was expensive, and not available in stores anymore because of a 2018 crackdown on the entire vaping industry. All of this — plus tossing the device out the window — helped her quit for good.
“I often think of negative habits as a knot to be untangled,” says BJ Fogg, Ph.D., the founder and director of Stanford University’s Behaviour Design Lab and co-founder of the Tiny Habits Academy. “Often the best place to start isn’t where you think it is. It’s all about pulling the right string, and that can lead to progress.”
What’s tough is: Often, we’re talking about a really, really tangled knot. It can be stupidly hard to break a negative habit. Researchers estimate that about 40 to 50% of our actions each day happen out of habit. Of course, plenty of those daily habits are neutral or positive — getting up and stumbling straight for coffee or grabbing our toothbrush after the shower. But it goes to show, our brains are wired to repeat actions. When your power is out, for instance, you still flick on the light switch when you enter a room even though you know it won’t turn on. It’s a habit, and a deeply ingrained one at that.
OK, the good news. If you know the tricks, you can break any habit. There are people, including Fogg, who have been studying the inner workings of behaviour for decades. They’ve looked at all the data, they’ve tested all the weird methods, and they know exactly which strings to pull that’ll make an entire negative habit unravel. And if you’re trying to develop a new, good habit, they also know how to teach you to stick with positive behaviour changes.
Here is the one big key, according to everyone we spoke to: Start small. We know, it sounds obvious and boring. But it works. And we mean small. Smaller than you’d think.
In Fogg’s new book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, he says if you want to start flossing every night, start by flossing one tooth. Literally, one tooth per night. Floss it (we suggest the top front) and toss out the string. You’re done.
Fogg says this works because it’s not intimidating — and it doesn't take much motivation to get done. When you think about flossing all of your teeth, it feels kind of hard, right? It’ll take some time and you might need multiple pieces of floss and your fingers will get spitty and just… ugh. But anyone can do one tooth. It gets you past the hardest part of forming a new habit, which is starting. (Plus, once you’ve started, you might just go ahead and floss more teeth.)
This technique also prevents a second roadblock that regularly trips people up: how hard we are on ourselves when we slip up. We’re bummed out that we didn’t stick with it, and can feel like we’ve failed. But if it’s just one tooth, the stakes are lower, which actually makes it more likely that you’ll pick it back up after a day or even a week off. It’s easy to get started again.
It works for other habits too. Want to work out more? Start by doing three squats a day. Want to eat more vegetables? Start eating one carrot stick with lunch.
“Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action,” writes habit expert James Clear’s in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way To Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. “Improving by 1% isn’t particularly notable — sometimes it isn’t even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run.”
Bite-sized changes also remove financial barriers that tend to hold people back from making lasting positive changes.
“It can be a challenge for someone with limited income to find foods that they like, and can afford and that are considered healthy,” Fogg acknowledges. “But it comes back to my tiny habits method. I’d recommend to them to start small. Make a list of all the healthy food in their price range, and then go through that list and circle the things that they would enjoy eating.” Change can start with something as small as a list, and can grow from there.
Okay, flossing your teeth is nice, but how do you break a bad habit? Again, start small. You’re trying to quit vaping, or lay off the coffee after lunch, or stop biting your nails. You may assume you should try to cut back in little ways. But actually, Fogg suggests taking an even smaller step: “Think to yourself, how can I make this harder to do?”
Asking this question helps because it makes you examine what’s prompting you to use that e-cig or pour another mug of coffee. Is it a time a day? A friend who encourages you? A place you go?
Your home, for example, is full of prompts that trigger us to do things each day, says Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. Maybe the first thing you do when you get home is plop down on your couch and hit your vape pen. If you want to stop this behaviour, you could make a point of doing something else when you walk in the door, like changing into workout clothes or washing your hands. If you’re trying to lay off the coffee, you could make it harder by buying beans instead of grounds, so you have the added step of using a grinder every time you want a cup.
Wood says changing your prompts can help you avoid triggers that cause you to do what you don’t want to do, allowing you to break them more easily.
Or, hey, you could move. Author David Sedaris decamped to Japan for three months to quit smoking. The complete environment change effectively removed all his prompts. “I would recommend it,” Sedaris joked to Jon Stewart during an interview on The Daily Show. “It costs $23,000" (approximately £17,800).
However, Clear recommends a more measured approach. “Major life changes are rare,” he says. “Most people are not moving to Japan or having a baby or taking a new job every year. Presumably, you don't want to wait until you have a radical lifestyle change to make a positive shift in your habits. Thus, the "1% better" approach is much more useful for day-to-day improvement.”
Another tip: Be open to changing your mind about what habit you’re trying to ditch or form. Say you want to pick up running. The fact is, you won’t stick with it if you hate everything about it — including the way your boobs bounce and your thighs chafe. If you’re too attached to this specific goal, however, you’ll likely try it for a while, be miserable, decide it’s not worth it, then quit.
A better strategy is to get clear about a few reasons you want to pick up or drop a habit. Say you want to run because you want to move more. Your BFF is a jogger so you’d like to hit the park paths with her. You crave more fresh air. But then you find out you positively hate running. You still have options that’ll feel like a win. You could pivot to another form of exercise, maybe even one that involves getting outside or being with friends, such as hiking. “Whatever you do, it should align with your wants and your values,” explains Judy Ho, Ph.D. and author of Stop Self Sabotage. “Just because a goal is right for your friend, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.”
Rachel Joyce, 34, ended up using Ho’s strategy when she decided to start meditating a few years ago. She tried to incorporate it into her daily routine, hoping it could improve her mood, lessen her anxiety, and boost her confidence. But it didn’t feel quite true to her personality, and she couldn’t keep up with it. She looked in the mirror and tried to think about what else could make her feel better in the same way. The answer: Lipstick. “Mindfulness is great and all... but it doesn’t really feel inherently authentic to who I am,” she says. “But something that does the same thing for me is wearing lipstick. So on days when I feel down and meditating seems like a daunting task, swiping on my favourite mauve Fempower Beauty lipstick is easy… It goes back to the fact that it feels so ‘me.’” For Joyce, this small act gave her the same outcome she hoped meditating would — it was just a different means to the ending she wanted.
Fogg agrees that a habit has to be or lead to something you want. “Instead of doing something you feel like you should do like making your bed, go for the things you’re excited about,” he says.
Another way to think about it: You aren’t just changing your behaviour — you’re changing your identity, Clear says. You’re not picking up the habit of running. You’re becoming a runner. It’s an important distinction. If you just want to get into the habit of running, you may lose steam or have a “now what?” moment after a few weeks of doing it regularly. If you’ve taken on the identity of a runner, you won’t.
So these are the general rules of habits: take very small steps; remove bad-habit triggers to make it hard for yourself to fail; be flexible with the details.
These tactics worked for Emmy, who hasn’t bought another JUUL since she threw her e-cig out the window. She even keeps a photo on her phone of an especially bad breakout around her chin, highlighted by a burgundy turtleneck she was wearing at the time. Whenever she thinks about vaping again she looks at it. “I know it sounds shallow, but I’m single, and how am I gonna meet someone when I feel so bad about my skin?” she says. “It’s just not an option anymore.”