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.
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.
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…