Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Keystone Habits: How To Floss Every Day For A Year

I have a confession to make: until a year ago, I didn't floss. I'd go to the dentist and they would tell me I needed to floss. So, I would floss a week or two before my dentist visit in an attempt to make it look like I flossed regularly. That didn't really work either.

Then a couple things happened that moved me closer to actually following my dentist's advice. First, I read a great article in The Wall Street Journal on How to Be a Better Flosser. The advice was great and we featured it in our July 2012 newsletter. All too often we get caught up in the details: should we brush or floss first? Should we do it in the morning or evening? What type of floss should we use? They answered all those questions, but the main take-away was: There are optimal ways to floss, but it really doesn't matter as long as you do it regularly.

At the same time, I also started using a new iPhone app called Lift. I wrote about it before and even mentioned flossing. The app helps you track daily goals you want to accomplish. As you do, you check them off. It also tracks how you're doing over time (see the picture above) and gives encouragement along the way. The app is pretty cool and the team behind it really thinks deeply about habits and sculpting our lives.

For example, one of their blog posts talked about keystone habits: "Keystone habits create positive momentum that increases your ability to achieve other goals." The example in the post was making your bed each day. For me, flossing became a keystone habit... eventually...

You see, all of this happened in the summer of 2012.

So I started flossing, but it wasn't every day. Some days I would be too busy, other days I would completely forget. At least it's progress!  Then, through the 2012 holidays I didn't even open the app.

In January 2013 something happened right after the first of the year. I honestly don't know what made me decide to start flossing every day, but I did... And I actually stuck with it. This isn't the first time I finally made a decision and stayed with it. I did it once with ear plugs in 2008 too and I know people do it with quitting smoking and alcohol too. So, there's something psychological going on there, I just don't know what.

One year later, here I am with a full year of flossing every single day. I realized this while flossing at our hotel before going to the airport to Florida... at 3:40am... gross! I took a quick screenshot and finished getting ready. Now flossing truly is a keystone habit for me. (I realize the screenshot is technically 367 days.)

I'm using that momentum to help me with my push-ups. Right before I floss, I do my push-ups. This links them together in a chain of habits: since one is successful, it increases the chances that the other is successful. We'll see if it worked by the end of this year!

Your Keystone Habits
Think about your life. Do you know what your keystone habits are? Are they promoting good or bad habits? Think about what you do when you first wake up in the morning. When you first get into the office. When you first get home. What do you do? What do you do second and third? Why do you think you do those activities? The "why" is important because each activity you do fulfills some sort of need you have. Is there another activity you can do to fulfill the same need?

My encouragement to you is that you can create positive keystone habits that will help you achieve your 2014 goals. If you set a new year's resolution you wanted to keep, you'll need to look critically at your keystone habits because it's momentum might be working against you.

For example, let's say your resolution is to exercise more. Your normal routine is to grab your phone before getting out of bed and checking your email and Facebook. Then you realize the time and rush to get ready with no time left to exercise. Checking your phone is your keystone habit that is working against your exercise resolution.

Why are you doing this? Why are you checking your phone? If it's to help you wake up, maybe you can put a glass of water in place of your phone. Or you can set your phone down across the room forcing you to get out of bed. Maybe the room is too cold you can don't want to get out from under the covers. So, set your thermostat to heat up the room right before you need to get up. If you're not sure, try experimenting to see which leaves you satisfied and which leaves you wishing for more.

Let's say drinking a cup of water first thing meets your need to help you wake up. Use a system to track your progress. Lift works well and so does Jerry Seinfeld's "Don't Break The Chain" Calendar. Eventually this will become your new keystone habit and you'll actually crave water in the morning.

Now, here's the magic of habits: drinking a glass of water doesn't take as much time as checking Facebook or email. So use that time/momentum to exercise before getting ready. I would start small: push-ups, sit-ups, a short walk, etc. Then that too will become a habit and you might actually find yourself getting up a little earlier to fit in a more rigorous workout.

The crazy part is that you'll actually start to think of yourself as that person who gets out of bed in the morning and exercises. Someone who does that also... Eats healthy... Drinks less soda... Runs... Skips TV at night... Yes, a keystone habit can be powerful enough to change your entire perception of who you are. It might happen slowly, but it'll happen. That's why it's critically important to examine your keystone habits.

Again, my encouragement is that you can create positive change in your life and reach your goals by first focusing on something as small as flossing every day.

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