Earlier this Summer, I went to a new dentist.
A Persian dentist. Not that his ethnicity really matters in this context, but I suppose some part of me has been craving more interaction with my culture. Maybe I just wanted someone to speak Farsi with? Or maybe I’ve just been brainwashed my entire life to believe that the best dentists are Persian?
Anyway, per usual, the dentist floss-shamed me. Listen, you know what I’m talking about. We all belong to one of the following groups:
1) The staggering 20% of people who actually floss twice daily (studies vary on this statistic).
2) The rest of us who lie to our dentist about flossing regularity.
If you’re part of group #2, you’ve been floss-shamed.
Furthermore, even if you do lie, it never works. They know. They can tell. Personally, I’ve never been a daily flosser; I’m not ashamed to admit it, especially since I know 80% of you feel me on this.
I’m one of those people with teeth you love to hate, because I’ve just gotten lucky. I could say it’s genetics, but the truth is both my parents have had an enormous amount of dental trouble.
And while I was not a daily flosser prior to this dentist visit, I did brush my teeth thoroughly and twice daily (always after coffee or wine). I don’t smoke. I religiously wear my night guard since I grind my teeth at night (so sexy). And in my 33 years I’ve only had one cavity. And even that one cavity did not show up until I was 23.
Go ahead, hate me.
My teeth aren’t perfect, by any means. There has been a bit of damage from years of grinding without knowing it. I have a little chip on one of my front teeth—the result of a retail mishap when I worked at Macy’s as a teenager (don’t ask).
The little gap between my two front teeth has seen better days. My overbite has, thankfully, halted it’s movement and is at an acceptable place. But to be honest with you, I kind of like how imperfect they are—they have character.
When I was a kid, however, I wanted braces SO EFFING BAD.
I probably could have benefitted from them, but not enough for my Dad to justify the cost. For some reason I have yet to understand myself, I thought braces and retainers were so cool. I used to uncoil paper clips and fit them to my teeth as fake retainers.
I was a weird kid.
Anyway, flossing. So this guy-this really talented, highly recommend Persian dentist-he floss-shamed the shit out of me. First he looks in my mouth and says “what beautiful teeth,” and I’m like “yeah for real my teeth are the best!”
And not even 2 minutes later he’s scolding me for not flossing.
“Well, I floss in intervals,” I joke, referring to the fact that I forget to floss for several days and then feel really great about myself and super accomplished on the one day I remember.
Whew! I flossed! Check that off the list until next week…
He doesn’t think I’m funny. I laugh nervously. What is it about sitting in that chair that always makes you feel like you’re in trouble? Is dental guilt a thing? Because if it isn’t, I think we need to make it a thing.
“You have cavities forming everywhere,” he says, as he shows me the x-rays on his laptop. It turns out that everywhere is just 3 spots, but he likes to be dramatic, I’m guessing. Scare tactics, and such.
He tells me he can “let me slide” this time, but that if I don’t start flossing regularly I’m going to be in big trouble. He even goes as far as to say I can stop brushing my teeth altogether and JUST floss, and I’d be doing myself a favor.
Well, I get the sentiment, but I really don’t want to think about the state of my marriage should I suddenly stop brushing my teeth altogether.
So, he convinces me to buy this high-tech electric toothbrush from him (which I am kind of in love with, actually), and sends me off with a huge bag containing the toothbrush, extra brush heads, mouthwash, toothpaste, and various accoutrements.
Curiously, no floss.
I stop at Whole Foods on my way home from the dentist and pick up floss (I love this Dessert Essence Dental Tape). All we’ve got at home are those “dental picks” which are apparently the second-rate tool of the flossing world. They’re like the Atlantic City of flossing—good enough if that’s all you’ve got, but not as good as Vegas and everybody knows it.
So I get REAL FLOSS. And three packs, no less, so I can stash them everywhere. I’m like a magician when it comes to things I pull out of my purse. Oh you need a bandaid? A baby wipe? A tampon? I gotchu.
That evening I was absolutely delighted to use my new high-tech toothbrush. It lights up green to tell you when 30 seconds have elapsed so you can move to a new section. Red lights tell you that you’re brushing too hard. IT EVEN HAS BLUETOOTH CAPABILITY (although I’m not quite sure what for).
You guys, I get excited about stuff like this. When I buy a new pair of leggings, I can’t wait to go the gym. If I get a new cast iron skillet, cooking becomes even more exciting than usual.
Fresh lint rollers mean I’m running around the house, happily ridding the furniture of dog hair. New bikinis make beach days that much beachier. You get the idea. It’s not so much that I like “stuff,” as I like what that stuff allows me to do.
This new toothbrush got me pumped about dental care. So I brushed (30 seconds in each quadrant!), rinsed, and then…
The next day, I did the same thing morning and evening. I ate some grapefruit slices on the beach and pulled out my floss pack right there on the sand. No shame in my floss game.
I’ve subsequently continued this regimen for the last TWO MONTHS, and it is officially the longest I have ever committed to a flossing routine. I feel accomplished, motivated, and pretty damn proud of myself.
I can’t stop looking at my teeth.
When I go back to the dentist in December to get my next cleaning, I have every intention of sitting in that chair without being scolded. I imagine myself beaming and saying, “I flossed every single day, thank-you-very-much.”
So far, the habit feels like it’s catching on. Sources differ on how long it takes a habit to truly stick (typically between 21 and 90 days), but I’d say two months is pretty damn solid. Flossing is a part of my routine now–it’s non-negotiable.
What I want to share with you today isn’t actually my thoughts on dental hygiene—although I do think you should floss every day as well (obviously I’m a convert now). What I really want to talk about is the art of forming habits.
