The Psychology of Flossing | Marc Allard | Chronicles | The sun


DUsually it goes strong. The first week, I scrub the interstices of my teeth every evening. I am proud of my diligence and I can already see myself declaring victory to the hygienist.

But in the weeks that follow, my engagement always ends up somewhere on the island of lost promises. I think about floss once, then I forget several evenings, I think about it once or twice, then the dental floss stays there waiting in vain for the rest of the month.

When the dental hygienist takes stock six months later, I have no choice but to admit my indiscipline.

Now, this time, I swear, it's the right one. Since the beginning of 2020, every evening, immediately after brushing my teeth, I have been flossing. As soon as I put away the toothpaste, I grab the dental floss and I do the work.

What has changed? I have become a fan of a very effective technique that can be applied to a host of habits that you want to adopt. It's called "stacking."

It's simple: you take an already installed habit and stack another on top of it. The sequence order is extremely important.

In the early 2010s, researchers conducted a small experiment with around fifty Britons who flossed on average 1.5 times a month. They asked half of the participants to floss before brushing their teeth in the evening and the other half to floss after brushing their teeth.

For a month, participants were reminded to floss and had to confirm if they texted. On average, the two groups spent about 24 times during the month. But the researchers are more cunning than that: they wanted above all to know what would happen after the experiment.

Eight months later, the group that flossed after brushing their teeth still did so about 11 times a month. On the other hand, those who flossed before brushing their teeth hardly did so anymore – barely once a week …

The "losing" group failed to adopt the habit for an obvious after-the-fact reason: they had not associated any signals with dental floss. By flossing before brushing their teeth, they had to rely solely on their memory.

Conversely, the "winning" group used an already integrated habit (brushing their teeth) to signal a new habit (flossing).

But hey, if flossing isn't your thing, know that stacking works for a lot of other good habits.

Every evening, for example, I put my phone in "airplane mode" before going to bed. No need to think about it, it's automatic. But for the past few months, I’ve been stacking another habit on top of it: I’m taking the opportunity to recharge my cell phone battery overnight. Now he doesn't let go of me in the middle of the day.

For the past few weeks, too, I've been trying a new morning stack. While my daughters have lunch at the counter, my girlfriend and I prepare their lunches. But instead of putting everything away afterwards, I also prepare my lunch and place it on the doorstep. Like that, I don't forget it and my lunchtime budget budget decreases.

The combinations of habits are endless. But to be stacked, they must be compatible. Don't think you'll go jogging every time you're done washing up. There is little chance that it will flow smoothly, unless the smell of dish soap makes you want to run …

The compatibility of stackable habits is usually evident. You are probably doing it already without realizing it. If not, now may be the time to give it a try. A suggestion like that: start with dental floss.


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