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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  • James Castellano

    I have several areas which need improvement, but without a doubt I need to get up early every morning and exercise.

    • Michael Hyatt

      That in itself will change your life.

    • bondChristian

      Same for me. I had built the habit in college, but afterward I slumped back into waking up when I had to instead of waking up earlier.

      I love the benefits, but right now I'm having trouble getting to bed at a decent time because of various obligations I have. I need to reorganize that before I think I'll make any progress on the other side.

      -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • David A Knapp

    Getting Healthy and losing weight. My wife and I are trying to figure this one out as I type this. The problem we seem to run into is that eating healthy (normal) is expensive. Even if we can develop the habit of healthy eating then we run into the problem of lack of money, which is a problem because we are missionaries on a limited budget Why is bad food cheaper? Oh well, we'll keep our heads up and figure this out. Thanks for the post. :-)

    • Bruce Munnings

      Hello David Knapp

      You pose an interesting and real problem. Healthy food can be expensive.

      One of the lessons I learnt from my Grandmother who went to be with Jesus in December 2009 at the ripe old age of 104, was that we should eat our vegetables. I remember having Sunday lunches with my grandparents when I was a student in Cape Town. She really knew how to make simple yet tasty meals that were healthy and not too expensive.

      Hope your missionary support increases.

      Bruce Munnings

    • Ashley Musick

      I’m a missionary myself and have the same problem. When support is low, pre-packaged, horribly bad for you food is cheaper than buying fresh ingredients to make your own meals. I’ve had to find a way around this issue because the price of healthy food isn’t something I can change. It’s going to take some more initiative to research deals, coupons, and meal planning. I’ll also have to take a second peek at my budget to get some priorities in line.

      Isn’t it interesting that it seems the low-income areas in America have more people who are overweight? Sad.

    • Ashley Musick

      I’m a missionary myself and have the same problem. When support is low, pre-packaged, horribly bad for you food is cheaper than buying fresh ingredients to make your own meals. I’ve had to find a way around this issue because the price of healthy food isn’t something I can change. It’s going to take some more initiative to research deals, coupons, and meal planning. I’ll also have to take a second peek at my budget to get some priorities in line.

      Isn’t it interesting that it seems the low-income areas in America have more people who are overweight? Sad.

  • @gggwon

    The accountability of mine is my wife same as you. We talk each other about gym progress and getting up early because they are our new habits in this month. Tracking the progress has a power to make us move forward as you said. I want to build new good habits and be the winner of my life. Thanks for your post!

  • Women Living Well

    I love this post! I am a schedule girl – I like to schedule my days and my weeks – my weekly cleaning schedule looks like this:
    Monday: Menu and Market
    Tuesday: Towels, Toilets Tubs
    Wednesday: Wash (laundry)
    Thursday: Dust
    Friday: Floors
    A lot of stay-at-home moms bristle at the thought of having a "schedule" so I call it "finding a rhythm" – finding a rhythm or routine in life keeps priorities in line and helps us reach long term goals!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I like “finding a rhythm.” That’s a perfect description.

  • Daniel Decker

    Ironically, one of my new habits is the same as yours. :) I was a dentist procrastinator. Keyword = "was." I'm paying the price for it now with a long process of costly fixes. All avoidable had I invested a few more minutes each day and overcome my anxiety of the dentist. I hate learning lessons the hard way but it's better to eventually learn and correct the course versus continuing to go down the wrong road.

    New habits and change start in the mind. No doubt. Along the same line of your last sentence, for me… habits and change ultimately come down to DESIRE + ACTION. Am I tired of ___ enough to DO something about it versus just WANTing to do something about it?

    Like reading the Bible. I have a friend who says he wants to read the Bible more but never has time. He sure could find time to get up early and go stand in line for HOURS to get a new iPhone 4. Guess it shows which he wants more.

    Desire + Action = Results.

