The dentist peered into my mouth. “You’re not flossing!” he barked.
“Yes, I am!” I tried to protest as dental equipment rolled around in my mouth. (This was a lie, of course.) Once the cleaning was done, he asked a few questions and then gave a warning: “You’d better start flossing or your teeth are going to fall out of your head. I mean it.”
Dentists say this stuff to patients all of the time, and the patients typically go right back to neglecting to brush before bedtime. But, for some reason, his words really struck me that day, and I decided to floss every day until my next appointment in six months.
But I didn’t merely just floss every day for six months. I became a “flosser.” Through this nightly ritual, I began to see myself as someone who had the discipline to stick to a new habit. Each night that I flossed was a small personal victory, which gave me the motivation to keep going. As a result, after just a few months, the routine became automatic.
It took years to put the two events together, but I ultimately realized that my flossing challenge was the catalyst for another radical shift: my approach to finances.
The Power of Keystone Habits
My new routine became what Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business,” calls a keystone habit. In my quest for self-improvement, I did a lot of reading about habit-changing, and Duhigg’s book really resonated for me—especially the chapter on keystone habits, which “unlock all other patterns in your life,” encouraging you to improve across the board.
In other words, they set off a chain reaction of change in other, unrelated areas. Keystone habits are effective because, when you stick to them consistently, they create “small wins,” a strategy that psychologists use to inspire hope in people who are looking to improve their lives because they help keep motivation high when the road is long. Ultimately, every “X” on my calendar was a small win.
According to Duhigg, ”we get a sense of identity from what we do, and when a keystone habit bolsters a positive sense of identity, it’s powerful.” Through the flossing challenge, I accidentally proved to myself that I was capable of long-term change.
Little Wins = Big Change
Once flossing became an automatic habit, I asked myself: What else can I change? At the time, I wasn’t paying attention to my finances—and the debts were piling high. I had convinced myself that I could never be disciplined about money, but here was concrete evidence that I could be disciplined in at least one area of my life. Who was I to say that I couldn’t show that discipline elsewhere?