I want a lot to be different this year. I want things to change in my life. I’m sure there’s at least one of you out there who feels the same way. It’s natural in January, after all.
We may think that big changes come from big, sweeping gestures and achievements. But the magic actually happens in the details. In the in-between moments. In the day-in, day-out, consistent habitual actions.
So if you want to change your life, that’s where you need to start. With the simple habits. Luckily for us, there’s a simple technique that can help us those habits stick. And it starts with brushing your teeth.
In his book Atomic Habits, productivity guru James Clear outlines a concept known as “anchoring habits.” Essentially, there are certain patterns that we all have in our lives—for example, brushing our teeth twice a day. Every day, almost unconsciously, we go to the bathroom and brush our teeth. So while we’re there, why not add one little extra step? Mouthwash, floss, a little dab of moisturizer?
It’s easier to attach a new habit to a habit that’s already there, and isn’t likely to change—the anchor habit.
This is our way in, our starting point to add any habit to our lives and give it a fighting chance at sticking.
When I started this process myself, I built outward from my morning and evening routines.
To start, I had my twice daily brushing and mouthwash-ing. I would put in my contact lenses in the morning and take them out at night. I had skincare products laying around I didn’t really know how to use. And that was it.
I would workout sporadically. There was never a set time, and as a result it would happen infrequently—when I remembered to and really wanted to, at the same time. Rare.
But one day, on a lark, I went running in the morning. And, strangely, I really enjoyed it. I realized: it gets everything out of the way first thing in the morning. The day can already be considered a net win by 9:30am. Then, as a bonus for us extra lazy folks, you have an impetus to shower to start your day off right.
One day, I had a really good run, on a beautiful clear day. After my shower I decided to really take my time—brush my teeth for the full two minutes. Finish my entire routine. Try out all that skincare stuff.
That combination of endorphins and steam and feeling cleaner than clean—I could feel it physically relaxing me. I felt calm and centered. I had just spent an hour or so completely devoted to myself and not to work, to other people, or to worrying about something not worth worrying about in this silly world of ours.
Walking to your desk and meditating before you start work? There couldn’t be anything better. Clear-headed and ready to take on the world. That’s a morning routine.
And that’s the power of the anchor habit. Wellness can just sprout out from these habit anchors like a tree. If you do it right, you’ll find that large blocks of your day will be essentially planned out for you. At this point, in the mornings and evenings and for long stretches during the day, all I have to worry about is choosing a podcast. My body will take me through the motions and their indisputably positive effects.
Let’s give it a try. Here are three habits you can start with, ordered from “easy,” to difficult.
I used to be amazing at flossing. It was one of the first habits I really made stick. And I was really proud of my streak. I think I made it to something close to 1060 days—maybe 1100. And then, somehow, I allowed the streak to break. But I’m getting back on the horse.
I made that happen with two tools: a habit tracker, and this anchor habit method. It was too easy to stand there, staring at myself in the mirror brushing my teeth, and look down at the floss and pick it up. It got to the point where I would feel bad or shameful if I even thought about skipping.
Now that I’ve lived both versions of life, I can confidently assert The Flossing Days were a better, happier time. It’s not just the gum health, though your dentist will of course thank you (and maybe even thank me). I seemed to increase in self-discipline, just from this little gesture each night.
Now that I’m a non-flosser again, I’m joining you in adding this habit to my routine. But I can assure you— it’s doable. It’s the no cost, only benefit, quick-and-easy, perfect first habit to try.
It’s a new baseline for your discipline. You may not be able to direct your willpower to finish every task right out of the gate, but you can do this. And you’ll be shocked at how much that means to you.
There is much to say about the transformative effects of regular meditation.
You’ve likely heard the near-universal claims of decreased stress, better sleep, improved emotional regulation, decreased incessant foot tapping, and general overall happiness. But if you haven’t, I can just say—this stuff’s the real deal.
It just simply allows you to zoom out and see your world—your mental, emotional, reactive world—for what it really is. As meditation advocate Dan Harris puts it, “you can see how crazy you are.” And once you see how crazy you are, you can start to help yourself from a healthier and more stable place.
But the routine of it may be the most powerful thing. You may “wake up on the wrong side of the bed.” You may not get enough sleep the night before. You might have a scary day ahead of you, or you might still be upset about something from the night before. No matter. You’re sitting there, and you’re meditating. You’re going to observe yourself, you’re going to get distance from your pain, or your confusion, or whatever you’re dealing with. You’re going to see it for what it is, and see how it might be easier to handle than you thought.
And, if you want to do it before bed, you’ll be rendered that much more calm and ready to drift off. Bonus points and no judgement if you drift off in the middle of meditation.
There’s no downside that I can think of. Dan Harris meditates for three to four hours a day. You can start with three to fifteen.
This one is customizable. I call it the “actually pursue your dreams” slot. I’m a writer, and I have aspirations to write, so if I had a free hour to do with what I wanted, it would be writing.
It’s about finding a free hour in the day. An hour where you’re uninterrupted, by others or yourself. That hour we always cry for when we whine about being too busy to follow our dreams.
You can use your hour for woodworking, or making a business proposal, or almost anything, really.
This habit is also the most advanced. The time commitment has increased from three minutes of flossing to fifteen minutes of meditation to maybe sixty minutes of pursuing your passion. It’s whatever time you can reliably spare, of course. But an hour would be nice.
My best results at placement have been at the very beginning and very end of my day. You’ve no doubt heard countless testimonials of people touting the quiet and meditative bliss of waking up at 5am to work. If that’s in your wheelhouse of self-constitution and sleep cycle, have at it. The other alternative is right before bed. Similar benefits of quiet and stillness apply, but you might run afoul of staying up too late. But if you’re in a creative groove, is that such a bad thing?
Best of luck, friends. Let’s make this year different—by starting super small. Just a little extra tooth care to start.