Resolutions Part I: the “Floss-a-Tooth” Method

A few days ago, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about new year’s resolutions. A psychologist was on the show talking about making and keeping resolutions; something like 40-50% of those of us who make resolutions are able to stick with them. The guest also gave tips about how to stick with resolutions, such as getting support from friends or family. His tips got me thinking about my own techniques for changing habits and solving problems. I have systems for everything, including cultivating or changing habits. The first method I’ll describe today works well for habits that you want to start. The second I’ll describe in a later post has some applicability to developing a greener lifestyle and reducing car usage.

True Oral Hygiene Confessions

Some time ago, it had been ten years since I had been to a dentist. I regularly went for weeks (yes, weeks) without brushing my teeth. My oral hygiene was pathetic and I have the cavities to show for it (although I managed to avoid a root canal by the skin of my teeth). I had been trying for some time to improve the situation. I had made resolutions, put notes on the mirror, and scolded myself. Intermittently, I seem to have become convinced that the reason for my failure was that my oral hygiene system wasn’t complicated enough, so I would go out and purchase plaque rinses, tablets for detecting plaque, special toothpicks, and fancy toothbrushes. Each new thing was exciting. I loved opening the packages, reading the directions, and dreaming about getting a special tooth-brushing award from a dentist. But aside from providing fodder for my overactive imagination, each new gimmick or plan failed after my initial enthusiasm diminished.

About seven years ago I finally hit on a method that allowed me to become a regular brusher. I was able to apply the method to other areas of my life as well. Here’s how the method worked for tooth-brushing.

  • Phase One: For a week or two, I put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stuck it in my mouth every night. That was it. I started with just the evening and just with this small and, frankly, stupid task. This is the heart of the method: to make the goal small enough that I couldn’t put up any resistance. How hard is it to put toothpaste on a toothbrush? It only takes one second! I stayed in this phase until the routine was well established and I no longer felt any resistance.
  • Phase Two: In this phase I did just a little bit of brushing (perhaps 30 seconds) in the evenings only. With the groundwork from the first phase, this was fairly easy; I was already used to loading up the toothbrush and sticking it in my mouth. I did this for another couple of weeks. At some point I decided to add a morning brushing time as well, and I started back at phase one with that habit. The important thing is not pushing too hard, staying just under the threshold of resistance, and doing it every day.
  • Phase Three. During this phase I worked my way up to 2-3 minutes of brushing morning and evening. I made my increases small, and if I met resistance or skipped a night, I backed up to where I was more comfortable.
  • Safety-Net: One of the things that often derailed my oral hygiene efforts in the past was handling “falling off the wagon.” For instance, suppose you are trying to brush your teeth every night, but one night you come home late and just want to fall into bed. The trouble is that if you do that, you’ll be more likely to skip the next night and pretty soon you will have fallen right out of the habit. If you are sorely tempted to skip your good habit just this one time, instead fall back to phase one. If I am tempted to skip brushing, I instead just put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stick it in my mouth. Then I can keep up my commitment and momentum, even under extreme circumstances. If even doing that seems too much to bear, I just go and hold my toothbrush, anything so that I can tell myself the next day that I still have the habit.

You are probably curious about one thing — why do I call this the “Floss-A-Tooth” Method? A professor of mine once told me that if you use a technique just once, then it is a trick, but if you use it twice, it’s a tool. The “Floss a Tooth Method” became a tool, and got its name, upon its second use. I’ll describe that in the next post along with some ways to extend and expand the method.

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
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2 Responses to Resolutions Part I: the “Floss-a-Tooth” Method

  1. Amy says:

    Angela,
    What a fantastic idea! This may be my ticket back to exercising. I sincerely hope so! Happy ’09.
    -Amy

  2. Angela V-C says:

    Thanks Amy! It was fun writing this post because I got to revisit some things I had written about floss-a-tooth a number of years ago. I got pretty inspired!!

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