Floss The Teeth You Want To Keep – How To Change Yourself

July 20, 2010 · 10 comments

Trying to be more like you bro.


I am fascinated by how a person brings about change in themselves.

I have been slowly improving my own ability to change certain behaviours over the last few years.

It started with some advice from my dentist – “Nick, remember: floss the teeth you want to keep”.

I did floss, sometimes, but I realised at that point that a couple of times a week wasn’t going to cut it.  And so I set about making it a habit.

They say habits take 21 consecutive days to form.  While I agree with this, it leaves out something very important, and that is that it takes months to get to the point of being able to do something new 21 days in a row.

It hasn’t just been flossing.  I’ve been trying to build numerous things into my life – reading fiction before I fall asleep, regular writing, yoga, daily activity reporting, back stretches, Inbox Zero, GTD, daily exercise, more greens, keeping a journal, less coffee, a one in-one out rule for my material possessions – all with varying degrees of success.

Some things I’ve learnt.

Cold turkey is hard. An abrupt about-turn is very hard to sustain.  Going from never to always is, in my experience, almost impossible.  If you have all the old nudges, the old impulses and the same external inputs (friends, workplaces, housing) then you’re not going to sustain the change you’re trying to make.

The best motivators are negative ones. If you really care about starting a habit, take 10x the money that you would normally spend on a nice dinner and give it to a friend.  Tell that friend what you want to do and give them a means of monitoring your progress.  Tell them that each time you don’t maintain that habit, they should burn 1/5 of it.  Few people will be comfortable with the idea of burning their own money so the incentive is high to stick to the habit.  Do this for 90 days with a new habit and chances are it will be ingrained at the end of 90 days.

It’s easier with friends. Sharing the experience with friends makes it a lot easier.  Rare is the person with sufficient self-discipline to keep their own promises.  But sharing the goal with a friend creates an obligation stronger than obligation to self.  I like Jake Lodwick’s Standards, but the thing it misses is weekly feedback from other people with their own standards.  Friends are great for accountability.

It’s even better with a coach. Last year I employed a business coach to help me grow my business.  (He was the one I gave the $200 to for burning).  One of his tasks was to keep me accountable to the goals I set.  I gave him the authority to contact me at any time and ask for an update and I asked that he show me no mercy.  It’s not for everyone, but the time I spent working with him was the most personally and commercially productive in the last 2 years.

Report back. Regular reporting to an external source is almost essential.  Otherwise it will slip out of your mind.

Give yourself nudges. Rather than not eating bad food, just don’t buy it.  Don’t go shopping hungry.  Put the dental floss on your pillow so you can’t ignore it.  Don’t take your laptop to bed with you.  Don’t check emails when you get up.  Rather than addressing the behaviour, address the inputs that cause it.  Little nudges are a big help.

Be patient. Give yourself 3 x more time than you think you need to get the habit started.  Its likely you won’t be successful straight up.

Make changes in context. Map out where you want to be in 10 years.  Work back and see what that means for where you are in 3.  Do the same for 1 year.  And then 3 months.  Now think about your habits – what habits need to change now to get you where you need to go? Habits outside the context will be hard to maintain.

The habit has to make your life better. The final point is that long-term, if the habit doesn’t make your life better, simpler, easier and at least equally as enjoyable, you won’t keep it.

That’s why diets don’t work.  You can’t enjoy life eating only steamed chicken, broccoli and 30g of almonds every 3.75 hours.  If you love cookies, then you associate them with your default state and you’ll gravitate towards that state after the initial rush of the habit change wears off.

That’s why the only changes that will stick are sustainable ones.  Changes that you’ll not only want to make, but want to keep.  And sometimes, that involves looking at your life as a whole – your job, your business, your friends, your family, your home – and deciding which of those you need to change first.

For the record – I am currently trying to: read fiction before I sleep, write a journal at 5pm every day, write 2 short essays a month here and increase the amount of greens in my diet to at least 1/3 (or 1 meal a day).


Mands Lear July 20, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Nick this inspires far beyond flossing – but i will tell you in 21 days by just how much ;)

Sophie July 20, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Very inspiring – my favorite post yet Nick.

Nick Crocker July 23, 2010 at 12:42 am

Thanks Soph – glad you liked.

Mands – I want a report back.

Wesley Verhoeve July 29, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Great post Nick! Inspiring me right now to set some goals. I like the coach principle too, would love to try that!

Question: What is GDT?

Nick Crocker August 4, 2010 at 3:46 am

@Wes – GTD – Getting To Done/Getting Things Done. Basically a cultish system for efficiency. I never did it properly, I was much better suited to Zen To Done. Simpler and easier I found: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2473737/Zen-to-Done

Chris August 4, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Where do you want to end up?

Do you look to other people/role models to aspire towards, or do you feel that you are running your own race?

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