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…

What I Learned Completing NaNoWriMo in 5 Days - Part II

3) Uncertainty in my editing process prevents me from writing.


NaNoWriMo offers a virtual gift basket of goodies when you’re a confirmed winner. This year’s included a special Master Class session by James Patterson on editing a novel. 

What stuck out was his matter-of-factness on the number of rewrites needed.

“I like to do many drafts…but I do these drafts very quickly - I do not, I don’t get constipated, I don’t get worried, I just keep going, let’s do it again, let’s do it again, let’s do it again…”

Although I’m getting better at outputting a draft, I still get stuck on editing it. Why? For one, it’s a lot harder to quantify. I can quantify rough draft output, and because I have stats I can begin to troubleshoot. How do you judge the quality of an edit? Can you consistently know how much time it will take? Or score it based on its sliding strength quality?


Because I cannot answer these questions clearly, the pressure to do a quality rewrite builds. Patterson doesn’t seem to care - there’s no pressure because he knows that he’ll do a bunch of them. And this prevents him from getting stuck. 

So taking from him, what if I matter-of-factly always had to do 3 rewrites? In my mind, just thinking about that already lessens the pressure I feel, and I think it might function very much like a lowered daily minimum does for starting any habit. Going to the gym for an hour might be a pain, but how does doing two pushups feel?



First, by quantifying my output it not only makes writing drafts manageable, but predictable. In a larger system of other habits, knowing exactly when I’ll get an article done is priceless. Right now, I can’t predict that unless I’m forced into it on a deadline, and I think that might be one of the bars of a true professional writer. This plays into all sorts of things like long term planning and the regimentation of my day.

Word count also helps me gauge my overall skill at writing rather than placing emphasis on one particular article - it shifts me into a process rather than goal driven orientation.


Secondly, the Pomodoro Technique and just starting the timer completely changes the moment where the habit “fold” is created, especially how it should be efficiently created with implementation intention. Rather than “wake up, then start writing” it’s more “get up, then set up blank page and start timer”. It’s an interesting form of a failure to start, because here properly formed habit has nothing to do with the habit itself, it has to do with the starting of the session regardless of content. And this fits into a meta model I have on self change, namely that once we properly get a system of change going, it works regardless of starting state. Self change then becomes more about the system rather than the person. More on that in another post.

Lastly, mastery over writing, something I’ve struggled with, comes in three major parts. Writing a draft, research, and editing. I’m nailing the draft writing, but research still bogs me down, as does editing. But I believe that Patterson’s approach may definitely be the key to helping me with the latter. It may also be a technique for dealing with other habits where clearly quantifying progress is not as possible.

photocred: rewrite by Alonso Mayo, microscope by Kiran Foster, folded paper by Deb Etheredge

“Changing Gears” & Pushing Writing

A colleague of mine always uses this phrase when she has to switch her work emphasis from, say, writing to photo editing -  and she does this ALL the time. Fresh off my travel and habit sandbagging challenge I was hoping to luxuriate in my slow and steady habits, but I need to change gears as well. 

I was hanging out last night with Lydia and she said something to the effect of “wouldn’t be neat if you were completely done with your book proposal by next Monday?”

Yes, Lydia, it would be. And she described it as tapping into the same mania that had me finishing NaNoWriMo in a week this past November.

“I can already see the gleam in your eyes,” she said.

She was right. So, I’m going to try it. It will also be a really good way to look into some concepts I’ve had in my periphery - Cal Newport’s idea of Deep Work, Scott H Young’s ideas on Deliberate Practice, and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of Flow

When I usually do a challenge I drop a lot of things down to minimums. In this case I’m going to drop meditation down to 10 minutes, simply because it really messes with my energy levels, I’m not at a place to really push it (I think I need to do a retreat or get used to sitting and meditating, both of which would require too much right now). Working out, even when doing 3 HIITs a week, is strangely relaxing and lifts me up, and other tasks are already at ludicrously low minimums. 

