Taking flossing (too) seriously

This is a little story about how a slight shift in attention, intention and a question could change your life, and be helpful to others.


If you go to the Dentist they will tell you to floss your teeth.


While at a visit to the dentist one year ago, I really listed to this advice and set an intention to floss regularly. Making that decision and articulating that intention immediately lead to arising of some questions about conditions enabling of flossing, which lead to questions I asked of my dentist. I asked him about it’s benefits, how flossing works, what is the necessary frequency, the best technique? In responding to my questions he revealed that very few people actually floss, even though he tells everyone to do so, every visit. That is, he tells up to 80 people a week or 5000 people a year to do something that ‘none’ of them actually do.


So this dynamic of ‘not flossing’ is not really just ‘my’ issue alone. It seems to be a challenge shared by many people with teeth, a few of them who make a living from dealing with bad teeth, and probably a few who need to allocate taxes or raise insurance policies to deal with rising dental costs.



So how did I approach this challenge of flossing?


Rather than create some religious routine or develop incredible strength of will, I turned my attention to the conditions that would be enabling in three dimensions: body (physical), speech (social) and mind (psychological). Things I considered and adjusted included:

  • The location of floss on the shelf — not stuffed up the back or hidden in the bottom, but moving it close to the front and centre,
  • The shape, type and age of the floss in the bathroom — ensuring that there were no practical or aesthetic reasons why I wouldn’t use the floss available,
  • Timing how long it actually takes to floss — testing my assumptions about how long it took (it’s shorter than you think), because I noticed one rationalisation for not doing so was that “I want to get to work and don’t have time to floss”. It turns out that 20 seconds flossing is not going to be the deciding factor in my daily productivity or punctuality,
  • Discussing flossing with others to test their attitudes, practices and ideas about it — this made the challenge, solution and inquiry more real, public and increased my motivation,
  • Setting a goal and tracking progress so I could objectively assess whether I was actually succeeding — I aimed to floss 5 times a week which is easily achievable because I brush my teeth 14 times, so only have to floss every second time to achieve my goal,
  • Pausing whenever I noticed the thought “I can’t be bothered flossing” — This second or two of pausing was usually enough to allow my ‘better’ self, intention and rational mind kick in and at least create the possibility that I would make a different choice from the habitual non-flossing.


Now, because my kitchen is very small and the same space as the bathroom, my dishes are done in the same area as teeth-flossing. So the flossing inquiry lead to an inquiry about why the dishes pile up. Similar inquires, observations and adjustments (e.g. removing the shelf that seemed to only exist to accumulate dishes that could just be washed in 10 seconds) were made.


Now my teeth are regularly flossed and my dishes don’t pile up. The evidence of this change are the absence of things rotting in my teeth, absence of unwashed dishes and absence of an obstructing shelf.


So, a minor victory for me and a cool little story to tell the Dentist. Interestingly the Dentist didn’t really have much of an interest in my story when I went to visit this year, and I couldn’t really tell it because he had his hands in my mouth. He did, however, take my mention of it as a trigger for him to tell a story about how no-one flosses.


Some other people WERE interested in the story….


I happened to be having a conversation at the pub where sharing this story and the shift in attention, intention and inquiry was possible and useful. The conversation going on was about “Why don’t more other people…eat well/exercise more/care for the environment etc.” Funnily, as I shared the story all four people around the table gasped with a sense of recognition: they too don’t floss yet want to, they feel they should but haven’t, they too have floss in their bathroom cupboard but it’s up the back and ten years old, they too thought it would take forever and make them late for work. It seems sharing that story and inquiring mind was enabling of others and their own change in behaviour. A couple of these friends also suggested that this shift in approach could be useful for other habits they too were trying to change.


From this little story I think you can imagine the potential for a different approach/attention/mind to something very trivial and everyday to actually have much wider interest for a single person’s life, or the lives of thousands of others who are stuck in similarly undesirable patterns of not-flossing, not-eating well, not-exercising etc. And in this particular case, even though there may be split incentives for dentists (more decay = more work), I can’t help but wonder how a few simple inquiries (rather than instructions or directives issued to a person who can’t engage in a conversation because you have your hands in their mouth) may increase the percentage of people who floss, quite dramatically. If only our dentists were as interested in our conceptions and the conditions of healthy teeth, as they are in the teeth themselves.


All credit for developing a flossing practice goes to ApithologyZenHabits and Meditation (read this as a nice guide).

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