Habits Big & Small: Flossing Investigated

This post is a summary of some research on flossing.  Before you yawn and go to sleep there is more here than meets the eye or should I say teeth?

The authors open with discussing the importance of automaticity i.e., once we have reached auto-pilot with habits, our conscious mind is no longer engaged, a cue leads to an action.  We are also reminded that the link between intention and behaviours weakens as habits increase in their automaticity.

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.  It is a specific type of memory that is important here called ‘prospective memories’.  Which is kinda like it sounds, remembering 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 toothbrush I remember to floss.

Next in the article 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 – ok floss – ah 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 higher level than ‘brush teeth’.

Take Outs

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.

Go well in the direction of your dreams, your bed that is, right after you floss!


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.