How I Started Flossing Regularly (and What it Taught Me About Building Habits)
I used to brush my teeth once a day.
I hate morning breath and the way my mouth feels in the morning, so I was enthusiastic about brushing my teeth as soon as I woke up.
But that was about it for my “oral hygiene”. (Beyond an occasional mouth wash rinse.)
But then I went to the dentist and they basically told me that my gums suck.
I was already losing some bone density in my gums. I looked up the negative effects of gingivitis and that was enough for me to entertain a change.
This is an important step of habit change as determined by Atomic Habits author James Clear.
Up until this point, I couldn’t have cared less about doing more for my oral hygiene.
But once I learned that I was on a negative road, I realized that I need to change my identity and be someone who takes care of their mouth.
I believe these calls to action are important. You might say that you want to be fit, but choose to prioritize it when you see how big your tummy has gotten.
Or say that you want to start a side hustle. But only put in the work when your company goes through a round of layoffs and you realize you might need a backup plan after all.
The kindling has been lit and you got a little smoke going. Now it’s time to start the fire by adding some logs — in this case, systems.
Laws of Behavior Change
James Clear lays out the following four rules for any habit you want to establish or break:
- Cue: Make it obvious/invisible
- Craving: Make it attractive/unattractive
- Response: Make it easy/difficult
- Reward: Make it satisfying/unsatisfying
My first step was to dedicate time to brushing and flossing in the evening. I decided to do it right before bed. (I was able to stack a habit of washing and moisturizing my face before bed.)
Over time, I adjusted my routine to make it something I would consistently do.
First, I bought a WaterPik and placed it on my counter.
This makes it obvious and top-of-mind (law 1: obvious). I also started using a WaterPik instead of flossers because it was faster and easier (law 3: easy).
Additionally, every time I use the WaterPik, there are food particles that come out of my gums. This makes me feel better every time because it makes the effort worth it to get rid of this stuff that would have been in my mouth all night (law 4: satisfying).
Secondly, I bought mouthwash and a separate toothpaste that I use only at night.
It seems excessive to have two tubes of toothpaste at a time. But I realized that I don’t like the flavor of my normal Sensodyne toothpaste in the evening.
To make it more attractive (law 2), I use a sweeter type of toothpaste, like original paste or bubblegum. It makes the whole process much more enjoyable.
Lastly, I spend less time brushing my teeth.
In the morning, I brush my teeth with my electric toothbrush and use it for the entire 2 minutes (30 seconds for each quadrant).
It was important to me that my nightime routine was under two minutes.
Therefore, in the evenings, after I floss, I just quickly polish my teeth with my secondary toothpaste.
It might not be the most optimial for my oral hygiene, but I would rather have a little every day rather than none.
This seems like a lot of thought for something that takes less than 2 minutes a day. But there are a lot of micro-steps that we can take to build positive habits in our life.
As you think through a habit you want to start, consider these questions:
- What’s something I can do, that’s seems excessive, that will make it more likely that I perform this habit?
- What’s something I can buy that makes it more likely that I will do this habit?
- What is a version of this habit that isn’t the most optimal but I know I can consistently do?