  • @BrettCohrs

    (Excuse Alert) Exercising more regularly is by far the key habit to incorporate into my life. I already get up between 5:00 and 5:30 every morning and get home around 5:30, in time to help my wife with our three toddlers. By the time 7:30 rolls around and everybody is in bed, I crash on the couch with my wife. I can't stand working out at night because it tends to keep me up, but maybe that is what I need to do. It's a tough one right now, but envisioning the future might help.

  • Brett Duncan

    I trashed the idea of New Year's Resolutions a few years back and now try to stick to New Month's Resolutions. It's a lot easier to manage, it's not as daunting a task as doing something for 365 days in a row, and it supports the research I've always heard that habits take 21-35 days to form. I haven't always stuck with it (maybe that should be another resolution), but it's done me much better than traditional resolutions.


    • Michael Hyatt

      I like that model. Much more doable!

  • John_Gallagher

    Michael, Great timing for me on this post. I just finished John Maxwell's "PUT YOUR DREAM TO THE TEST" (Published by TN, of course!) and listed about 7 bad habits that I need to overcome to achieve my dream. I cannot do them all at once, but look forward to working with my Building Champions coach to put a plan in place to break those habits. This will give me a head start!!

  • Simon Hay

    Through my work I know that there’s more to creating change and eliminating bad habits, than simply motivation and desire. The vibration of habit exists in the body’s energy field, and this can be altered with healing. I’ve seen immediate results to support this time and time again. I believe this was how Jesus healed. He created change. Genuine healers can harmonise a family, a work force, a sports team, and ultimately mankind to create change.
    Most people fail regardless of an action plan. Too many times self help is telling but not showing. Family values are deteriorating. Respect is disappearing. I think faith has no merit without community or global desire, action, and synchronicity.
    I usually avoid selling myself, but habit is what healing influences the most. It creates change. It accelerates the benefits of everything this blog provides. Healing every member in a work place creates harmony and a clear focus on a common goal; for families it creates love, for individuals, a joyous life.

  • Karen Putz

    Timely post, as I've just incorporated some new habits since going back to barefoot waterskiing in the spring. I was out of shape and my health wasn't the best. Your five tips are exactly what I've done and it is working– I've lost 23 pounds since committing to new habits, have made some new accountability friends in the process and feel a whole lot better. :)

  • BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

    A worthy post, Michael! I have often used 'brushing teeth' as an example of a habit – to convert patients toward another new habit, such as exercise.

    All of your strategies are good, but each person may not need all 5. For some, just one strategy might tip them into a new habit.

    I am especially careful about recommending external accountability – believing that it is so important to take personal responsibility for one's own habits/lifestyle – for the habit to persist.

    I believe establishing a ritual to be the strongest, most effective strategy. And tracking progress (or a diary or journal) to be the next most effective.

    BTW, your teeth are beautiful! ;)

  • PurpleB

    This is so true and how we forget the important things. I brush probably three or four times a day but never floss….thanks for the reminder.

  • patriciazell

    I only started flossing within the last ten years or so. My problem was I didn't know how to do it–once my hygienist showed me how to do it, I took off. Now, I floss, brush, and use Listerine twice a day. My gums have improved immensely. I have discovered that I am a visual learner, so I need to read directions or see someone demonstrate what I'm learning. Hearing instructions just doesn't do it for me. That's why I wish I either had a tutor or a simple manual of everything I need to know to be tech-savvy.

  • Cara

    I would like to walk every evening. I've lost 104 pounds over the past 3 years and I have 15 more pounds to go. If I can just commit to walking (perhaps better would be speed walking) I could get these last 15 pounds off. I've tried making this a habit many times before. The most I've been able to commit to, though, is only for about a month or two, then I slack off and it doesn't become a ritual any more.

  • Jeff

    Oh my. I can't remember any blog post where I saw more of myself (and my wife). She's an avid flosser. Unfortunately, it is a habit I have never been able to consistently start. Like you, until I married my wife over 8 years ago, I had stopped going to the dentist. Fortunately for me though, no gum disease, then or now.

