Habit Terminus: A (Successful) End to Flossing

Five years ago when I first started my battle for solid habits, I bought into the tacit assumption that self improvement – for whatever you’re going after – lasts forever. And since there was always something more to do and more to add, that appeared self-evident. Yet here I am at the very end of my flossing habit. I’m calling it a habit terminus.

Habit Terminus - the point at which there’s nothing to do but rinse and repeat, and even the rinsing and repeating is automatic.

Here’s the data I collected on the full habit.

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Or if we’re being a little fancier - a 3D graph of the entire habit with SRI, habit load, and time (hopefully this displays for you)!

While I’m very happy to finally be at the end of any habit, it begs the question, how exactly do you know it’s the end? How and when can you call it?

My first automatic reaction is to resort to old school, pop science thinking. It’s been about a month. The 21-days-makes-a-habit adage originally came from Maxwell Maltz’s 1960 book, Psycho-Cybernetics (a book I’ve had on my shelf for over a decade and have yet to read), and applied to one behavior - plastic surgery patients getting used to their new faces. I’m very skeptical about these kinds of vague, hand wavy metrics, but I will return to this later in the article.

The second stand out thought is just to take the Self Report Habit Index (SRHI) to assess whether or not the full behavior - “Flossing all teeth” - is automatic.

Taking the SRHI like this was interesting. 

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As you can see by the chart, these 5 questions were kind’ve….weird.

  • It makes me feel weird if I do not do it

  • It would require effort not to do it

  • I would find it hard not to do

  • This task is typically “me”

  • I have been doing it for a long time


For the first 4 questions, distinguishing how I would react to flossing all teeth vs doing the previous iterations of them (20, 10, etc..) was difficult to clearly forecast. So I answered them all with “Undecided”.

The last question - “I have been doing this for a long time” - was just not true, especially in comparison with the duration of the habit itself. Hence the “disagree”.

This doesn’t really tell me much except that the SRHI needs to be modified or replaced with a better diagnostic tool to properly assess the situation.

Which leads to the third method, to focus in on the habit load rather than the habit as a whole. Rather than resorting to time or automaticity of the habit, I could sort out some sort of rudimentary scale for how unnatural or “heavy” the number of teeth flossed was - like what many doctors use for pain (“on a scale of 1-10, how painful is this”). This zoomed in approach avoids differentiating between the automatic nature of flossing 2 teeth vs flossing all of them.

This brings up another question - how many days does it take for a habit load to normalize? And how do you assess this in such a way that is efficient and not burdensome?

I’ve called this problem the Law of Limited Natural Growth - a properly created habit using BJ Fogg’s TinyHabit system, naturally grows a little, then plateaus.

One method is to raise the bar with challenges. I’ve had success with this in writing, (after a really intense NaNoWriMo) and with not eating sugar after a dietary challenge (I believe it was Body for Life). There are severe problems with this method - you’re overexerting yourself in the willpower department, and that’s never a good thing for other habits you’ve got going on. The first few times I did NaNoWriMo, I either ended up dropping habits completely or dropping them down to really low daily minimums.

The second and most successful method I’ve used to date is modulation. By that I mean slightly modifying the habit across time in one session in order to bypass boredom. This has worked particularly well for timed habits, like meditation and cardio. I have a few theories as to why this works, but I do not see it as viable with more straight forwards habits like flossing.

The method I used here was simply to raise the bar slowly. I flossed 6 teeth, then 10, 20, and then all of them. That worked, but I couldn’t tell WHEN I should up the bar.

When I was in high school I was obsessed with long distance running. The cross country coach sent out a progression to get beginners up to speed over the course of a summer, building from 1 mile to 9. Programs like Couch25k or NonetoRun do this as well, but as of yet I’ve never seen why the progression intervals work. I’ve never found if they are based on studies or just general coaching instinct. And sadly, the progression didn’t work for me at all.

Going forward with flossing I plan on changing to regular string rather than the weird flossing plastic handled things I use now, and I’m curious if that affects the habit. I’m also curious how travel affects it. I once theorized that the final test of any habit was doing it under duress like travel. 

