Floss One Tooth: How Tiny Habit Changes Can Make All the Difference

istockphoto.com © anna karwowska

There are three ways to change your behavior.

  • You can have an epiphany. If you know the story of Byron Katie’s remarkable turn-around, you have an example of an epiphany. These are hard to engineer, so looking for one to show up can be a long and frustrating wait.
  • You can change your context. When I went to a spa for a week last summer, I awoke every morning and went for a five-mile hike. There is nothing to prevent me from doing that every morning at home; I just don’t. But as long as I stayed in that spa context, the new behavior was easy.
  • You can make “micro-changes,” adjustments so small your brain doesn’t bother to rebel.

Having spent most of two decades studying how humans change behavior (and how they don’t), Stanford University researcher B. J. Fogg has devised a plan to help us finally make some of the changes we’ve wanted. He invites the world into his methods through his website TinyHabits.com

The secret to changing habits, it appears, is to make them so small that they seem trivial. The classic example of how this works involves flossing. I’m going to guess that everyone has been told by their dentist and hygienist that they should floss their teeth for “good oral hygiene.” And I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most people have a collection of little floss samples stacked up in their medicine cabinet because MOST PEOPLE DON’T FLOSS (except the day before their next dentist appointment.) We know it’s good for us. We know that realistically, it takes all of one minute, about the same as brushing. So why don’t most of us take that second minute once a day and floss? It’s a mystery.

And here is what Fogg’s tiny habits method prescribes: floss one tooth. don’t try to cajole yourself into action by saying that you’re going to do one tooth then do them all. Just floss one. Do it every day. And watch what happens. I can tell you what happened to me – one day, about three weeks in, I had an itch for completion. I wanted, needed to floss them all. I wasn’t even particularly aware of the change, which seemed natural and unconscious. And now I can’t not floss. Mission accomplished.

Fogg doesn’t address this question directly, but I believe that adding a habit is simpler than breaking a habit – it’s easier to add flossing than it would be to quit something. However, I am using Fogg’s method of making a micro-change in order to edge out coffee with lots of milk in favor of healthier choices. The strongest habit in my day is to get up, go to the kitchen, and make instant coffee. (A personal note: my friends, who know how much I enjoy good food and how much work I’m willing to go to in order to prepare it, think it’s hilarious that I drink instant coffee most days. They make Cremora jokes. My son, a coffee-lover since the age of two, when coffee yogurt emerged as his favorite flavor, finds it unspeakable. But instant coffee – organic Mount Hagen brand – works for me.)

I began the experiment by linking my new, desired behavior to one that is already entrenched. (My friend and organizing colleague Janine Adams has written about her adventures with taking a job that loomed large and unpleasant and making it happen automatically. You can read more on her Peace of Mind Organizing blog. She also teaches a class on the subject of changing habits. Read more about it at simplify101.) Rather than making a sweeping change, declaring that there would be “no more coffee from now on!”, I went through my accustomed motions, putting water in the kettle, getting out two cups and a spoon, turning on the stove. But in addition I added “getting out a glass and putting a tea bag in it.”

For many days I enjoyed my coffee, then later in the afternoon came back to the cup and tea bag that were waiting and enjoyed my tea then. But after about four weeks of this, suddenly, rather than pouring the water into the coffee cup, I poured it into the tea cup. No drama. No big all-or-nothing resolutions. Just a little micro-shift. This habit is still new, but for now I seem to have successfully replaced my coffee with tea, often herbal tea.
One key to these micro-changes is that they must be specific: “floss one tooth” rather than “do more grooming.” And they must be almost laughably trivial, the sort of task that can be done in 30 seconds or less with virtually no effort, such as “put a tea bag in a glass.”

As I mentioned earlier, one key is to connect these new behaviors to another habit that is already entrenched. It is easier to add flossing one tooth after brushing (an entrenched habit) than it is to add something without another habit to act as the anchor. I find that I have few durable habits for later in the day, so I set out to create one.

Now when I open my computer in the morning (a daily habit) I set an alarm for 4 pm. With this new 4 pm alarm habit in place, I can add end-of-the-day habits: when the 4 pm alarm goes off, I will pick up one paper from my stack of filing. Not file it, just pick it up: remember, the micro-change should be laughably trivial. Guess what has happened to my stack of filing over the past two months? For the first weeks, not much, but then some shift took hold in my brain, and now end-of-day filing is a growing habit.

Decisions are both tiring and time-consuming, so enlisting new habits can be a great benefit for productivity – we get more done with less effort when we choose to do certain things habitually. What little habits would you like to add to your life? What micro-changes will you make? Leave a message here.


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