“A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.” – Charles Duhigg1

“Successfully flossing changes how you see yourself. Each day, you give yourself evidence that you’re the type of person who cares for your health. You also see you’re a person who can change, who can bring new habits into your life. ” – BJ Fogg2

Gateway habit (n) Definition: A habit or behavior that, when followed, leads to the introduction of other habits and behaviors. Synonyms: “keystone habit.”

Growing up, my parents and teachers used to warn about gateway drugs. The general theory is that using easy-to-access soft drugs leads to an increased likelihood of using harder drugs. If you start smoking cigarettes or drinking, next thing you know, you’ll have a heroin addiction. That’s what they said anyway – so far the evidence is inconclusive.3

Regardless of whether or not it works in the drug world, the gateway theory is extremely effective for starting healthy habits. When making positive changes, the biggest obstacle we face isn’t having to find more free time or convince ourselves to do something we may not want to. The biggest challenge is overcoming the mental hurdles that say “I can’t.” By starting a practice that you’re almost guaranteed to stick with, you’ll gain the confidence and experience to say “I can.”

With your newfound habit-forming powers, you’ll be able to add additional practices with ease.

Why Flossing is a Perfect Gateway Habit

In his great book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg lists five habits that he found to lead to successful personal transformation. They include getting enough sleep, exercising every day, eating right, gratitude rituals, and… flossing.

Flossing? Yep.

Like the rest of the habits Duhigg lists, flossing is something that most of us already know we should be doing. When you factor in the minimal time investment and the ability to tie it to existing routines, it becomes the perfect gateway habit.

The pros understand the power of this simple practice. Habit mavens James Clear, Leo Babauta, and BJ Fogg all recommend the strategy, and many lifestyle coaches start new clients with flossing as habit #1.

Why is it so effective? Our brains are constantly analyzing our past actions and decisions to create a story about who we are. That story becomes our sense of identity, and we make choices in the future partly based on how well they fit the tale. As you start flossing, “healthy” becomes part of your story, since your brain already associates flossing with health and good choices. As you stick with it and make it a habit, your brain might add “capable,” “successful,” and “confident.” When you’re ready to start additional positive habits, you’ll be able to do so with less effort since your brain will know you as the type of person who enjoys making healthy choices.

The link between flossing and health is an important part of its power as a gateway habit, so here’s a quick reminder of some of its non-habit related benefits:

  • Flossing helps prevent against larger diseases. Studies have shown a positive relationship between having a higher risk of gum disease (which you can reduce by flossing) and having a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and low birth-weight babies. As Dr. Kimberly Harms, DDS, explains, “We’re not sure why, but we do know if your immune system is compromised, you don’t want live bacteria in your system.”4 Another fun fact: when researching this article, Google served me an advertisement from the Cadence Physician Group of NorthWestern Medicine. The ad said: “What do yoga, almonds, and flossing have in common? A healthy heart.”
  • Flossing makes your mouth look and feel amazing. It cleans the part of your teeth that your toothbrush can’t reach, and removes the bacteria that can cause bad breath and color your teeth.56
  • Flossing saves you money. Dental work can get expensive, and any dentist will tell you that the most effective and cost-efficient tools for protecting oral health are a toothbrush and box of floss (or flossers).7
  • Flossing makes for better visits to the dentist. You can feel good about telling them that you’ve been flossing. Even better, the hygienist doesn’t have to destroy your gums with that metal pokey stick thing to remove hardened plaque, since you already removed it when it was softer.

Ready to get going? Let’s turn to the experts for some tips on how to make it work.

Expert Tricks for Making the Flossing Habit Stick

  • Start small. Tiny small. The pros I mentioned above all suggest starting with just a single tooth. As Leo Babauta explains, “Of course, that seems so ridiculous most people laugh. But I’m totally serious: if you start out exceedingly small, you won’t say no. You’ll feel crazy if you don’t do it. And so you’ll actually do it!”8
  • Use the right tools. I don’t know anybody who likes wrapping the floss around their finger and then shoving their fingers in their mouth. I always struggle to keep the line tight enough to fit between my teeth. Fortunately, dentists created the awesome and convenient flossing pick, a tiny piece of floss attached to a plastic handle. Be warned: they aren’t all created equal, so get one that feels good to use. My personal favorites are the Plackers Micromint Flossers.
  • Keep the flossers visible. James Clear keeps a container of flossers next to his toothbrush, with the lid off, so they are visible and easy to grab. As he describes, “With the flossers visible on the bathroom counter, I never forget to floss.”9
  • Add the flossing habit to another routine. All habits begin with a signal that reminds us to act. Also referred to as a reminder, a trigger, or a cue,((byJames Clear, BJ Fogg, or Charles Duhigg, respectively)) it’s the sign that gets the habit process started. Successfully adding a habit requires picking the right signal. For flossing, most people find it easiest to tie it to another habit they are already doing, a process known as Habit Stacking.10 For example, you could do it every time you brush your teeth, right after you wake up and drink a glass of water in the morning, or after you eat lunch.

You can do it!

Floss! Show yourself you’re a healthy, capable, and confident person by rocking this simple gateway habit.

  1. The Power of Habit []
  2. http://tinyhabits.com/sandbox/ []
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gateway_drug_theory []
  4. http://www.grandparents.com/health-and-wellbeing/health/benefits-flossing []
  5. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/oral-care/products/5-reasons-flossing-is-important.htm []
  6. https://www.humana.com/learning-center/health-and-wellbeing/healthy-living/benefits-of-using-dental-floss []
  7. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/oral-care/products/5-reasons-flossing-is-important.htm []
  8. http://zenhabits.net/habitses/ []
  9. http://jamesclear.com/habits-visibility-method []
  10. Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott []