How I started flossing: New Year’s resolutions and learning habits

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Flossin’, by Irene Koh.

My favorite part of the new year is the ritual of making resolutions. I am kind of fixated on continuous self-improvement, and the end of the calendar year is a great chance to sit down and think about whether I’m satisfied with the changes I’ve made from one year to another.

2015 was a great year for me for many reasons (love, career, health, and money all more or less worked out pretty well) but one of the things I am most satisfied with about this year is that I managed to keep a New Year’s Resolution that I have been making, and breaking, for about ten years now:

In this essay, I’ll explain how I did it. It’s not just about flossing — it’s about developing a method for self-improvement. It might not stick with you, but it stuck with me when nothing else has, and I think that’s pretty cool.

Self-improvement isn’t about achievements, it’s about habits.

Up until this last year, most of my resolutions had been pretty specific and discrete: “I will get my driver’s license” is a resolution where the success condition is immediately obvious and relatively doable. This kind of resolution is relatively straightforward — do thing, cross off list — but it has the end effect of turning each year into a To Do list, which isn’t really self-improvement. I’m not a better, more effective person after I get my driver’s license, though it may be instrumental in improving in other ways.

When we reflect on ourselves and make resolutions to improve, we tend to make more sweeping, global changes — “I will exercise more” and “I will start flossing” are two very common examples. Unlike the driver’s license, these speak to our desire to be better every day. One of my favorite quotes comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote in Nicomachean Ethics:

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions.’”

Or as Will Durant paraphrased:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not a virtue, but a habit.”

When we resolve to exercise more, it’s because we’re not satisfied with our physical health and fitness and we want to improve it — simple enough, right? On its own, though, this is a pretty tricky resolution to satisfy: “Exercise more” isn’t meaningful unless you’ve already established your normal exercise frequency, and if you’re trying to develop frequent exercise as a habit, you probably don’t have one. So most people use this resolution to sign up for a gym, go regularly for the month of January (and scare away the regular gym-goers for a while), then churn out back into sloth. Congrats! You’ve exercised five more hours than you did in the previous year you made the resolution. Mission accomplished, time to eat nachos.

One way to deal with this is to turn the habit-based resolution into an objective-based resolution — “I will run a 5K.” This is why programs like the Couch to 5K stuff exist; you can take the goal of your original resolution, which is to improve your health and fitness, and point it towards a discrete, achievable goal. This is not a bad way to do it either, but it doesn’t necessarily get you what you want — inculcating the habit of exercise. You can resolve to finish a 5K by the end of the year, and it’ll get you up and running, but if you finish it and you hate it and you never want to do it again, then back to the couch you go. You’ve achieved the goal, but the goal was instrumental to the habit, and you didn’t get that.

These days, I’ve learned to think of self-improvement less in terms of The List of Things I’ve Accomplished and more in terms of the day-to-day habits I’ve developed. It’s not important to me that I have my purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or that I’ve written a (free) ebook on how to play Street Fighter; what’s important to me is that I have been working on developing habits for regularly training and writing, and as long as I get used to doing them consistently, the accomplishments will come. This might sound a bit backwards, but trust me, it’ll eventually make sense — if you are good at BJJ, you’ll eventually level up your belt; if you’re a good writer, you’ll write a book if you want to; so first focus on making efforts to improve, and then worry about when to point those skills at a discrete goal when you’re ready.

In order to accomplish the things we want to achieve, we need to get good at those things, and that starts with developing the habits that get you good.

Developing habits with the Good Life Sheet v0.1b

At the start of 2015, I made my resolutions like I always did:

1. Make flossing a regular habit.

2. Set aside time to work on side projects.

3. Exercise often.

But this time I decided that I needed a way to turn my desires for self-improvement into actual habits, so I took something that I had learned from dabbling with the Seinfeld Method (aka Don’t Break the Chain — and yes, that’s Jerry Seinfeld).

The way the Seinfeld Method works is that you set a goal for doing a thing every day, and mark a big X on a calendar for every day that you do it, erasing them if you fail to do it on any given day. While this method doesn’t really work for my goals — working out and working on side projects every day would lead to overtraining and overworking — I learned that the ritual of earning that X is actually really powerful for motivating yourself to Do The Thing.

See, we resolve to improve ourselves because we see what we’re doing and where we’re going and decide that we want better. That motivation is strong, but it’s complicated, and it’s easy for that desire to lose out to the needs of the moment. When you’re thinking about how awesome you want to be in 2016, it’s easy to think about all the things you’re going to do, but when you’re up late playing video games, it’s much easier to put off flossing until the next day because you don’t want to. In this case, the intended value of flossing — healthier teeth — is an abstract good that you’re not feeling in the moment, while the value of not flossing is immediate (straight to bed you go!).

In order to make it easier to stay consistent on flossing, I needed to artificially create an immediate value for flossing to compete with the immediate good of not-flossing. This is what the Seinfeld Method does with the big X; it gives you an immediate sense of satisfaction for taking another step towards your goal. When I was sleepily getting ready for bed, I flossed because I wanted the X, not because I wanted to have healthier teeth.

So, I created a spreadsheet in Google Sheets called The Good Life Sheet, and all I did was track three things every day to check my progress towards my resolutions:

1. Did I floss?

2. Did I grind? (Defined as: “Did I work on something other than my day job?”)

3. Did I exercise? (I’m not going to go into my definitions here because that’s a long story)

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The Good Life Sheet in 2015.

Every day, I’d update the sheet with Y and N for each of those three questions. That’s it. You might notice that I didn’t specify failure conditions for this (“You must floss at least X times” or whatever) — that wasn’t important to me at this point because I wanted to test how the method worked on its own, and whether I was subjectively satisfied with how it worked for a year, before starting to worry too much about performance. Basically, think of this exercise as a test of my brain’s discipline muscles; 2015 was about establishing my baseline willpower before moving on to solid improvements, and I don’t think setting performance expectations or failure conditions motivate me personally when it comes to this kind of thing.

2015 results

So how’d I do? Overall, pretty well. In 2015, my track record for daily flossing was 90%, worked on side projects 60%, and worked out 45%. What’s more, most of the flossing misses were because I was traveling and didn’t bring floss with me (oops). Anecdotally, I felt like I got a lot more focused time and work on my side projects, and I managed to maintain my fairly athletic level of fitness (I even posed for a pinup calendar — say hello to Mr. September).

The crazy thing was, the most satisfying thing about this whole process was feeling like I had some sense of agency in determining my own growth — that I had a tool, and a method, that I could use to make concrete steps towards satisfying some fairly abstract needs (self-improvement). Just three months in, I was so awed at my success with flossing — a simple thing that I hadn’t been able to stick with for ten years — that I was already thinking about what I could do next. The dragon you have to slay might not be flossing, but you can probably think of something else that occupies a similar mindspace that you can tackle with this.

2016 improvements: The Good Life Sheet 1.0

For 2016, I’m making some changes to the sheet as well as some of the factors I’m tracking. Basically, the first iteration of the sheet was very good at getting my butt into gear and doing stuff, but in 2016 I intend to take a more focused approach to my side projects, and this year’s sheet reflects that.

First off, I’ve added weekly minimum targets to each of the habits I’m tracking. Daily habits, like flossing, are easy to track, but the other habits aren’t things I should be doing every day, and I want to get personal self-attention span to the point where I can think about an entire week rather than a single day.

Next, I’ve changed the habits into five categories: Flossing and working out are still on there, but I’ve replaced “Work on side projects” with the slightly more specific “Make stuff” to avoid giving myself a too-generous gray area in “side projects.” I’ve added “Chill” as a habit I need to get into; I’ve realized that I’m actually really bad at taking time to consciously relax, whether it’s reading or watching a movie or going for a walk or meditating. And I’ve added “Plan” as another thing that I need to get in the habit of doing in order to get all this stuff to fit into a single week.

It’s important to note that the weekly frequency targets and tracking “Chill” and “Plan” aren’t about squeezing out the maximum amount of work in 2016, it’s about making sure that I’m not overdoing it and am taking care of myself. Yes, I want to do more stuff, but my goal here is to identify my optimal workload for any given week and then increase it until it doesn’t make sense to increase it further. Essentially, I’m thinking of my habit-forming brain muscles as just like any other muscles, and developing a gradual workout plan to strengthen them, rather than trying to overdo it — and with my brain, just like my body, I’m trying to make sure I don’t overtrain.

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The Good Life Sheet 2016.

I am tracking a few specific milestones and accomplishments — stuff like “Finish writing X” or “Do at least Y pull-ups” — but I’m not doing it on this sheet. The way I think about it, it doesn’t make sense to track milestones in the same area as tracking my ability to develop and maintain healthy habits; if I’m successfully developing the habits I’m targeting, but not hitting the milestones, the problem is most likely not “work more” but “work smarter” or “get better at estimating your capacity to get stuff done.”

What’s next?

Good question!

I’m constantly thinking about how to develop good habits, efficiently acquire new skills, cultivate every kind of intelligence, improve my interpersonal skills, and generally be a better person. I think 2016 will offer me plenty of opportunities to do all this stuff, and I look forward to chasing them down.

If that’s a journey you’re interested in following, that’s great! Follow along on Medium or Tumblr. I’ve also started an email newsletter where I’ll be sending out links to my writing, if you prefer to keep up via email. And if you want the full feed, you can follow me on Twitter, if you like (I post lots of pictures of cats). I also stream myself playing games on Twitch and post the highlights to YouTube. You can ask me questions on Ask.fm, too.

I’m also interested in how you work on this kind of thing yourself. How do you reflect on the kind of person you want to be? How do you motivate yourself to achieve your goals, and what tools or rituals do you use to help you get there? How did you use this Good Life Sheet? How did you change it to suit your own needs? And so on. For that stuff, you can email me at stand.fierce at gmail dot com.

Thanks for reading!

patrick miller

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