2017 is already underway and many of us are probably hoping to turn over a new leaf, of sorts. Whether it’s losing weight, getting a new job, or flossing every day, many of us use the start of a new year to “remake” ourselves.
“Old habits die hard.” That’s what they say, anyway. Even with all the right intentions, it’s far too easy to slip back into your old ways. Patterns of behavior stick around for reasons we don’t understand.
As many as 30% of people fail to brush and floss their teeth as often as they should, according to this survey. Despite years of instruction and attempt to correct the behavior.
What advice do I have for those who have made a New Year’s resolution to tune up their dental hygiene? Let’s break this down into two parts. First, we will take a look at the goals we want to set, and then we will take a look at how we can program the new behavior into our routine.
Goals That Work
As a sports fan, one thing I’ve learned is even the most talented, hard-working athletes need coaches. The most motivated, talented individuals on the planet always have someone they could run laps around telling them what to do and how to train. Why is that?
While coaches can provide a knowledgeable outside eye to help see things that they cannot see, coaches of all levels provide a vital component– accountability. Even the best, highest paid athletes might decide to skip the running and monotonous basic skills training to work on something a little more exciting. Sometimes, they may not feel like working at all.
The lesson to be learned here is that even the very best sometimes need someone to hold them accountable, so don’t beat yourself up if you feel you need a little help.
You might have trouble finding a full-time drill sergeant to make sure you floss every night, but your family can help support your goal. Scheduling regular cleanings and exams will help hold you accountable, and we can check your progress and help you stay healthy.
If you want to be successful, take the advice given in the 1991 film What About Bob? and use baby steps. The goal should be to make it so easy at first that you can’t say no.
If we were discussing the goals of exercise and weight loss, you would be advised to start at the low end of the spectrum and work your way up. You can do the same with flossing.
If you’re having trouble sticking to a flossing routine, start the first day with the goal of flossing just one tooth. If you do more than that, great, but you only have to do one. That’s a bar set so low that it is hard to say no. When you find yourself consistently following through with that goal, you can increase the target.
Preparation is also the key to making it convenient to follow through with your goals. If you find yourself rushing out the door in the morning, then aim to floss at night. Others may be so tired they are falling into bed at night and will skip flossing to get their sooner.
Consider taking your hygiene kit with you on the road. If you have a toothbrush and floss in your car or desk, would you be able to do it at lunch? Perhaps the situation isn’t ideal, but having a less-than-optimal plan, that you will execute, is better than the perfect plan that you don’t follow through on.
Programming the New Behavior
If you want to turn brushing and flossing into a habit, it helps to have an understanding of how habits are programmed in the first place.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes a pattern that has been known to behavior scientists for a while. Certain skills that are repeated frequently under similar circumstances become programmed, and after a while, our brain can execute those programs with little effort.
Anyone who has gotten in their car and, while distracted, drove home or to work, has seen this behavioral loop fire on accident. With the brain distracted by other things, autopilot takes over and executes the program that usually occurs when driving on the same rout.
The habit formation process involves three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward.
The Cue — Cues are anything that begin signaling that we should perform a behavioral sequence. Sometimes we are aware of them (i.e. an alarm clock), other times they are more subtle (eating when bored).
You can create your own cue that will remind you to brush and floss. This could be as simple as an alarm on your phone, to a note that you will see, or just putting your floss where you are bound to encounter it at the desired time. Whatever your cue is, it should remind and pressure you to take care of business.
The Routine — The routine is the new behavior we are trying to turn into a habit. Our goal is to consistently brush and floss. Set yourself up for success by making sure you have everything you need and adequate time to perform.
The Reward — Positive reinforcement works! Whatever the reward, you should be left feeling fulfilled and accomplished for following through.
For many, just having clean teeth is fulfilling enough to be its own reward. Many rotate the flavors or types of toothpaste used in order to occasionally increase the novelty of the experience. Those who switch to a powered toothbrush are often surprised at how effective they are, and thus simply seek the reward of having that clean teeth feeling.
If you need more encouragement, follow your dental hygiene with a desirable activity. Of course, this requires the discipline of withholding that activity until hygiene is complete, but it works very well (in children and adults).
Learn to Adapt
Perhaps you won’t be successful on the first attempt. That’s OK, you just need to make some adjustments and try again. Perhaps your cue wasn’t good enough, or you need to try and floss at a different time of day. With a little bit of experimentation, you’ll be able to make a habit that sticks with you for life.
Start the year off right by scheduling a cleaning. We can help hold you accountable and help you come up with a dental plan that is right for you.
A Healthy Mouth is a Happy Mouth!