There are a few key reasons why I was able to commit to this new habit, and some specific mindset strategies that will help me continue to sustain it.
1) I made a decision to focus on ONE THING.
When I decided to commit to a flossing routine, I was already automatically brushing my teeth after my morning coffee and before bed. I have solid am/pm routines that include skin care, dental care, and mental care (reading, meditation, etc). I didn’t suddenly try to do all those things at once–those things are already habits.
Instead, I focused on adding just one small habit to my routine. Just one. This means that rather than expending a ton of mental energy on several tasks, I narrowed my focus and was able to expend just a small amount of energy towards flossing.
Often when we make a choice to cultivate positive change, we try to do all the things, all the time. We go hard as hell, full speed ahead…for a few days, maybe even a week or a month. And then, inevitably, we revert back to old habits. It’s too much. Too much mental energy. Too much physical energy. Too much to remember.
And if we try to do all the things, and one day we forget or decide to skip just one of those things, one by one the dominos fall. Before we know it, we’ve ended up right where we started. Choosing to either add one habit or subtract one habit is the key to being able to stick to it.
(It’s important to note, however, that should you decide to subtract something negative, it does help to simultaneously add something positive.)
2) I made it easy on myself.
I bought a new toothbrush I was excited to use, kept floss in my purse, and set up all my dental care products on my sink–instead of in a drawer. Everything I needed was in plain sight. Essentially, I made the process as easy on myself as possible.
Previously, our (second rate) dental picks were in a bathroom drawer. It doesn’t seem like much, but not having to look right at them every time I was in the bathroom was all it took for me to forget they even existed.
When trying to adopt a new habit such as morning workouts or Sunday meal prep, make it as easy on yourself as possible–the path of least resistance. The less mental energy you have to expend, the more likely you’ll be to
complete the task.
If you want to workout in the morning, set your gym clothes out the night before, choose a gym that is very close to your house, enlist a friend to come with you or hold you accountable, pick a workout that you actually enjoy–something you can look forward to.
If you want to start a weekly meal prep, start small with just preparing the protein in advance. Buy pre-packaged, pre-cut, pre-washed veggies. Make simple meals. Get a cute new lunch box or bento box that you’ll look forward to packing.
Make the entire process as easy on yourself as possible, and you will ensure success.
3) I had a powerful WHY.
You guys. I don’t want cavities.
I really don’t. I don’t want to have to spend MORE time in the dentist’s chair than is necessary, and I don’t want to inconvenience of having to go in for multiple visits to fill cavities. Furthermore, I don’t want to end up like my parents, needing root canals and false teeth. I don’t want to end up needing a ton of dental work in the future and wasting time and money on something that could have been prevented.
No thank you.
My previous dentist told me everything was A-OK. This new guy laid it out for me: “If you don’t start flossing you WILL need fillings the next time I see you.”
I really don’t want that. So I made saving my valuable time my WHY. Time is our only non-renewable resource, and I prefer to spend mine doing fun activities with my family or enriching my life with exercise, books, and travel. If I could spend just a few minutes a day to spare myself a big headache in the future, I was willing to do that.
Think about your WHY. Why do you want to start exercising? Why do you want to eat more veggies or protein? Why do you want to work harder in your profession? If the motivating factor is money or fat loss, you won’t likely get very far. While they do seem like the obvious choices, they aren’t very powerful or sustainable motivators.
Now, you want to lose weight so that you play with your kids? You want to stay healthy so you can live a long life? You want to get in better shape in order to run a race or climb a mountain? Those are powerful WHYs.
You want to make more money so you can travel? Buy a boat and have adventures with your family? Put away a savings to pay for college or insure retirement?
Think about your WHY. If it’s just money or pounds lost, it’s not going to cut it. You need to dig deep and find the real WHY, or as best-selling author Shawn Achor calls it–your meaning markers.
4) I envisioned the end-game.
I don’t like losing.
If I can be honest, I’m actually incredibly competitive–but I’m the type of competitive person that says things like, “Oh, I’m not really that competitive.”
So when I decide to do something, I am determined to WIN. Obviously winning doesn’t necessarily mean that other people lose, especially as it pertains to flossing (everybody wins!). But I still like winning; who doesn’t like winning?
When it comes to developing new habits like flossing or getting to yoga class twice a week, or cutting out bad habits like mindless snacking, I envision how I’ll feel when those things come to fruition. I love that feeling of accomplishment and progress. I feel like I’ve conquered something within myself that was keeping me from living my happiest, most productive life.
Instead of thinking about how hard it’s going to be, I think about how amazing I’m going to feel when it all comes together. When I feel like skipping out on flossing my teeth, I think about sitting in that chair in 6 months beaming with pride. I think about the fact that, if I do this, I won’t be floss-shamed again–I’ll be a floss boss, if you will.
The end-game is important. If we can’t envision a positive outcome, we will be far less likely to stick to the task and be consistent with our habits. See yourself at the finish line, really see it and feel it. What does it look like? How do you feel? Keep that feeling in mind as you work to develop your new habit.
Whether you’re trying to add a new habit (such as exercise daily, eat more salads, drink more water, stretch, prep your meals), or subtract a bad habit (such as drinking soda, eating junk food, watching too much TV, snacking after dinner, skipping workouts)–you can benefit from these strategies.
First, make sure you don’t try to commit to too much at once.
Second, make the process as easy as possible–us the path of least resistance and expend as little mental energy as possible.
Third find your WHY and keep it top of mind throughout the process.
And lastly, envision yourself at the finish line. Think about how accomplished and proud you’ll feel, and how much developing this new habit is going to transform your life.
And also, floss your teeth.