Flossing at 46: The Power of Habit
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
So here's an embarrassing confession. I haven't flossed my entire life. I guess that's not technically accurate. I don't mean I've never flossed, but If you divided my life into two periods on either side of Dec 30, 2019, the number of times I flossed on either side of that divide might be disappointingly close. I'm not proud of that, but it's the truth,....and I'm not the only person skipping around the edges of the Gingivitis Forest. But as I sit here today, I'm proud to report that at the ripe young age of 46 I have finally embraced the 3rd leg of the good dental hygiene stool. In addition to brushing and using an antibacterial mouthwash, I floss consistently!
So what was formative about Dec 30th? A crown. It was two weeks after my cleaning and exam, and the good doctor said it was time to replace a filling that couldn't be extended to cover a cavity he'd seen on the X-ray. I joked nervously prior to "bonus time" in the recliner. Something about wearing a purple robe for the coronation. I heard a muffled chuckle as Doc revved his needle gun and asked me questions I couldn't answer because a grown man's fist was in my mouth. It felt like he was tattooing his initials in my gums in preparation for the procedure. Then came the smells. He moved in with the drill bit; my crossed eyes tracking a blurry hand shakier than Luke Skywalker on the trench run with TIE fighters closing in. I couldn't crowd out visions of a small Chicklet nub that was soon to be all left where my once proud molar stood; each whiff of smoke bringing the drill closer to the nerve and sending me rocketing out of the chair like I had a JATO pack strapped to my ass. I don't let my imagination run wild often, but I could have used a horse tranquilizer while that drill was turning. That was step 3 in the procedure; numbers 4-6 were anticlimactic. The folks that put together the handy infographic below did a good job laying out the process. My only critique is that it's like an aircraft emergency information card; startlingly devoid of the actual emotions experienced by participants. Also, step 3 should have a picture of a drill. It's definitely a big part of the process.
I've shared before that some of my adulting skills were lacking because the Air Force took such good care of me. My annual dental exams and cleanings were scheduled and all costs were on Uncle Sam. When I retired it took about 1.5 years before Jenni asked me if I was ever going to get my teeth cleaned again.
Me: "Oh...yeah, I guess I need to schedule that huh."
Jenni: "Mmm,hmm,...you do; I take care of 2 children...you are not one of them."
Me: "You are so sweet."
Jenni: "I'm going to the gym."
Me: "Get swole!"'
Cleanings have always created anxiety for me. Each year I ritually initiated a short stint of intense flossing in preparation for the blood letting, ironically, due to my lack of flossing. Usually this just resulted in aggravated gums prior to the entire procedure kicking off in earnest. To compound the misery, a side helping of shame was added each time as the hygienist initiated the ritual: Do you floss regularly? Well, if by regularly you mean the last 4-5 days the answer is yes. Prior to that,...not so much. It reminds me of one of the few jokes I know:
Dentist: "When was the last time you flossed?"
Patient: "You should know bro, you were there."
This is an actual post cleaning photo.
So if the crown was the catalyst, what helped create and cement the new habit? I would love to tell you that I just "willed" it so, but I think it's more complex than that. A few years ago my friend Todd Tyler gave me a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The book is well worth your time, but Duhigg argues that habits are merely a self-reinforcing circular flow of cues, routines, and rewards. If you examine almost anything that you do on a routine basis, you can identify these components. Let's take snacking...another area of frequent failure in my life. I often find myself craving a snack in the afternoon if I'm stuck at home. It's not such a problem if I'm working, hiking, or actively doing something. But if I'm home, the snack attack strikes. In this case, I've identified "boredom" as the cue that initiates my routine. When I'm bored (cue) I go sift through the highly processed carbohydrates in our pantry and make a super unhealthy choice (routine). I'm then rewarded with a tasty sugar rush that has unhealthy consequences in both the short (sugar crash) and long term (obesity). Duhigg posits that by breaking habits down into these components we can establish or influence them. For instance, many recovering alcoholics will avoid bars or even proximity to alcohol because it's a cue that starts the drinking routine. Many people that struggle with hitting the snooze button change their routine in order to force a change in the habit. Whether it's moving the clock out of arm's reach, or counting down from five to zero before bounding out of bed, they are trying to change their routine when they have the cue.
In my case, mouthwash was MVP. I love the way a strong mouthwash feels; minty and clean. I can't say that I was conscious of it at the time, but by routinely finishing with mouthwash I was establishing a very powerful subconscious reward. My cues for dental hygiene didn't change. I usually think about brushing my teeth when I start preparing for bed or after waking up in the morning. Typically I've been brushing first, flossing second, and then mouthwash third. I'm not always consistent on steps one or two, but the mouthwash is always last,....a minty reward. And voila...just like that, I have the first empty floss container. Who would have thought that having an empty floss container would be a point of pride? And you know what's weird, I think that subconsciously my brain figured this connection out. I have carried mouthwash in my travel kit before, but inconsistently. After I established my flossing habit I made it a point to get some travel size mouthwash containers to take with me on the road. I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but having that mouthwash on the road is both a cue and a reward. When I brush my teeth I automatically grab the floss next because I want to use the mouthwash....and it comes AFTER flossing. :-) There is a certain amount of "Rain Man" to effectively creating and nurturing habits, but that just goes with the territory.
So that's it? Yep! Just go buy some high octane mouthwash and you should be good to go! Not really. If it was that easy I'd be about 25 pounds lighter by establishing some healthier eating habits with a similar ploy. But I am happy for one small victory and I'll try and apply this methodology to other areas of my life. Snacking and eating habits are especially ripe with low hanging unhealthy carbs for the picking. :-) I highly recommend Duhigg's book. It's never too late to work on self improvement. You don't need to wait until January 1st. Try Feb 1st, or March 1st, or tomorrow. If I can establish a consistent flossing habit at 46 what else is possible for me? What's possible for you? Probably a great deal more than we think.