Habit acquisition: flossing

October 2, 2011 – 12:51 pm

I used to suck at flossing. I’d do it the day after a dentist visit, maybe two, and then skip a day, then feel guilty, then keep skipping, then give up, and then at my next dental visit, Dr. Chad would probe my bleeding gums and say “You know, Mel, you should floss every day.”

I knew. I’d read the books on plaque and tartar. And by “the books” I mean the old medical textbooks that my mother, a retired dentist, used to keep in our basement. I’d read all about the correlation between good oral health and all sorts of things like reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Even as a pragmatic engineer who pulled the “ah, but that doesn’t imply causation” flag, I knew that 30 seconds a day meant about 3 hours a year, which was way faster and cheaper than a cavity-drilling appointment. I’d had plenty of those before.

But now I’m pretty sure I’ve nailed it. I’ve gone a solid month without skipping a day. The secret? floss picks.


Public domain image by Martin Pippin

Here’s the deal. Normal floss just sits there, guilt-inducing on your counter. It’s good for folks who are already in the habit; you floss, yay! Every few months you run out of floss because you’re flossing, yay! But what I needed was a far more frequent you flossed, yay! that would make me feel all warm and fuzzy and floss so I could get that lovely immediate little cognitive kick. I needed something that would stare me in the face and go you’re building a new habit, yay! I needed a Seinfeld Chain.

So why not use the floss itself for that? Here’s how it works.

  1. Every Saturday, I put 7 floss picks in a cup that sits on the counter of my sink, the same one my toothbrush sits in. The goal is to empty the cup before the following Saturday.
  2. And then I use one. There are now 6 floss picks in the cup. Yay! I’m winning already!
  3. Every morning when I grab my toothbrush, I touch the picks. I’m staring at the picks. They look at me and go build a new habit yay? They’re right there. I don’t have to fumble with unspooling something from a tiny case.
  4. And I floss! New habit, yay!

On the weeks I’ll be traveling, I put the appropriate number of floss picks in my cup and the appropriate number in my approved-by-the-TSA zip-top plastic baggie. Then the goal is to empty the bag of floss picks before I get home. The progress bar is always there; I always know how well I’m doing (very well! yay!) and I have no excuse to say “uh, I forgot” or “uh, I didn’t see it,” because I almost can’t get my toothbrush out of the bag or out of the glass without picking up a floss pick along with it. And I get to start the day with a little zomg I got myself to floss, I rock, yay!

And you know what? My gums do feel better. So there. Gamification for great justice. And oral hygiene.

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