How often do you floss?

Looking at floss

The best new habit I picked up in 2013 is flossing daily. But I was weary of calling it a new habit at first because I’d had plenty of false starts when it comes to flossing — a few days of inspired flossing before it was back to my old routine of only brushing.

The problem wasn’t building an entirely new routine, it was that I already had an established routine that didn’t involve flossing. Plus, the routine already had a cue and reward system (cue: time for bed! reward: minty-fresh mouth!) so it would be significantly harder to cram even more into the routine.

But I’ve been flossing now, every day, for over four months — and I think the habit is here to stay.

How was I able to successfully build a new flossing habit?

For me, it was discovering one simple fact: flossing your teeth is more important than brushing. If stranded on a desert island, most dentists would give up their toothbrush in favor of floss.

I thought about switching from brushing to flossing, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, and how it would actually result in a healthier mouth. But while I logically knew that this was true, it certainly didn’t seem healthier. Pepsodent had done a good job training me, as recounted in The Power of Habit, and I craved that minty just-brushed feeling.

So I brushed my teeth. But when I finished, my mouth somehow didn’t feel as clean as nights past. I had that minty-fresh taste, but I knew my mouth wasn’t as clean as if I had flossed. That one simple fact has ruined me! I had no choice but to floss.

The next day, the same thing happened. I brushed my teeth so that my mouth would be rewarded with a clean feel — but when that was done, I knew that my mouth was still not as clean as if I had simply flossed. So I flossed again.

This routine continued day after day. I’d tell myself that I was just going to brush my teeth — but when I was done I’d guilt myself into flossing because I wanted the cleanest mouth possible.

I thought that adding flossing to an existing routine would be more difficult than adding a brand new habit, but it was actually easier. I was still chasing the reward of a clean-feeling mouth and already had momentum from brushing my teeth.

All it took was a little bit of knowledge to ruin the reward. Once the habit was disrupted, it was easy to modify the routine into something even better because the foundation was already there.

Sometimes the goal isn’t to build entirely new habits, but to modify your current behaviors to make them more effective.

When you come up with a good idea, you get a hit of dopamine — a reward. But after that, the idea might just slip away. Are you trying to build new habits to capture those thoughts?

It’s the small behavioral changes that eventually beget big life transformations.

It’s kinda like fingerprint scanners (stay with me on this one).

Scanning Fingerprint

I was excited to try the new fingerprint scanner when I  got my iPhone 5S, but was a long way from considering the new feature “revolutionary.” I wasn’t that impressed,  because swiping the screen to unlock really isn’t that hard.

But when I sat down with my iPad mini a few days after I got the iPhone 5S, the fingerprint scanner’s true significance dawned on me.

Swiping to unlock the screen on the iPad mini (which doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner) suddenly felt like unnecessary work. I had gained first-hand knowledge that there was a better way to do things, and it completely spoiled me.

It’s small advances like this that push us forward. Seemingly inconsequential changes that become so ingrained in our behavior that we won’t go back to the way things were. Before you know it, tape players become iPods.

Personal development works much the same way. People like us are addicted to hunting the best “life hacks,” building new skills, and poring through self-help books. We’re all chasing that one little fact that will help us build a new habit that will make our lives just a tad better. We know those incremental changes add up to big improvements before we know it.

Building a product in your free time can feel exactly the same. It’s all about adding new habits to your daily routine — poring over your sketches during breakfast instead of reading the news or sending out emails to your developer before flipping on Netflix.

How are you approaching 2014? What new habits will be second nature by the time the next ball drops?