Tips from a Reformed Flossing Slacker

Over the last year, I have listened and re-listened to the audio–book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. This book has profoundly affected how I evaluate my daily activities, and specifically, how I might create habits that best serve me.

Power of habit

According to research, ~90% of our behavior is habitual. Why? Habits are easy. They don’t require thinking. Habits are automatic

Given the huge percent of our life that’s habitual, if we want to change or transform our life, we must, literally, transform our habits.

 Sabbatical, and the change in routine that comes with it, is a perfect time to actively reflosscreate a few habits. There have been several habit changes I’ve been up to, but perhaps the one I’m most pleased with is…


During our “goals” unit in happiness class this summer, I reported with pride to my students that I had been flossing every day for the last three weeks. Rather than, “Wow, Dr. Tracy, that’s really swell,” I instead was met with simultaneous uptakes in breath, and cries of, “ewww…”.  One student exclaimed, “Only for the last three weeks?  That’s DISGUSTING!” I recouped. “It’s not like I never floss, it’s just, well, maybe, that I, well, ‘ya know, I floss, like, if I know there’s something caught in my teeth or something.” They were decidedly unimpressed.

Despite my students’ shock, the statistics suggest that I’m not alone as a floss slacker.  According to one article, only 12% of American floss daily. If you’re one of the grimy 88% rest of us, and you’re interested in changing this habit, here’s some tips about how I’ve made the switch.

1. I purposefully scared myself. During my last dental cleaning in April, I literally turned to my lovely hygienist and said, “I need you to put the fear of god into me about flossing.”  She looked a bit surprised, and then asked, “Seriously?” With my gums still smarting, she delightfully described what happens to non-flossers.

In addition to gum disease, effects of not flossing include gingivitis and CANCER.  Yes, cancer, and specifically pancreatic cancer, is linked to the bacteria and inflammation that enters the body every day when you don’t floss.

Not flossing also makes your gums recede. If want a flossing kick-start, do an image search on “gum disease.”  Just don’t do it while you’re eating.

And, finally, letting the food rot in between your teeth (40% of the teeth total surface), is just gross. My hygienist said, “Some people say they don’t floss because when they do, it smells like rotting meat.” Arg! So, not flossing is kind of like perpetually french-kissing a variety of mini carcasses.

2. I planned and strategized how to make it “easy.” For me, this meant buying “satin” dental floss that would slide easily between my teeth, and setting out this floss in a prominent easy to see location. In sight – in mind.

3. I began the goal during a time when my routine was already disrupted. Habits are location and time based.  So, a perfect time to stop a bad habit or begin a new one is when your routine is already out of whack. I began the flossing habit over my seven weeks out of the country this summer. My evenings there were inherently somewhat different, and my bathroom stuff in a little visible hanging bag, so switching just one more thing to my nighttime line-up wasn’t exponentially more difficult.

4. I talked about my new habit.  Specifically, I told Brad, my mom, my hygeinist, and my students. What’s more, I encouraged them to ask me about how I was doing. Talking to others makes it real, and provides an automatic accountability loop.

5. I practiced the habit at the same time every day. I flossed right before bed. Habits are most easily formed when they are performed the same way in the same time every day. That way, they become automatic.  No more decisions.

6. Skipping a day wasn’t an option. I told myself that flossing had to happen every night, no matter how late, busy, or sleepy I was.

7. The habit was linked to a small reward. For me, that was rinsing with mouthwash. Mouthwash provides a tingly zing that I’ve come to love, and one that I now associate with flossing.  Research shows that good habits are much better formed when coupled with a reward. And, bad habits are shaken when we can find a new reward to replace the reward of the old behavior. E.g., if 2 p.m. used to equate with a sweet treat, maybe now 2 p.m. is rewarded with a short stroll around the office or Facebook.

The impact of all this is that I’ve now been flossing every day since Thursday, May 2nd–well above the 66 days research shows it takes for a new habit to “stick.” That said, flossing has not yet become completely automatic. I think, though, soon, it will be (and this blog post may indeed cement it…see tip # 4).IMG_3820 resized

So, for all you fellow FLOSSING SLACKERS out there, I invite you to join me in the journey to never again go to sleep with mini carcasses in your mouth. And, if you have any related tips, stories, or challenges about flossing or any other habits, I’d love to hear from you.

Cheers, Sarah


4 Comments on “Tips from a Reformed Flossing Slacker

  1. I was scared into flossing by the dentist’s flip-book — a book with pictures of what happens to flossing slackers. The scary part was, I actually had been flossing every night. Turns out I was doing it wrong — who knew?! I thought flossing was about the space between the teeth, but it’s actually supposed to be about wrapping the floss around teeth (as I suspect many know but I somehow missed). I suppose even habits require more concerted self-reflexivity every now and again.

  2. This is too funny, and a little close to home. My dad is a dentist and *shockingly* I never flossed regularly…. until Dec 24, 2012. At my semi-annual teeth cleaning, the hygeinist (who had not worked on me before) pointed out that I had a few pockets that were greater than the normal 3 mm maximum. She explained to me the importance of flossing and how my gingival tissue was completely repairable at this stage… if I started flossing. She told me when and how to do it. And, like you, I had the fear of God put in me. I have been diligently flossing since. I even had to laugh because on one of my many vacations this year, I forgot to pack my floss. I was so grossed out for the few days I was without my floss. It’s second nature now… thanks to one kind soul who had the courage to light the fire. And- at my next visit in May- things were much improved with my gum health. Keep up the good work, Sarah!

    • Mary, it’s so weird ’cause it seems like as someone health conscious as you, you’d be a flossing natural. Goes to show that health isn’t an all or nothing thing. Thanks for commenting!

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