Two scenes, one woman worried about her teeth, other woman happy with teeth

4. Floss-a-Tooth

This post is a revision of something I wrote some time ago on another blog, and that was a revision of something I had written previously in a zine I made called “FoolProof.” So this is a system I developed that has been with me for a long time, but I still forget about it constantly and I’m trying to make it a bigger part of my life now.

About 15 years ago, I had an oral hygiene problem. 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 and root canals to show for it. 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.

I finally found a way to start brushing, and here’s what worked:

  • 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 when I used it to start a flossing habit.

  • 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. Right now my flossing habit isn’t rock solid, so I am headed back through phases one, two and three again.

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, my husband 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.

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 putting on your shoes.

Like every system, it only works when you use it and I admit that floss-a-tooth has I have not been using it. But I broke it back our recently to start meditating. And I found that other people have had this same great idea. I just signed up for a “Tiny Habits” session, which has a similar idea, but also focuses on the trigger (or anchor) that prompts you to do the task. These anchors were a little hard for me, since my life is wrapped up with kids and that makes sequencing hard! I decided to focus on these three things:

  1. AFTER my feet touch the floor in the morning, I will say “It’s going to be a great day.”
  2. AFTER I pee for the last time in the evening I will brush my teeth.
  3. AFTER I open my computer in the morning, I will go to 750words.com.
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