Nick Crocker
Aug 3, 2014 · 18 min read

5 years ago, my dentist changed my life.

It’s worth pointing out that I have a fear of dentists so any time I spend in their presence tends to in a state of high alert.

They speak, I listen.

In any case, as I scampered out of his office, my Dentist called out to me.

Remember Nicholas — Floss The Teeth You Want To Keep!

Nodding and smiling I left, hurriedly, as I usually do.

But weeks later, those words remained lodged in my mind.

Floss the teeth you want to keep.

Floss the teeth you want to keep.

Floss the teeth you want to keep.

Well, the truth was, I wanted to keep all my teeth. And if that was the case, I needed to start flossing. All of them.

And so, after 23 years of life, I decided to become a flosser.

And I’m proud to say that I now have an unbroken chain of 5 flossing years and not a single filling in that time.

And that little piece of advice, simple as it was, sparked a 5 year journey for me, exploring my own ability to change myself, not just flossing, but every aspect of my life that needed improvement. From the way I ate, to the way I worked and exercised, right down to the way I read and slept.

For the past 5 years I have been a student of change, obsessed with one simple question — how do you change yourself? How do you narrow the gap between who you want to be and who you are?

The Danish Twin Study established that only about 10 percent of how we live is dictated by our genes.

The other 90 percent is dictated by our lifestyle. That is, by the choices we make about who we are and how we live our lives.

We think change is hard. It’s actually not. It’s just that most of us are really bad at it.

If you ask the average person what the optimal formula for change is — they probably don’t know.

Most of us assume it’s binary. You go on the biggest loser for a few days and then Bam, the big reveal, you’re half the man you were.

This is how we’re geared to think about change.

But the reality is, that’s not how change works. That’s not a model that any of us can apply to our real lives.

So, the fact of the matter is there is a lot of confusion around what really helps us change.

At the end of this talk, I’m going to share with you some of the lessons of the past five years about what it takes to change, but first I want to put personal change in its proper perspective.

Because this isn’t just about learning to floss.

It’s about facing up to the challenges of the future with our full capabilities and creating an awesome future for our kids and their kids after them.

For most of human history, the issue has been that we couldn’t get enough to eat, we couldn’t be safe, we couldn’t be secure. We had all kinds of problems of scarcity, which we evolved to deal with.

For most of us, this is no longer the case. We have enough to eat, and we live in relative safety and security.

We are facing a new evolutionary problem.

The problem of plenty.

This is, in itself, a remarkable testament to human progress. That we have now reached a point where our biggest problem is moderating our own desires is a beautiful problem to have.

Except for that fact that, in the industrialised world at least, lack of self control is now our biggest killer.

And in our struggle to meet this threat, evolution is against us. You see, inter-connected neurons in our brain have evolved over millions of years to encourage us to do things that kept us alive, like eating.

High-calorie food was scarce and crucial for survival, so we learned to flood ourselveswith feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin in response to food that’s high in calories. The system worked well until now. Now, we have high-fat, high-calorie food available 24/7.

We don’t know how to switch ourselves off to the temptation. And this inability to control our own behaviour, to change it, is slowly bringing us down.

We are the boiling frogs.

Let me explain. If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out.

But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly.

As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.

So how big is this problem? How badly are we being boiled?

61% of Australian adults are either overweight or obese.

Type 2 diabetes is projected to become the leading cause of disease burden by 2023.

Smoking is the single most preventable cause of ill health and death in Australia.

And in the US, which is the canary down the mine for global health, the six leading killers of Americans are lifestyle diseases, responsible for more than 40% of all deaths.

And all of this can be traced to a combination of poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking. All decisions we make, day to day, week to week. All requiring subtle change.

If we are responsible for this state of affairs, I want to know how we change.

There’s something else at play here too.

There was a time when societies were supposed to defer gratification until they died. You had to wait for the afterlife for your rewards.

At some point, we decided collectively that’s too long to wait.

Technology has effectively collapsed the time between impulse and gratification. There was time when if you wanted to buy something you had to save up for it. You had to send away for it, wait for the post to arrive at your door. These processes took weeks/months.

Now, in an era of Netflix and Amazon Prime and Seamless Web, and credit cards that entire friction economy has collapsed. We get what we want when we want it, even when we don’t necessarily have the money to pay for it.

That means we have come to disproportionately value short-term rewards over long-term goals. We’re geared to expect instant change and to give up when it doesn’t arrive.

And all of this makes us less able to change in the way we need to.

So I’m convinced that the ability to change ourselves lies at the core of our shared future as a society.

If we can’t floss the teeth we want to keep, how will we ever face up to the really big challenges of sustainability, of war, of peace, of poverty, of education, of water and energy…

If we’re going to solve these problems, we need to make sure we don’t live ourselves to death first.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of us have at least considered making a New Years resolution.

Whatever your resolution was, by thinking about it you thought about changing.

And that thought involved two voices — one was your planning voice — the one that said I’m going to save more money, I’m going to be a better parent, I’m going to exercise more…

And then there was another voice — the doer — that’s the voice the pipes up after a long day at the office and says, you’re too tired, why now just order a pizza, the one that says, you feel good, why not just have one more beer, the one that sees the plasma on sale and says, maybe I’ll start saving after I buy this one more thing.