But most importantly progress should feel effortless, and I felt I wasn’t doing things efficiently, especially when it came to upping the number of teeth per session. There were definitely points at which my habit could have broken because it felt strained to do 20 teeth versus 10. 

As I was combing through the data I decided to check the intervals in which I naturally progressed from one habit load to the next higher load. Here were the results:

6-12 teeth = 21 days
12 - 20 teeth = 15 days
20 - All teeth = 21 days

There’s that pesky 21 days! Maybe there’s something to pop science after all…

Towards an Identity Model of Habits: Part I

My buddy James is a vegetarian.
I am not a morning person.
I’m a reader of fantasy books.

Remember those statements, ’cause I’m going to reference ’em later.

In the last few years I’ve been experimenting with various models of self improvement. Before I officially started this project I assumed that motivation was a significant catalyst for self change. After seeing it as a perennial problem (I can get psyched up for gym going starting on New Years, but it peters out pretty quickly, and the cycle repeats next year) I switched to other things.

I dabbled in gamification, because I saw its addictive properties as lowering willpower thresholds. Like motivation, it worked, but only for a while.

I’ve since focused on habits for the last two years, and though I’ve had a great deal of success, they’re only foolproof in relatively basic and linear behaviors. When things get complicated that paradigm just isn’t enough.

How are they not enough?
The linear model – what BJ Fogg advocates, of starting a Tiny Habit, reaching that hook point of automaticity, then naturally increasing difficulty, repetitions, or length of time until you achieve mastery – doesn’t seem to fully work all the time. Or rather it really falls a part when you’re pushing habits to mastery, which I see as another vector of effort (regimention/willpower and endurance/forming a habit being the other two vectors).

That vector involves plateaus in skill and the maddening frustration of constantly doing a task that is at least slightly above your current level.

It also runs into trouble when you’re dealing with families of skills. I advocate this not only because families can support each other, but in a world where time is of essence (we die, our bodies wear out), skills that have an accrual across time are necessary to start now to gain the benefits of daily minimums across time. If I start a habit of cardio 30 minutes a day, I may not master it. I might not get my goal of a six pack until I nail my eating habit. But for as long as I’m exercising, I’m accruing secondary cardio “points”.

Pushing skills in the vector of skill advancement throws a huge wrench into the equation because of habit harmonics. A dissonance starts – extra effort in one skill affects the solidity of other habits.

But the biggest problem with my current model is that it doesn’t attenuate in more complicated behaviors.

Let’s go back to the original three statements.

My buddy James is a vegetarian. When we go out and eat he avoids meat. In all scenarios. After the bars while tipsy and ordering pizza late at night, when going to a restaurant with friends with crappy vegetarian options, even in one place that had amazing pork tacos.

I do the same thing with fantasy books. It’s not as though I decide to read them – I HAVE to read them. It’s not even a choice. I need to have those few minutes before bed to scratch that itch and if I don’t have at least an option loaded on my Kindle, I start to get all itchy. The world is not right.

The inverse is important to analyze – I’m not a morning person. My waking up early is either a fluke or a deliberate preparation if I need it. Morning people are morning people because they enjoy it or they just are that way – it’s totally independent from fluctuating conditions. If they’re out late the night before, they still wake up early.

For all three – it’s an identity that’s welded in. It’s not what you do, it’s part of who you are, which not only makes it stronger, it also is able to somehow adapt incredibly well to changing conditions. Choice is also almost entirely scrubbed out of the equation.

For me this becomes an issue with eating and getting up early. All the other habits I consider foundational are easy. Working out – no problem, barring travel, it’s once a day at a certain time. Same with writing, meditating, and if I add flossing or recording finances. It’s a matter of if-then protocols – implementation intentions.