I also believe this will get me used to doing both parts of writing in concert - writing (scamping) and editing. I want to figure out a process for doing both really well. I’ve written about how for Flow states you need to have some sort of metric, and that’s easy enough for writing (words/time), it’s not so easy to grade editing.

But I guess we’ll see. You learn in the doing!

How to Reincorporate Challenges as Raised Daily Minimums (Beginning Habit Periodization)

This past month I completed a 30 day No Alcohol Challenge. It was great, I learned a lot, but now what?

Lydia reported seeing that many people, after completing a Whole Life Challenge, went back to bad eating as normal. I found the same case during my No Bread Challenge.

Back in the day I feel many people assumed that after 30 Days you’d get a habit that you could extend indefinitely. We know that’s not true. Nowadays, challenges are supposed to do something - but what? If we don’t harness them, we might as well have not done them in the first place.

The role of a challenge, for me, isn’t to jump start initial change. It’s to extend an already established small habit. If there are three vectors to long-term change - willpower to start the habit daily, habit to extend it and make it automatic, and the grit or deliberate practice needed to push past skill plateaus and increase intensity - then challenges belong to the third vector. Unfortunately this is the vector I know the least about.

I do know that there is a certain amount of …looseness or roominess… I feel mentally when it comes to the idea of ignoring alcohol at a bar with friends. There is a similar sort of freedom with my 8 week progressive HIIT challenge - it’s becoming easier to visualize myself trying something like Crossfit.

And I’ve successfully fumbled into progressive minimums for rowing - I started with HIITs twice a week for 8 weeks, and now I’m doing the entire challenge again 3 times a week. HIITs are now in my program to stay. What is the best way to do this with alcohol?

Lydia is adhering to a once a week drinking rule. I’m thinking of something more gradual, a twice a week drinking rule. It becomes really weird in this case because A) I didn’t have an established drinking habit and B) I don’t know how to concretely record a NON habit, especially one that’s so sporadic.

I’ve also been researching what’s at the heart of all of this - periodization. I’ve mostly been able to look at weight lifting, and it gets confusing very fast - there’s linear, non-linear, and newer undulating models of progression. And the thing that’s challenging - but good - is that it’s based on years of progress - microcycles, mesocycles, macrocycles, quadrennial cycles.

I asked Lydia how Crossfit did it, and she said it was a 6-10 week cycle dedicated either to endurance or power, and that it was based on percentages of a max. And that reminded me of my time in weightlifting where people talk about various programs - Strong Man, 5 X 5, Russian Volume, etc.

My main concern is HOW they came up with these formulas of when and how much to drop down to. For example, if I do NaNoWriMo, I’m writing at least 1600 words a day. Afterwards, do I drop down to 50%? 60 %? If I drop down too low it results in fewer gains over time. If I don’t drop low enough I run the risk of blowing myself out. I have no idea how you’d even begin to calculate that with a large set of athletes, never mind using only myself across multiple skills. It’s something I definitely have to dive into because it’s where all the fruition of my habits comes to.

And how much of this crosses over to other skills? There’s a lot of research to be done.

Recharging Habits

Since finishing NaNoWriMo my writing habit has been lax - automaticity has been difficult to achieve. A part of that has to do with improper transitional planning - I knew exactly what I had to do during my 30 day challenge, and after it ended I was left swinging in the wind. 

Another aspect is a lack of a proper implementation intention. It had been eroded by my recent travels, and for NaNoWriMo it had changed. My unstated implementation was “write A LOT” - which I did. But shifting gears to a normal schedule my if-then protocol was gone. And this is very noticeable when compared to my very new rowing habit, which has a crisp if-then (as soon as I get up, I row), a fact that’s reflected in rapidly soaring SRHI scores.

I switched up my routine yesterday and today, immediately writing after rowing. It just feels more automatic. It appears that the closer I have a task to waking up, the more charged the habit gets. Why? I think it has to proper implementation - the further a long in the day the more willpower stores are depleted. Also more tasks come up later in the day. I need to eat, I need to go to the bathroom, I need to cook. All of those tasks are not precisely pinned down - they change, making the implementation sloppier.