The doing voice represents who you are and the planning voice represents who you’d like to be. And every week science is giving us new insights into how and why these two parts of us do or don’t get along and how we can help them to get along better.

Before we talk about the keys to that change, I want to debunk the two biggest myths about change.

The first is that change is an on-off switch. That is false.

Instead, we need to think about our capacity to change as a muscle. A muscle that for most of us is reasonably weak and that tires easily, but one that we can improve and strengthen over time.

There’s another reason it’s like a muscle, and that’s that overuse will temporarily exhaust it.

Imagine this — Imagine I have brought you to this room for an experiment. Imagine that up here on this stage I have a table. On the table is a plate of freshly baked cookies and a bowl of radishes.

I split you into two groups. The group to my right — you can eat cookies, but no radishes. The group to my left — you can eat radishes but no cookies.

Now imagine I leave the room.

I’m going to assume the best of you and assume that none of the radish group steals a cookie.

15 minutes later, I give you all a logic puzzle where you have to trace out a complicated geometric pattern without raising your pencil. Unbeknownst to you, the puzzle can’t be solved.

How long do you think you as a group will persist?

Well, when this study was done in real life, the cookie group persisted with the problem for 19 minutes.

You radish eaters. You only lasted 8 minutes.

So what happened?

Well, the researchers realised something — the radish eaters had run out of self control. In that 15 minute period, as they resisted eating the cookies, the radish eaters drained their self-control. And when it came time to use it again, when they needed to apply it to the logic puzzle, they fatigued faster than their cookie-eating compatriots.

And that’s fundamental to understanding change. Your ability to change is an exhaustible resource.

In adults, this resource is referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings.

And this leads me to a second myth, that the ability to change is constant, that it’s pre-determined by genes or by your genes or upbringing. That’s false. When it comes to change, you need to know that you can improve, just as you can strengthen a muscle. When it comes to change, ability matters more than motivation.

In the now famous marshmallow study, a group of children were tested for their ability to delay self-gratification.

They could choose to eat a marshmallow straight away, or they could wait and be given a second one.

The children were then tracked throughout their lives. As it turned out, the kids who could hold out for the second marshmallow were much happier and more successful in later life. It turned out that the capacity for delayed gratification was a better indicator of success in life than IQ?

So what was different between the marshmallow eaters and the marshmallow waiters?

It certainly wasn’t desire. Every child craved the marshmallow.

What became clear was that the differentiating factor was the children’s ability for the “strategic allocation of attention.”

Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow the children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.”

Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten.

What was even more interesting was that the kids who failed, often failed because of technique. They would stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. In every case, that lead to failure.

When the researchers taught the children a simple set of mental tricks, such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—they improved dramatically. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes.

This is how self-control “cashes out” in the real world: as an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.

Behaviour change can be tiring, but it can also be taught and improved.

Which leads us to the change itself. If we can pretend the candy is just a picture and stop ourselves from eating the marshmallow, then we can play similar mental tricks on ourselves to change any part of our life.

Sometimes, some people change miraculously. The pieces fall in place and they just make it happen. But that’s the exception to the rule.

That’s not what frogs do when the water creeps up in temperature.

So how do we help ourselves changes?

Well, after 5 years of reading and self-experimentation and failing and trying again, here’s what I’ve learned about changing myself and how I think that might apply to you.

Most people can’t remember 10 things, so if you can slip these into three subcategories (triangle) with 3 elements each (total of 9) it will improve recall and accessibility.

Or — and again, these are just thoughts to consider, you could re-package them as the famous 5 that we all know (SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely) and the little known 5 (Muscle — single changes, chains of change, (addition as change and triggers could be packaged as one), (environment and never change alone could be incorporate as the one) and lastly patient change. I can see a kick arse diagram and a book deal…

As a last resort, I’d be tempted to package these up: the 10 golden rules, the 10 no brainers, the 10 keys to successful change etc.

First, don’t overload your change muscle. Don’t take on too much change for too long.

That’s why New Year’s Resolutions fail. We commit to going to the gym every morning, eating less ice-cream, saving more money and always getting home on time.

And by the end of January, we are exhausted, we feel like we failed and we decide it’s all too hard. So we give up.

So limit yourself to a single change for a specific period of time.

They say a habit takes 21 consecutive days to form. People need that much repetition for the new connections in your brain to be made.

From a standing start, you should expect reasonably that it might take a few tries to make 21 days in a row. Let’s say you make it 7 days the first time, 14 days the next and all the way on the third go around.

That’s 42 days, or 6 weeks, which it turns out is the optimum time for building in a new behaviours.

Second, break your goal down into discrete, baby steps.

For this, we need to differentiate between a goal (like lose 10 kilograms) and an activity (like drink a glass of water before every meal).

If the goal is to run 5klm without stopping, the activity is to run three times this week.

The brain can’t compute goals that are too broad — be healthier isn’t as good as eat salad for lunch on weekdays. Be fitter isn’t as good as ride to work on Mondays and Fridays.

