Resolutions Part II: Expanding the Floss-A-Tooth Method

In part one, I confessed my poor oral hygiene and described how I finally started brushing my teeth daily using a method I call “Floss-A-Tooth.” But the method didn’t get its name until I used it a second time to start a tooth-flossing habit. Here’s how it went:
  • Phase One: For a couple of weeks all I did was to pull of a length of floss out every evening. Sometimes this was hard because I felt wasteful, so I only pulled off a small bit.
  • Phase Two: I flossed just one tooth each evening. I had to stay at this phase for quite some time, about 3 or 4 weeks. 
  • Phase Three: I flossed a few teeth, a few more, and a few more, until I was doing the whole mouth.
  • Safety-Net: I floss in the evening. If it’s late and I’m tired I probably won’t floss much. In extreme circumstances I’ll just do one tooth. But I still at least floss a tooth and the habit stays put.

In the last seven years, I’ve found the Floss-A-Tooth Method applicable in many other areas of my life. Its usefulness boils down to the fact that when we see a goal we want we tend to rush towards it too fast. For instance, Dorea used to have a thesis-writing support group. Each week, people would come in feeling guilty and demoralized. They’d think about all they needed to get done and how quickly it needed to be finished. They’d beat themselves up for all the time they’d wasted in the past week. So they’d set absurd goals for themselves. People who weren’t succeeding in writing anything would claim they were going to write for two hours each day, or get fifteen pages written in the next week. Dorea became quite an excellent counselor in the Floss-A-Tooth method, encouraging people to set their bar lower and lower until finally it was low enough that they couldn’t avoid stepping over it.

The key to using Floss-A-Tooth successfully is to decide what you want to do and then find the smallest possible unit that represents progress but that you can’t whine about. If you want to eat more vegetables, how about having one baby carrot with dinner? If you want to save money, do you think you could put a quarter in a piggy bank each day (or even just a dime)? And if you want to run the Boston marathon, you might start by just putting your jogging outfit.

Coming up next: the real key to making resolutions work — stacking the deck in your own favor.

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 II: Expanding the Floss-A-Tooth Method

  1. Malcolm says:

    This is great! It almost sounds stupid – “start by just putting your jogging outfit on” – but you really express how gradualness can be more gradual than seems rational.

    Thanks!

    Malcolm

  2. Angela V-C says:

    Thanks Malcom! I think for some things that we are very resistant to, you really have to fly under the radar of your resistance and get some confidence under your belt.

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