That usually doesn’t matter so much - but after various forms of degradation (travel, a 30 day challenge, getting sick), it starts to make a big difference in automaticity. 

A while back I talked about the potential that all long-term habits may need a “re-charge” once and a while. Scott Young, in his post “Why is it So Hard to Create Permanent Habits?” describes this train of thought.

In the post Young talks about how many habits have to be restarted. We want to think they will be permanent, but they often aren’t - habits for him are a medium-term strategy. They are, in his terminology - “metastable” - they lower thresholds of action in some ways, but not all ways. And because of this, they often have to be restarted depending on the changing action you are doing in the habit. 

This idea of metastability conforms to my experience as the reason why I’ve found few habits have had permanent lifespans. Inevitably, the habit breaks down because of a temporary lifestyle change: a vacation, an illness, needing to move or work overtime. These create shocks which are often enough to break the behavior, increase the decision cost, making it no longer automatic when you return to the habit. 


His full post is really interesting, and I’d like to analyze it fully in a separate post. I agree that shocks will destabilize habits. But I think proper mid-range planning can compensate allowing you to “shelf” some habits at lower daily minimums (which he mentions) or, in this case, “recharge” them by rotating them in a daily regiment. 

I also think that tempering a habit comes with these periods of unstableness - there’s my quarter mark theory, there’s a dip in the graph before a superhabit is formed - without a metric to determine habit strength or a habit of tracking habits it’s hard to see whether a habit is lost, or if it’s still there and going through a weak patch.

Fluidity in Mid-Range Planning

In my NaNoWriMo book I repeatedly explain the need to have steps for progression. It’s simply a part of good planning for habits, something we rarely do.

Case in point, I haven’t done this for writing. I had a flurry of writing, accomplished a lot, but now I’m at this point, stuck because I don’t know what to do next. That should have been conceived and written down somewhere long ago. But this is natural, especially in the “pushing a task to mastery” portion of a mature habit.

Lydia suggested that not only should this list be somewhere written down, but it should also be listed in order of importance. And it may very well be that some tasks, as they come up, go to the very front. It should function like a flow chart, preventing this paralysis that I’m in write now.

For example, I’ll list out what I want to accomplish while writing.

-Improve writing by lowering the gap between intending to do a work writing article and the fear that prevents me from actually starting
-Pitching the articles I have ideas for professionally
-Working on weak points of writing - for me it’s inputting research and reportage that makes, for me, a professionally written article
-Learning how to pitch with skill, pegging current events to sell the pitch

A few points - a lot of these things can and should be broken up. It would be great, for example, to get to the point that the time it takes to do an article as I do them now lowers. So - one sentence of work writing, then a paragraph, then half of a task, then a full article per day, rough draft, to a full article completed with editing.

The other point is that there are always going to be things that get in the way, especially in this task. If I have an article commissioned, that will have to go to the top of the list.

The problem is how to organize this with clarity.

How To Form an Eating Habit Revisited

A find it interesting that though there are many articles on how to form a habit, there seems to be few articles on how to take the scientific approach of willpower and habit formation and apply it to eating.

In my NaNoWriMo book on this project, I took some time and theorized on how I’d be able to do this if I were advising someone starting from scratch.

To do this there are a few protocols I’d apply:
1) Implementation Intention
2) Sequenced habit chains, or “bookending”
3) Start small - “TinyHabits”

Based on this, my advice would be to  start small - and one small start is focusing on one clean meal a day. I’d also advice to make this automatic by having a clear cut implementation intention that’s in a chain of habits. I start out my days rowing, then I take a shower, then I meditate. I’d tack this on to the end of that chain.

The problem with my habit as it stands is that it’s fuzzy. My habit is essentially “eat clean.” That doesn’t really promote automaticity. Automaticity grows from having a clear time or sequence - an “if-then” parameter in the  mind. By not having it clear cut it promotes confusion - an unclarity in the forming habit.

It’s also all or nothing - if a Tiny Habit is ludicrously easy so that you feel like you’re more likely to do it, then having an all or nothing approach doesn’t really promote clean eating. It can’t be Tiny.