The clearer and smaller the activity, the more likely you are to reach that goal.

Third, build a chain of success. If your goal is to run a marathon, then every day that you can’t run a marathon, you are, in effect failing. That’s why setting small, achievable activities is necessary for achieving a big, lofty one.

Commit to walking your dog once a week for a month. If that works, aim for twice a week for a month. Then step your way up until you’re running your dog every day. If we create a chain of small successes we will get what we want. If we create a chain of failure, we don’t.

The fourth thing to keep in mind is that it’s easier to add a new behaviour than it is to stop an old one. In the same way, it’s easier to increase the frequency of a behaviour than it is to decrease it.

When we start on our own journeys of change, it’s best to start by adding a new behaviour or increasing the frequency of a new one. Going cold turkey is hard, and takes time to work up to. Cold turkey is for behaviour change specialists.

So when we’re starting out, and most of us are included in that pool, it’s important to add. Eventually, by adding new behaviours you prove to yourself what you are capable of, you strengthen our change muscle and by adding new positive behaviours you eventually squeeze out negative old ones.

Fifth, you can increase your chances of doing that new behaviour by creating a trigger for it.

My trigger for flossing was brushing my teeth. Brushing my teeth became the trigger for the new behaviour.

In the same way, eating a meal can be a trigger for drinking a glass of water.

Waking up can be the trigger for going for a walk.

Triggers are trip-wires for activity, and effective ones are vital for creating sustainable change.

If you combine a trigger with ability and motivation you create a sustainable basis for change.

Sixth. Change is easier with friends. Bring people along on the ride with you, either as co-changers, as external accountability or as support and encouragement.

Seventh. They say measure what matters. If change matters to you, measure it. Count change as it happens. Walks, meals, gifts, whatever it is, measuring lets you know if you’re walking in the right direction.

Right now, there’s an emerging movement of self-quantifiers, people who are using the proximity and insight that smart phones provide to track their every step, every meal, every calorie burned, every hour slept and every hour worked.

They track what they do so they can change it for the better. And while this won’t be for everyone, you can see the impact this kind of technology is going to have over the next decade on those seeking to change.

Point 8 is to change your environment. Your environment is one of the biggest influencing factors on your behaviour.

For example, lets say you are a woman who is size 16, but you want to go to size 12.

Your kitchen is stocked with food that someone who is size 16 eats.

Your friends talk about food the way that someone who is size 16 talks about food.

You drink the amount of alcohol that someone who size 16 drinks.

Your level of workout planning is the amount of planning that someone who is size 16 plans.

The Framingham Heart Study in 2007 showed us that the heavier our close friends and family, the heavier we are likely to be.

If your three best friends are obese there is a 50 percent better chance that you’ll be overweight.

This is a vital piece of the puzzle.

We can do one, small, specific new thing, with an obvious trigger for a set time, like 6 weeks, but without a supportive environment, we make the process of change harder.

When people say they can’t change, I believe them. A little bit. But we need to be realistic about what’s really changeable and what’s not.

If I put a gun to your head and say don’t blink, you will blink pretty soon.

But if I put a gun to your head and say, stop eating ice-cream for dessert, all of a sudden, change is in a different context.

Here’s how you can run a slightly less extreme version of this experiment on yourself.

If you really care about starting a habit, take 10x the money that you would normally spend on a nice dinner and give it to a friend. Tell that friend what you want to do and give them a means of monitoring your progress.

Tell them that each time you don’t maintain that behaviour, they should burn 1/5 of it. Few people will be comfortable with the idea of burning their own money so the incentive is high to stick to the habit. Do this for 90 days with a new habit and chances are it will be ingrained at the end of 90 days.

The final point is this. Change takes patience. Like any system for learning, it relies on trial and error for improvement. It involves success and failure and rather than being a static destination, it’s a journey. What you need to change now is not what you will need to change in 10 years time.

Make changes in context. Map out where you want to be in 10 years. Work back and see what that means for where you are in 3. Do the same for 1 year. And then 3 months. Now think about your habits — what habits need to change now to get you where you need to go? Habits outside the context will be hard to maintain.

It’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks to avoid cookies, or to rattle of a ten-point plan for change. The real challenge is turning those tricks and plans into habits, and that requires months and years. Change is not the destination, it’s the journey.

And we should do that with our full force, not in a weakened, dulled, slowed, bloated, overworked state. We shouldn’t be dreaming of how to how to wean ourselves off television, long hours at the office and bad food.

Floss the teeth you want to keep.

We’re in this room because we’re committed to a better future. We’re living our lives so our kids and their kids can inherit a better world.

And so, if we’re going to try and built that better future and tackle its challenges — let’s do it at full-strength.

Not bloated or dulled. Not limping or overworked.

Let’s not squeeze through the future’s door. Let’s not be late for it because we were watching Masterchef.

Let’s be at full-force. With the best versions of ourselves.

And the getting to the best versions of ourselves starts with a single, simple change.

Remember, floss the teeth you want to keep.

(Talk originally given at TEDx Darwin in mid-2011).

Nick Crocker

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