Habit Forming

On hacking our own behavior



My first desktop computer cost $3,500 in 1986. When I learned how to download international stock market data, it was exhilarating, as if contacting extraterrestrial sources. Not many had a desktop computer back then, so I thought it would give me a trading edge. I was disappointed.

That computer was clunky, with but a fraction of the speed and capacity of my $500 IBM laptop today. The PC often crashed, and I had to learn how to fix it. I studied a thick manual about DOS commands and reprogrammed its operating system. It took several tries, but finally, it behaved on booting up.

In those days I suffered the habit of biting my nails whenever nervous or anxious, so much so that my fingers bled. I tried many things to stop this. A bitter potion on my finger tips proved useless. Snapping an elastic on my wrist after each nibble didn’t stop it. The embarrassment of chewing on my disfigured fingers in public had no effect on breaking this bad habit. Nothing worked.

Maybe I could somehow reprogram my mind to stop nibbling at my fingers. I read about altering the “line commands” embedded in the human brain, which in subtle ways is far superior to the newest sophisticated Artificial Intelligence. I learned that we have brief access to the brain’s subconscious “line codes” twice a day for maybe two minutes— just as we wake and fall asleep. That’s when the changing of the guard occurs—those alert censors protecting the mind against subliminal access. When that window to the subconscious opens, I’d need to swiftly insert a new line command in the form of a concise affirmation to change the unwanted behavior.

I prepared a positive suggestion: “Handle high stress by tapping my index finger.” Negative phrasing would fail because it implies rejection. “Never bite my fingernails” has negative phrasing that won’t do.

That embedded line command worked and still holds firm. My behavior is much different when I’m under stress, as in trading stocks, which can be an emotional rollercoaster. I don’t bite my fingernails but tap my index finger. It took about six weeks repeating that implantation process before realizing the desired effect. If that unwanted habit were to return, I’d repeat the whole process with a different affirmation.

I found a similar process works if I’m stuck composing an essay. In that twilight zone, when falling asleep, I make a request for inspiration, and the next morning I have it. When avoidance keeps me from describing a painful experience, this process overcomes my writer’s block. The next day I can describe the event.

New Age agnostics say it’s the magic of believing, psychologists label it auto-suggestion, and devout religious folk call it prayer of petition. Perhaps it is akin to what Einstein called “spooky action” — what cloud-based quantum computers can do. Such machines, however, are only a crude expression of the human mind’s vast potential. Mankind shall achieve whatever it has believed and conceived. Having the faith of a little child, I’ve come to believe that all things are possible (cf. Mark 9:23).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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