Habits Big & Small: Flossing Investigated

This post is a summary of some research on flossing.  Before you yawn and go to sleep – think – what can be learnt from flossing about other habits and hence building a better life?

At the start of the article Judah and his mates remind us of some of the things we have learnt in other parts of this series (on the science of habits). Firstly automaticity is key. Once we have reached auto-pilot with habits – our conscious mind is no longer engaged, a cue leads to an action.  And of course in the case of that bad habits these actions are linked to sickness and death and other horrible stuff.  We are also reminded the link between intention and behaviors weakens as habits increase in their automaticity. To me this is another way of saying our conscious mind turns off after a habit is embedded.  This is a great thing for good habits, but a nightmare for bad ones.

Memory matters

Something new in this article (for me at least) is the importance of memory.  I, for one,  never forget when I am trying to eat better, drink less and other painful things.  However I do forget to take my iron supplements.  Remember in this article how we discovered that there are huge differences in how long it takes to form a habit in different people.  This study suggests maybe differences in memory are part of that variation.

It is a specific type of memory that is important here called ‘prospective memories’.  Which is kinda like it sounds – remember to do something in the future, like take your iron pills tomorrow or stop after one glass.

Placement matters too

Tip: Imbed new habits inside existing routines, which will help ensure that memory is triggered, e.g. when I put down my tooth brush I remember to floss.

Now things get pretty technical, but the gist of it is that it matters exactly where and how we embed a new habit into a routine to up the chance of success.  To test their ideas the researchers paid 50 people thirty pounds to floss daily.

So who were the winners? What sorts of people trying what sorts of things made flossing a habit?

Well those that had good attitudes to flossing did better, supporting the idea we are not total helpless victims to our habits (thank the good Lord).

Now here is the interesting bit … those that flossed after brushing did better at forming the habit than those that flossed before.   Is flossing after better? No and yes.  It is only better because it has a better, more appropriate cue – finished brushing – ah floss – good girl.

When the cue is at the same ‘level’ of detail as the habit, things work better.  If the cue was ‘get ready for bed’ and you put your flossing habit first, you are likely to be less successful as this is a task at a high level than ‘brush teeth’.

Take Outs

I might be oversimplifying this thing here for ease of reading.  The take out is still the same …. Experiment with your habits and see what works.  Try and imbed new habits within existing routines but not at the start of them, ideally between the lower level steps.  The devil is in the detail… as it were.

Tell me are you managing to clean up your habits with the information from this series?

If not read more – select habits from the categories to the right or bottom.

I, for one, am off to floss – do your teeth feel a little fury after reading this too?

Yours as ever,

The Wellbeingatwork(neasrly)Dr


Judah, G., Gardner, B., & Aunger, R. (2013). Forming a flossing habit: an exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. British journal of health psychology, 18(2), 338-353.







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