After every visit to my dentist I promise myself to REALLY start flossing every day! But my life has changed after reading this article about building habits. I may have gotten it all wrong. Instead of setting the bar at a world record high, I should start setting smaller goals, which I’m more likely to achieve and thus feel rewarded and motivated to go higher. The author of the article – Belle Beth Cooper – provides us with four easy to follow steps for starting with new habits:

  • Start small: Repeat a tiny habit daily
  • Focus on one habit at a time
  • Remove barriers: Have everything you need at hand
  • Stack habits: Build new routines onto existing ones

Interestingly she exemplifies her point for the first step with flossing, which caught my attention:

Say you want to floss every night, but you haven’t flossed for years. If you take up flossing out of the blue and expect to spend 10 minutes doing it every night, you probably won’t last more than a week. It’s a very big ask.

But starting small is so effective, it’s almost like a super power. Here’s how it would work for flossing: you take the tiniest part of the habit you can work with—in this case, it would be to floss just one tooth. It’s still considered flossing, but you won’t make huge leaps in dental hygiene this way.

But here’s where it gets powerful: at first, you focus on just flossing one tooth every night. And you stick with it for more than a week. Then, more than two. Then three, four weeks. You can stick with this habit because it’s so easy. There’s barely any effort involved with flossing one tooth, so it’s hard to make an excuse not to do it. And once it’s become easy and automatic to floss one tooth, you start flossing two.

For a while, you floss two teeth every night. Then, you increase to three. And slowly you work your way up, never taking such a big leap that it becomes a chore.

By starting small you focus on making the behavior automatic, before you worry about making the behavior big enough that it produces a useful outcome.

It’s as easy as this. So the next time one of your patients faithfully promises you to start flossing daily you may advise him/her to just start flossing one single tooth to start with. Sounds silly – but the psychology behind it makes total sense.

According to a study, it takes about 66 days to build a new habit, so almost 2 months. Starting small is a very important success factor, but you also need some stamina and focus on this new habit for at least that long. As soon as you start multitasking or trying to build too many new habits at a time – you’re likely to fail.

Belle Beth Cooper also suggests, that you are more likely to adopt the new habit – in this case flossing – if you have everything at hand where you need it. For dental flossing this would mean that you put your dental floss prominently in your bath room. Don’t close it away – put it in the spotlight. Or maybe a fun poster will positively remind you to floss. There is tons of material available online. Personally I would start searching on Pinterest:

It just needs that little tipping point Malcolm Gladwell says. Why don’t you provide your patients with a fun flossing starter kit with some floss and this (or any other) poster? Science also suggests that peer pressure might be a powerful tool stop or start a new habit. Ask your patients to commit to a flossing-goal in your practice (e.g. I will floss one tooth per day for the next two weeks), take a picture of your patient and post in on your Facebook page together with his quote. And make sure to reward him (publicly) if he reaches his goal. The positive side-effect: You generate some positive and fun buzz around your practice 😉

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