The Real Secret to Flossing (and other important habits)

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When I was doing my coach training, we were often broken out into groups of two to practice coaching each other using whatever new method or coaching element that we had just learned about.

I can still remember one coaching session in which I was the client and my life was forever changed – from that point forward, I was a regular dental flosser. Though I had struggled with it for most of my adult life, my attitude toward it was new after that session.

And of all the practice sessions which I was part of during my coach training, this one stands out. Because for me, it was more than practice; it actually brought me a result.

Understanding the solution that came out of that session could help you to become more like Hero You (and less like Monster You), through editing your habits – eliminating bad ones or adding in good ones.

Want to know the solution?

First, let’s talk about the two great motivators of human behavior: Pain and Pleasure.

Our actions are driven by the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain.

And of the two, which one is the most powerful?


Really, when you think about it, the things we do are driven by this almost all the time.

I don’t really workout to get great results, I work out to avoid the shame and embarrassment that would come from not getting those results.

I don’t go to work to get paid. I go to work to avoid the consequences of not getting paid.

I don’t initiate difficult conversations with my team because I want to find solutions. I do it to avoid the problems that will result if I don’t have those conversations.

You follow?

It might seem like a fine line of semantics. But inside all of us, our brains know the difference.

What’s the lesson?

To get to the most powerful motivation, you and I have to tap into the potential negative results of not taking the actions that we know we should be taking. When we get clear on the future of Monster You and Monster Me, our fear of that potential pain will motivate us to do what we know we should be doing.

In fact, we can turn a “should” into a “must.”

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And that’s the really cool thing that came out of my coaching session about flossing.

I remember bringing up the flossing topic more to be funny than anything else.

My coaching partner asked: “What would be the best result you could get out of this session?”

My response: “I want to floss more consistently.”

And by the end of the session, I had designed my action step. Firmly rooted in good solid, “avoidance of pain” motivation methodology.

And it worked.

Here’s what I agreed to do:

I committed to finding a hideous picture of the worst teeth and gums that I could. I would print it off and place it into the bathroom drawer where I kept my toothbrush. When I opened the drawer to grab my toothbrush, I would see that picture, and be motivated to floss.

Simple. Effective.

Day after day. I flossed out of the fear of the future pain of having teeth and gums that looked like the ones in the picture. Until one day, I just kept doing it.

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I’ll be honest, I miss a day or two here and there, but I always go back to it. It’s become part of who I am.

Psychologist and author Walter Mischel used this tactic to quit smoking. You can check out his story HERE.

The cool thing is that you can use this method to get yourself to do the things that you know you should be doing (or to quit doing the things you know you shouldn’t be doing). Whether your goals are fitness related or you want to start showing up more like Hero You at work, self-coaching around the topic of “future pain” might be just what you need to get off to a great start.

Coach yourself by journaling the answers to the following questions:

What behavior do I want to change?

If I don’t change and I become more and more like Monster Me in this area (doing things like the person I don’t want to be), what are going to be the worst immediate results?

Over time, what will be the most painful, disgusting, and hideous results of me not fixing this habit?

Who will be affected?

How can I best remind myself of that painful eventuality?

How can I best use this reminder in the moments when I will need it the most?

What steps will I take right now to make a positive change?

If you’re working on doing a better job of flossing, go find the grossest picture of gum disease that you can. If you’re working on a different habit, visualize what your life will look like if you go in the opposite direction of Hero You.

If it’s really important to you, you won’t mind allowing the fear of future to pain motivate you to create steps toward positive progress.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I forgot to floss.

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