    Reading your post reminded me that just because I haven't suffered that fate yet doesn't mean I won't. Here's hoping that revelation combined with your 5 strategies will put me over the top.

  • Randy Willis

    Great post!

    You may have just talked me into flossing! :-)

    I’ve always battled the “bad” cholesterol for some reason (I’m in good physical shape, better-than-average diet, parents didn’t/don’t have high cholesterol). BUT, I *can* do better with my diet and I need to be more regular with my exercise. I know I *can* do it — I recently did 30,000 steps/day for 29 days in a row (second year in a row) as part of a denomination-wide incentive program, which I blogged about:

    My problem area in my role as a pastor is that, even though time with God is a value, sometimes my work for God gets in the way of my time with God! :-(

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Terri

    Scripture memory.

  • Spiritual Klutz

    I think it would be a great habit to commit to getting work done before I check my personal email in the morning. It's amazing how tantalizing it can be to go from checking email to checking out the headlines to – what the heck – checking Facebook. It would be better to just start rolling with the very reason I walked into the office.

  • James

    It was looking to the future that I’ve found the real value of a daily routine that habitually starts and ends with the bible. I considered how much benefit it would be, both in helping me grow and in acting as a restraint from sin. Surely that’s worth the time even when we’re tired or don’t feel we get so much from it at times!

  • Peggy

    This scenario is just like myself and my husband. I have the same exact "bad habit". I absolutely hate flossing my teeth. So I decided that I would floss M/W/F each week. That is all I could commit too. Things have gotten better, but I need to make the next step and do it every day. With any bad habit you need to change, it's a little over whelming if you try and do it all at once. I have found, I have to take baby steps for it to work for me.

  • Cyberquill

    I never floss. I use these. Equal results, more fun, and you need only one hand.

  • John Richardson

    There is a great book by Alan Deutschman entitled Change or Die that really opened my eyes to what it actually takes to make a lasting change or habit in a person's life. In the book, Alan talks about recovering heart attack patients that must change their eating and exercise habits or face certain death. You would think that the threat of death would surely compel someone to change, but the overwhelming statistics prove otherwise. Over 80% of these patients go back to their old lifestyles within 6 months.

    Deutschman offers a three prong solution… relate, repeat, and reframe.

    His research suggests that people who join a support group, continually repeat good habits, and re-frame their outlook to a positive outcome can actually make a lasting change. In a nutshell, it's your points number 4, 3, and 1 above. In my life, I can attest to the life changing power of a coach, editor, and mastermind group… to name a few. My greatest challenge has always been consistency, and that is where an outside coaching voice is so valuable.

  • aspires2b

    My problem exactly.

  • alisa

    I try to combine a new habbit with an existing one: floss while letting kids play for a minute in the bath, drink a cup of water while I drive, read a book while I update photos on personal blog, etc.

    Teeth are a big deal. We don’t appreciate them until they’re gone.

  • @mm_wilson

    Michael – I'd love to hear how people go about tracking daily Bible reading. I've been using a One-Year devotional book but have really run off the tracks since the birth of my second child in mid-May.

  • Deborah Hudson

    Appreciated this post in particular. It speaks to me personally, but also to our ministry to men in recovery. I used this post with them last night. Good life lessons for all of us. Thank you

  • ThatGuyKC

    Why did it have to be flossing! I would venture a guess that I haven't been to the dentist or the doctor in nearly a decade either. And I'm only 27.

    My wife constantly nags me to do both and I (politely as possible) blow her off. Thanks for hitting the nail on the head and offering tools for success.

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  • Dayrl Grimes

    I believe each dental clinic has their own strategy in providing dental services. As of now, I’ve been going to the dentist murrells inlet, and I find their services satisfying.

  • Kevin Cardones

    As a practicing orthodontist melbourne, flossing is the most difficult habit to instill on my patients. Which is why when they return for an oral cleaning, they have hard tartars and bleeding gums.

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