It might not surprise you to hear that we dentists think and talk a lot about habits. 

You can’t have healthy teeth that last a lifetime by caring for them once in a while, or by starting a week before your bi-annual dental appointment (yes, we can tell you started flossing two days ago!)

Your teeth are far more likely to remain healthy, resilient, and white if you create consistent habits.

You already know what these habits are: brushing twice a day, flossing to remove food debris caught in your teeth, and booking regular dental checkups.

So if we know what these healthy oral habits are, we understand the consequences of not doing them, and they take almost no time at all, why are they so hard to do every day?

We’ll take a drop of wisdom from Claude Hopkins. Never heard of him? That’s ok, most people haven’t. He is a marketing guy from the early 1900s, now recognized as the grandfather of creating consistent habits in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

Hopkin’s was hired by Pepsodent and tasked with selling their toothpaste at a time when most Americans didn’t brush their teeth. Most importantly, he succeeded! Only a decade after he launched advertisements for Pepsodent, more than half the American population was brushing their teeth consistently.

Here are two easy steps to change your brushing and flossing habits using Hopkin’s habit framework:

1. Pick a Cue 

The first step to creating a good habit is to choose a cue that will serve as an obvious reminder to brush and floss your teeth. 

Hopkins focused on the “film” that you can feel on your teeth after you eat. One of his advertisements said: “Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.”

This cue might work for you too! Here are some other ones:

• Set alarms at the same time every day. Set a daily, unique phone ping (something upbeat and brief) for 8:30am and 9:00pm, or whichever two times work best for you depending on when you wake up, eat, work, and go to sleep. Make it really easy to slip into your normal routine.

• Stack your brushing habit onto a habit you already do. Every morning, you probably have a shower, put clothes on, eat breakfast, and drink a cup of coffee. At night you likely eat dinner, do the dishes, and put your pyjamas on. 

Store your toothbrush right outside your shower in plain sight so that the cue for brushing your teeth is having a shower, or in your makeup bag so you are prompted to put on makeup and brush your teeth! Or, store a toothpaste tube in your pyjama pocket so that your cue becomes pulling on your pyjamas at night. Make it hilariously obvious.

• Get inspired by others. If you have a partner, family member, or housemate who is good at keeping consistent brushing habits, they can be your cue! When they leave the room to go brush their teeth, it’s time for you to brush yours. Just keep in mind that you need a compelling cue for when they aren’t home!

• Make it harder to do other things without brushing your teeth first. Physically store your toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss in a place where you have to move them to get stuff you need from behind, like make-up, hairbrush, deodorant, or your prescription medication. With this constant reminder, you’re more likely to brush your teeth first.

• Smile big in the mirror in the morning and at night. Leave yourself a Smile post-it note to remind yourself. Looking a little yellow and grubby in there? Time to shine up!

2. Get Excited and Enjoy Your Rewards

Cues do not work alone! You might ignore your phone ping, your roommate brushing their teeth, or even just become accustomed to the yucky tooth film. The next most important step is to find something that stirs up a feeling of anticipation and makes you really want to brush your teeth. Here are some easy ones for brushing and flossing habits that Hopkins also tapped into:

Close your eyes and imagine:

• The tingly, minty taste of the inside of your mouth after you brush. Start and end your day clean and fresh! Scout around and find a toothpaste with a particular mint taste you love. Before Hopkins, toothpaste was tasteless and unenjoyable. He’s the reason toothpaste is minty fresh today! Unlike his competitors, he understood the importance of anticipation and reward.

• The clean feeling of running your tongue across your teeth. When you feel that filmy grunge, it’s a gross, negative feeling. But after you brush, when everything is smooth and polished, you know there is no debris that will turn into plaque, and no discolouration caused by film.

• The beautiful white smiles around you. You have one of those too, as long as you keep up your habits! Every time you brush and floss, imagine gaining a bit of confidence to flash your bright smile around, lean in, and enjoy your day.

For Flossing:

• Think of fresh breath and the clear, clean spaces between your teeth! Bad breath is often caused and made worse by pieces of food trapped in your teeth for hours. No amount of brushing can fix this, if the piece of food is still there! Gross! Plus, you don’t want to find pieces of last night’s dinner still wedged in your teeth during next morning’s meeting.

• The satisfying feeling you get during and after you floss. Sometimes you can feel pressure between your teeth from bigger pieces of food that get trapped. How satisfying is it to free those pieces? You already know what your gums feel like when you haven’t flossed in a while– tender, red, and quick to bleed. In contrast, healthy gums are strong, pink, and happy after flossing! Anticipate and enjoy these good feelings.

It might take some time, experimentation, and creativity to settle a cue that works for you, as well as the anticipation and reward that keeps you committed! It’s worth the effort– clean, white, healthy teeth for life, less money spent on fixing them, and less discomfort and health complications in the long run.