Nor does it incorporate how I prep for eating.  A nested habit would be beneficial for this- something like - on Saturday I go shopping for the week, and then I eat. 

My advice would be to fully master this as a habit, then move on to the next step.

The extension would be really difficult because there’s not really a bookmarking point for, say, eating at 6 pm. It would have to be an if-then based on time of day.

If I were talking to someone else, I’d of course start with smaller steps - removing soda, for example. But that’s not really something I have a problem with anymore - I generally drink almost nothing but water. 

I was talking to Lydia about this and she presented a counter argument. Articles have come out that suggest that things like gluten and sugar act almost like heroin in the brain, causing us to want to eat more. Her question was - would you apply this strategy to a heroin addict, or would your first step be to have them replace the drug fully? In methadone clinics heroin is replaced, then cut down.

So the analogy would presumably result in replacing wheat/sugar with substitutes, and then lowering the substitutes. Of course this is only from the Primal point of view.

I really don’t have a solution to this, except by looking at the past, seeing what I’ve done, and seeing how I’ve failed. I’ve gone the all or nothing approach, and it has clearly failed. My tendency now is to do something different, which seems to be to try to the piecemeal approach.

I do know that automaticity for my clean eating has been all over the place, and at least a portion of it has to be because I haven’t used the tools for habit formation at all in this particular habit. And it hasn’t just resulted in “fuzziness” in eating - it actually has a tendency to mess up other habits.

When I’m not pro-active about eating (pro-active being striking at a prearranged time versus “whenever I’m hungry) eating becomes an interruption in the habit chain of my morning. I believe that striking first allows me to incorporate it into the fold. And if I do this, I have yet another solid portion of the chain to implement another habit - writing or recording, both of which have been adversely affected.

I definitely think that other techniques I’ve used have really helped - especially the Flash Diet, which supercharged my eating during my 30 No Bread Challenge. I feel this can be incorporated into my progression.

Growth Mindset

In my research into Dr. Angela Duckworth’s work on grit, she mentions another concept - a Growth Mindset, as opposed to one that focuses more on concrete, immediate successes.

It seems as though this project, which focuses on the cultivation of habit, is a good example of a Growth Mindset.

In 750 words, in the past I focused on writing the best I could - and in my own experience, and in many forums, I’ve learned that this is the wrong way to go about it. NaNoWriMo, a website dedicated to helping people write novels, was founded to combat this. The website offers a chance to write 50,000 words in the spirit of “literary abandon” - the object isn’t perfection, it’s getting through the word count - editing comes later. 

In my theoretical topography of success, a habit comes first. If I make a solid habit of working out in the morning, even if it’s only doing a light workout, success - actually achieving the body I want - will come later.

I won’t necessarily achieve concrete success immediately or quickly. But it will come, especially in tasks like flossing or eating correctly which only require doing the task innumerable times. For other tasks plateau busting will eventually be required.

Though it’s on a longer schedule, habituation is lot quicker than going through the yo-yo cycles of shorter programs that don’t stick.

"2 Shitty Pages" - Tim Ferriss on Lowered Quotas and Efficiency

Author Timothy Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef) at the 5:06 mark talks about how in daily tasks, lowering quotas allows you to achieve higher productivity. Lowered quotas help lower the inertia of starting tasks, which can be particularly difficult to overcome if you don’t really like the task.

His example is writing, which I personally hate doing in a systematic way. He mentions a particularly prolific friend who would consider the day a win if he produced “two shitty pages.” This is great, because often times it’s just the process of getting through that is difficult - we tend to want to edit as we are writing instead of after the fact. Perfectionism sounds great, but can be debilitating in terms of habituation. This mentality negates the need for perfection.

Programs like NaNoWriMo are particularly successful because they advocate the process of just getting the words onto the page whether they are good or not. Editing comes later, but is less psychologically debilitating than having to write words that need to perfect from the start.

The program I’m fiddling around with now, 750words, advocates the same thing in the form of “morning pages” - a practice that can equally be used for professional writing or to break out of writer’s block.

I’ve noticed that with most of my writing, it’s the act of just getting started that takes forever.