Change your bad habits in 6 (easy) steps

How many times do you have to do something before it becomes a habit? We know...


I know that I should floss my teeth but I don’t – even though some times I spit blood after brushing them. From time to time I have had a run of flossing – usually after a tongue-lashing from my dentist – but somehow I have never quite got into this routine. This is despite the fact that I know that healthy teeth are pretty crucial for staying well, especially as you get older.

Why is this?

Here is a simple behaviour that I know rationally is very good for me, that doesn’t take much time and that I want to do. So how come I don’t do it?

After some cogitation and perusal of the scientific studies of the psychology of behaviour change, I think I now know the answer: I haven’t done enough to make flossing a habit.

The human brain is a vast hamper of habits which is why we can listen to Marian Finucane while driving down busy streets, make our breakfast while still half asleep and run off the pin code to the ATM with minds focused on the size of the overdraft.

But consider how long it took you to learn to drive and of the sweating effort and concentration during your lessons. You had to think about your hands, your feet, the road, the speed, the gearstick – it was a nightmare of intense focus with not a spare brain cell available to listen to Marian.

It took thousands of practices of the whole sequence of movements, thoughts and perceptions entailed in driving before it became the habit that it now is for most of us.

Although flossing is a much less complicated activity than driving, it turns out that if I am to establish that as a habit, I need to do it an awful lot of times with that deliberate focus of the learner driver before it takes root in my brain and becomes something I just do – in other words, a habit.

How many times do I have to do this for it to happen? – 66, it turns out, is the magic number, plus or minus a few practices. That’s whatresearch by colleagues of mine at University College London has shown.

If I am to save my teeth and appease my dentist, then I am going to have to coax myself into flossing for all of October and November, and a little bit of December. If I can get over that hurdle of 66 practices (the actual number can vary depending on the activity but 66 is a good average estimate), then flossing will become part of me, just like my hairy legs and thinning hair and will require no cognitive effort, so that even listening to Marian Finucane won’t divert me from it.

Great, I know what to do. But hold on, 66 is a lot of days and there are many bumps on the mental road waiting for me for the next two and bit months. There will be these grey, hassled mornings in November when I leap sweating through the closing doors of the Dart shamefully un-flossed. And there will be these languorous Saturday mornings where Marian Finucane is so interesting that I just forget to floss. Habits don’t let you forget, but our skittish conscious minds do.

So what can I do to stick with this 66-day climb so that I can reach the effort-free and sun-drenched plateau of habit? If I can answer that question, then not only will my bleeding gums be grateful, but I will also have cracked it for my diet, weight and exercise too.

Fortunately, psychological science has a number of proven answers:

1. Set a “Goldilocks zone” goal

Successful people are masters of setting goals for themselves that are not too hard and not too easy – they stretch them without demoralising them. But goals have to be specific. A goal like “I am going to lose weight” is too big, too vague and almost certain to fail without a few intermediate goals. However, “I am going to stop eating butter on my bread except on Sundays,” for example, has more chance of success.

2. Publicly announce your plan

Ihave just announced that I am going to start flossing my teeth today and the research shows that making that announcement, even if only to my partner or friend, increases the chance that I will do what I say I am going to do.

3. Monitor and record

Smartphones are brilliant motivators because they automatically keep track of things such as how far we walk each day. Just having that record actually motivates us and makes us more likely to continue. There are lots of apps for recording our diet, exercise, sleep and almost everything else we do. So during the 66-day climb, at the very least put a piece of paper on the back of the kitchen door and give yourself a big tick every time you do what you said you were going to do.#

4. Reward yourself

That tick on the kitchen door you give yourself gives a little boost to your brain’s reward system and you can boost your motivation and confidence by self-rewarding with a treat after a week of such ticks – you choose, but make it something you really enjoy.

5. Believe you can do it

This can be the biggest obstacle, making you get off your bike on the 66-day climb. Inevitably you will miss one or more days and thoughts like I can’t do it, I don’t have any willpower and the like will flood in. Willpower is a set of habits; it is not something you have or don’t have. It’s something that has to be learned and practised, just like any other habit.

6. Use stress as a trigger for the habit

Mostly when we feel stressed we give up on our healthy intentions and console ourselves or weaknesses, whether buns, beer or baccy. But you can learn – again this is a habit to be learned – to make feeling stressed a trigger for doing the good things rather than the bad. This not only helps you become healthier and more confident, it also distracts you from the stress and makes you feel less anxious and down. In my latest book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make you Stronger and Sharper, I explain how this can happen.

So, will I do it? Am I going to become a flosser? Dammit, yes. I now know what I have to do to save my teeth, and am going to do it. Call me in a couple of months, please, to check if I can turn this theory into practice.

Ian Robertson is professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin and was the founding director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. His previous books include Mind Sculpture, The Mind’s Eye and The Winner Effect. See and @ihrobertson

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