How to Build a Habit in 28 Days

By Erica Root

Erica Root
Erica Root

My dentist likes to remind his patients of their upcoming appointments by employing a variety of reminder techniques. A month before the scheduled appointment I receive a friendly email, which serves as the first alarm. Then, a week before the appointment I get a postcard in the mail with a silly comic on the front. Finally, I receive an automated text message days before the appointment, a last call if you will, to see if I will change my mind and postpone my appointment date. With every correspondence my anxiety level used to rise just a little bit more.

Why, you ask, did the dentist elicit such an overwhelming response from a grown woman in her late twenties?

One word: flossing.

Every six months, like clockwork, I received a reprimand from a soft spoken dental hygienist, who had just spent the better part of the past hour going to town in my mouth, scraping and suctioning whatever horrors have collected between my teeth since my last visit.

It wasn’t that I never flossed – it was just that it was so rare that it is barely noteworthy. And it was definitely not worth mentioning during my time in the dentist’s chair, because I probably would have just been laughed at.

All my visits used to end the same, with the hygienist launching into the dreaded ‘talk’ about the dangers of gingivitis. We end the conversation with me promising to do better next time and walking out with a goodie bag of toothpaste, a toothbrush and a variety of flossing options.

I went to college and I am pretty bright, so why, oh why, did I keep doing this to myself? Why didn’t I just floss, but more importantly, why did I always insist to the hygienist that I would do better next time? Why did I make promises that I knew (and I’m sure my hygienist knew), would not be kept?

In order to finally change my behavior, I decided to challenge myself to 28 days of flossing. I’ve read that it takes 28 days to form a habit (although Gretchen Rubin might have thing or two to say about that). I would do whatever it took to ensure that I flossed every single one of those 28 days to maximize my chances for success.

For my experiment I identified three types of floss/flossers that I was permitted to use:

  1. Plain old floss
  2. Floss extender
  3. Gum soft picks

I had to use at least one of these items, once a day, for 28 days.

Here is an excerpt from the first few days of my flossing experiment. WARNING: this is probably the most boring journal ever, but it worked, so there must be something to it:

Day 1: Floss extender, regular floss

Yep, I am an overachiever whenever I start something new. I can promise you that I will not be flossing twice a day moving forward.

Day 2: Regular floss, gum soft pick

OK, seriously, I won’t keep flossing twice a day. That would be too boring.

Day 3: Regular floss

I told you I couldn’t keep up with flossing twice a day!

Day 4: Floss Extender

I purchased a floss extender that I found on sale at Safeway, as I was picking up groceries with my sister. I already have some extenders I purchased earlier in the week, but it was a deal I could not pass up – $2.49 for a flosser with 50 refills. However, pass it up I should have, as one of the floss heads got stuck between my teeth as it detached from its extender. After an initial moment of panic, I realized I hadn’t accidentally swallowed the floss head, so I reached into my mouth to safely dislodge it. Fortunately, no one was hurt during this (and by no one, I mean me), but I did have two witnesses – my mom and my sister. Not sure when I will feel up for round two, but I doubt it will be anytime soon.

Day 5: Regular floss

After the previous days debacle, I’m not taking any chances.

The journaling goes on like this for another 23 days. Don’t worry, I won’t subject you all of it.

What I most want people to know is that my challenge worked. I made a boring task as exciting as I possibly could and did as much as possible to keep myself accountable. Giving myself flossing options, having that diversity, and writing down my progress were essential to my success for my little experiment.

I began this challenge in December of 2012 — I was going to finally get my act together and become a regular flosser. In the three years since, there are only a handful of days where I didn’t floss at all.

That’s AMAZING for this former casual flosser.

And it’s made those dreaded dentist visits far more pleasant. The visits are significantly shorter because there is less scraping and scrounging that needs to happen.

It’s fantastic!

If avoiding the awkward conversation with your dental hygienist isn’t reason enough to start flossing then think about this: not only does daily flossing cut down on gum disease (and potentially future dental costs), it can help stave off other diseases, and add as many as five years to your life.

Maybe you are already flossing on the regular, but there is another habit you’d like to establish. Create a plan, set yourself up for success, and make it happen.

Best of luck and happy flossing.

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