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What dentists know about habit change


Chances are, you brush your teeth regularly. This habit seems so deeply ingrained in people’s daily routines, it is hard to imagine going through life without regular tooth brushing. Indeed, some type of tooth care has been done for millennia. There is evidence of tooth brushing in ancient Egypt, in ancient Greece, and in India. By the eighteenth century, brushing teeth had become a regular part of the daily routine for millions of people. How does this kind of widespread habit change happen?


Why brushing your teeth is easy…

For one answer, take a look inside your bathroom. You have probably designed your bathroom to support your habit to brush your teeth. Many bathrooms have fixtures built into them that hold a toothbrush and even provide a place for your toothpaste. If you don’t have something built in, then you have likely bought some kind of device to keep your toothbrush next to the sink. Because of this organisation in your bathroom, you can engage in your daytime and nighttime routines without having to think much about them. Standing in the bathroom in the morning, you see your toothbrush. The combination of the morning, the feeling of a dirty mouth, and the sight of the brush engages the Go System to start your routine to brush. All the while, you can focus your thoughts on more important things like your plan for the day.


Although tooth brushing has become a widespread habit, regular flossing is less common. Almost everyone owns some dental floss. Dentists often give out free packages of floss to their patients. And people will use floss when something uncomfortable gets caught between two teeth. But there is much less universal compliance with daily flossing than with daily tooth brushing, even though dentists recommend both.


…And why flossing is so hard

There are several problems with flossing that make it less likely to become a habit than brushing. It is generally messy. You have to stick your fingers in your mouth, which is less appealing than using a brush, and so people do not repeat it often enough to create a habit. Also because the primary reward for flossing comes in the long term, if you forget to floss, there is little to immediately remind you. Only when you visit the dentist with puffy gums do you get the powerful signal that you should have flossed.


Perhaps the most important problem with flossing is the floss container itself. There is no standard size or shape for the package, so it’s not clear where to put it in your bathroom. Many people put their floss either in a drawer or in the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. Neither of those spots is a visible part of the environment. As a result, you don’t have a good visual reminder that it’s time to floss. It’s hard to develop a habit if there is no information in the environment to promote that habit.


When you try to change your behavior, there is a tendency to focus on your own psychological characteristics. You want to remember the new behavior. You want to use your internal defences to avoid temptation. You spend time looking inward to find ways to change yourself. However, successful behavior change also requires looking outward. Your environment is a powerful driver of what you do. Because your habits involve a consistent mapping between the environment and a behavior, your habits are activated by the world around you. You can save mental energy by letting your environment do some of the work involved in successful habit change.


Adapted from Smart Change: Break the Habits That Hold You Back — and Form the Habits of Success by Art Markman