Five Strategies for Building New Habits

I have a confession to make. Until about eight years ago, I didn’t floss. In fact, I hadn't been to the dentist in a decade. My last experience had been so negative, that I just kept finding excuses to procrastinate.

Close Up of Someone Flossing Their Teeth - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #563258

Photo courtesy of ©

Besides, I thought, I brush my teeth twice a day and even gargle with mouth wash every night. But that’s not the same as flossing, as any dental hygienist will tell you.

My wife Gail, on the other hand, has always been a flosser. Periodically, she would nag me about it. I would blow her off, and keep doing what I was doing, ignoring the obvious damage I was doing to my teeth.

Eventually, Gail talked me into going to her dentist. I had simply run out of excuses and suspected she was right. The dentist examined my teeth and told me what I feared. I had gum disease. And, evidently, a pretty bad case.

However, the dentist didn’t shame me, which was huge. Instead, he said this was normal, given my lack of flossing. It could be easily remedied if I would commit to spending five minutes a day on it.

Amazingly, I did. It took about a year and some heavy treatment on the front end. But now, I wouldn't think of going to bed without flossing, brushing with my Sonicare toothbrush, and rinsing with The Natural Dentist.

From my experience in other areas of my life, I know that changing a habit is not easy. In fact, as Tony Schwartz has observed in The Way We Are Working Isn’t Working:

  • “Ninety-five percent of those who lose weight on a diet regain it, and a significant percentage gain back more than they originally lost.”
  • “Even after a heart attack, one one of every seven patients makes any enduring changes around eating or exercise.”
  • “Twenty-five percent of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions after one week. Sixty percent do so within six months. The average person makes the same New Year’s resolution ten separate times without success.”
  • “Seventy percent of organizational change initiatives ultimately fail.”

So what is the secret to making lasting change? I have discovered five strategies that have been helpful to me in building new habits:

  1. Envision the future. It helps me to fast-forward to the destination. If I don’t change, where will I be in five years? If I do change, where will I be? My dentist literally used pictures to demonstrate two alternative futures. It did the trick and motivated me.
  2. Track your progress. I’m one of those people who has to see progress. I am achievement-oriented, and I like to see numeric improvement. This is true with my dentist, who measures the space between my teeth and gums and gives me an overall score, and it is also true of how I track my daily Bible reading.
  3. Develop a ritual. We often think of rituals as something negative. However, they don’t have to be. They can also be positive. A ritual is anything you do regularly that you invest with meaning. Commit to the behavior you want to start then relate it to your ultimate goal.
  4. Establish accountability. Gail is my accountability partner with flossing. I have other accountability partners for other habits I’m trying to build. The key is to find someone willing to do it with you, rather than someone who acts like a surrogate parent. (That kind of accountability actually makes me want to rebel!)
  5. Schedule check-ups. I have my assistant schedule regular dental appointments. This keeps me from procrastinating. It also provides another layer of accountability. Knowing that I am going in for a check-up, keeps the temptation to slack off at bay. In the same way, my annual physical keeps me motivated to eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest.

You can defeat bad habits. You can build new ones. But in order to overcome the odds and be successful, you must be deliberate and persistent.

Question: What is one new habit that you would like to build into your life?

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