One of the things that most fascinates about the building habits world is how much of it is based around really boring things. ‘I want to floss more’ / ‘I want to exercise more’ / ‘I want to eat more vegetables’ / ‘I want to be tidier’/ ‘I want a clean kitchen’ / ‘I want to put the washing away’/ ‘I want to be more frugal’. Etcetera, etcetera. Yawn.
All of these things kind of suck. They are things we don’t want to do. Obviously. That is why we currently don’t do them. So what interests me is why despite not wanting to do them, we actually really want to do them: in fact, people are desperately searching for ways to take this thing they don’t currently do, and despise doing, and making it an integral part of their day.
It’s strange, and feels counter-intuitive. If the idea of doing something just this once is so repulsive that we go many years not doing it (for example, flossing), why on earth are we looking for ways to make this thing a habit? If I detest flossing so much, or am simply so apathetic that I never get off my butt to actually do it, then why am I trying to rehaul and redefine my life and my daily routine specifically to include this thing?
It must come back to the inherently automated nature of habits; that it is the very fact we do the act without thinking that is appealing, so that it removes the agonising decision process of saying I will floss! / but I don’t have any floss / okay I’ll buy floss! / damn I forgot to buy floss again / okay I bought floss for $6 from the convenience store because I’m going to floss! / brushing my teeth, having a great time / in bed, and realising that I forgot to floss?? / do I get out of bed? / yes, you bought the floss! / no, it’s warm and cosy here, you can floss tomorrow … play that on repeat, and honestly, who would voluntarily put themselves through that exhausting merry-go-round for each and every virtuous yet hated task in their day?
Once you have automated the process, you take away all of those thought processes above. That greatly unburdens the mind, and frees it up to think of wonderful things like unicorns and rainbows instead of the great debate of should I or should I not floss my teeth tonight? And somehow, magically, those teeth are still flossed! You are a better human, friend, child and lover; you are stronger than your desires and capable of doing that which must be done rather than what sounds fun to do. And very importantly, you learn that the thing itself is not so bad.
So creating a habit is a magical way of taking a shortcut through the mental clutter and anguish to the actual doing of the thing. No frills, no fuss, no tears. The action is done, you’ve paid it no thought, you no longer wrestle with ‘but it’s boring’ or ‘I don’t want to’. However, to get to this magical stage, we gotta work. I’m sorry. But I speak as someone early in this very interesting process for many a boring task: it is so worth the work. I started the practice of habit with flossing (that little merry-go-around of thoughts above is effectively an extract of the transcript of my insane mind). It’s been the foundation for automating activities I decided I hated or sounded hard, but ended up being the cornerstones to a happier and more fulfilling kind of life, as it provided me a strategy for tackling procrastination, and removing the guilt associated with procrastination. So behold: my little story of the flossing habit.
I never ever flossed. Flossing was something I very successfully ignored for the better part of 25 years. Aside from the occasional visit to the dentist and firm reminder of flossing benefits, accompanied with a few half-hearted attempts to keep up the good work at home that died within a week, I merrily lived my life with nice teeth and no floss. It was a beautiful time. Until it wasn’t anymore. I created
I procrastinated the dentist for three years, for no reason other than I thought going would hurt and I didn’t really want to (did I mention I’m secretly still a teenager?). When I finally forced myself through the door in October of last year, I was faced with the miserable reality of needing three fillings, meaning a subsequent two trips to the dentist. This tragically turned into three trips when one of the fillings didn’t quite work. One of the key messages the dentist gave me, in his mellifluous Irish accent and granddad eyes was ‘for goodness’ sake woman, floss your damn teeth.’
I really took that message to heart. This dentist saga (okay it wasn’t that bad, but it was bad to me) was my trigger to floss every single day. I’ve become so addicted to flossing that sometimes I randomly floss throughout the day, and before and after I brush my teeth, just to catch any rogue food and avoid ever getting another filling. I know. It’s a fascinating tale. I’m in talks for the movie rights. But seriously – I created a flossing habit out of nothing. And you can too. How?
Just do it. Every single day after you brush your teeth, floss your teeth. This is commonly referred to as habit stacking: take one habit you already practice, and tack a new one on the end. Of course, you may not have the habit of brushing your teeth in the morning, in which case, let’s get on that first. But, I challenge you: floss your teeth every single day for one month. Just do it. Every time you start the bargaining cycle above, short cut or karate chop your way through it and refuse to engage. Then floss your teeth. When the month is up, you’ll go beyond the pain of habit creation to getting joy out of flossing. There’s tips and tricks on this too: for example, zen habits advocates starting small. Start with flossing just one tooth. Anyone can do that. Then build your way slowly to two teeth, and so on. But it doesn’t matter how you do it. Just do it. Every day, brush your teeth, floss, and go about your day.
If you are only just embarking on simplifying and routinising your life so that you may make space in your mind for the important things, flossing is an excellent habit to start with. Start up costs are around $1 for floss. Flossing barely takes any time. There’s no real cravings to contend with or fight off, or triggers for bad behaviour, except maybe the continue watching feature on Netflix. And from this simple habit, you will experience great health benefits, and great disciplinary benefits: you will begin to learn how it feels to short cut the bargaining, and exercise your discipline muscle. As that muscle gets stronger, it will be able to bear the weight of new habits, and continue to grow and develop to hold up a life of simple steps. But for now, nurture it with one small action, every day, day in and day out, and watch your simplified life blossom into greatness.