For eating that gets insanely complicated – it’s multiple times a day, across changing circumstances, etc. I believe it’s the reason I’ve had to scrap the habit several times, even when I’ve maintained it for close to a year. It just never stuck. And this is a big problem – eating is incredibly important for health, energy, and weight loss. It also has the biggest impact for whether I can socialize well later in the program – I don’t want to go out to meet people and, because of lack of willpower, blow out a previous habit of making good food decisions.

mask by 派脆客 Lee, tack by Zaheer Mohiuddin, welder by Per Hortlund

TinyHabits, Plateaus and Ratcheting

At some point BJ Fogg talks about how a habit, when properly planted, will grow on its own. He then follows up by talking about how many pushups he does now (I think this is in his TED talk).

I don’t think think this is accurate - and I think a lot of habit researchers make leaps simply because they don’t have enough data. At 321 days of recording my own bodyweight habit, I’ve stalled. 

I started with a basic two pushup habit like BJ Fogg, then it grew - I was doing a pushup progression getting into typewriter pushups, as well as burpees, bridge progressions, etc. Which was great.

But recently I gone back down to two pushups after traveling and introducing other habits. I’m back down to the basic two pushups.  This makes sense considering other sources who talk about plateaus as inevitable. A plateau requires a push to get past.

I understand what Fogg is saying - we do have an artificially created growth cycle when we pass the danger period through making deliberately small habits - it’s as though we’re chomping on the bit but we’ve been forcing ourselves to take it slow. Graphically, the TinyHabit shifts a lot of things over.

But AFTER that initial growth cycle, we need to deliberately push ourselves. Because it ain’t gonna grow on its own.

The problem comes when we introduce multiple habits - also something most habit researchers don’t have data on over long periods. Other habits that are entering a danger zone or a growth cycle will inevitably leach willpower from habits that are floundering. There’s just not enough ambient willpower to sustain growth in all fields.

At the same time the danger is dropping down to the initial TinyHabit for maintenance purposes. You want to drop down to conserve willpower but you still want to keep the habit.

I’ve done this with my pushup habit.  But the thing is, my maintenance level shouldn’t be 2 regular pushups now. It SHOULD be two TYPEWRITER pushups. Going back down to the initial TinyHabit reverses progress rather than maintaining it.

So I think a new protocol for Willpower cycling would be to ratchet TinyHabits for maintenance. At periodic points in a habit’s lifecycle a line must be drawn to determine what a TinyHabit is in each category of habit for the express purposes of keeping up the habit without reversing progress. Maintenance levels for habits have to be progressive across time.

What’s exciting (well, to me at least) is that a TinyHabit has a different graph and lifecycle than a regular habit - and this can and should be mapped out to prevent problems later down the road.

Writing, Tinyhabits, and Scaleability

The last few days my emotions have been all over the place. I’ve had loss of clarity, loss of focus, and today I have yet to do my new writing habit.

This all makes sense - I predicted that my emotions would be unstable during this induction phase of a new habit. But what I’m beginning to think is that I haven’t quite set up my new habit well.

The whole point of making a habit tiny is to lower the threshold for fear and paralysis. Such a habit should be ludicrously tiny. When I started burpees I did 2 burpees - an easy amount. I never had a point where I said - wow I don’t want to do the work today - it was only 2!

Although 200 words seems like it’s very small, it’s obviously not so in my mind. A habit should be tiny enough to completely negate the initial static mindset I have that prevents me from even opening up my word processing software.

When this happens, the basic most simplistic action becomes ingrained as a habit. And then, like BJ Fogg says, it will grow.

So I’m dropping my daily word count from 200 words to a measly 50.

I agree with BJ Fogg that such a habit will NATURALLY grow. But I believe at some point you hit a plateau. At some point you don’t have to work and you have to force it. And that’s where scalability comes in.

I do meditation every day, but I don’t push it. Bodyweight exercises grew from a tiny habit, and then seamlessly merged into plank progressions, and that will merge into general bodyweight progressions, the later 2 examples of scaling.

I want my 50 words to do this. I want it to naturally grow to 500, then 800, and then scale it so I do a rough draft of an article, then a fully edited article. I think this way of viewing the lifecycle of practicing a skill encompasses not only habit formation but its eventual mastery.