So how are those New Year’s resolutions going? If you bothered to make them at all, more than a quarter of you have already given up, according to studies cited by The Washington Post.
Knowing those odds and my own history of pledges not kept, I was determined this year not to become just another data point on the failure curve. For years, dental hygienists have patiently listened to my evasions when they ask me how much I floss. The real answer is hardly ever. That has to end. But the gap between my intention and follow-through in this area always has been vast. Just knowing that flossing is good for me and desiring to do it have, frankly, never been enough. So I did what any reasonable person in the vicinity of San Francisco in 2015 would do.
I used an app to hire a flossing coach.
Not that I woke up January 1 with the bright idea to hire a flossing coach, or would ever have imagined such a person existed. No, the more mundane reality is that a while back, I had used an app called Lift to help me lose weight. For my purposes at the time, Lift was exceedingly simple. You put a habit you wanted to cultivate into the app, anything at all, in my case “exercise.” On each day you did that thing, you mashed a big digital checkmark, and the app kept track of how many times per week and month you checked in.
I fell out of the habit of using Lift, and my weight went up again. So at the beginning of the year, I decided to get back on track. But in the meantime, the app had auto-updated on my phone with a new name: Coach.me. The checkmark was still there, but the new emphasis, as the name suggests, is on connecting users with coaches to help motivate them. When you add a habit to the app, you are presented with a menu of options, including “hire a coach.” When I entered “floss” as a goal, I tapped “hire a coach” for a laugh, thinking that of course there’s no such thing as a floss coach.
Turns out there are. A lot of them, in fact.
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Positive Reinforcement Robot
I was still a bit mystified, so I called Coach.me’s creator, Tony Stubblebine, who describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “human potential nerd.” He said he made the app for himself back in 2010 with what he describes as a nerd’s notion that he could outsource his habits to technology.
“Maybe software could solve the problems of my personal flaws and just take over for me,” he said. Somewhat surprisingly, he said, in some ways it did. The app became like a “little positive reinforcement robot.” (I had a similar experience when I used the app the first time around.)
But while the tech-centric approach worked for him, he said the data he started to gather as more and more people began using the app showed something different. As the app evolved, users could add profiles and share their check-ins with others who shared the same goal. Those users, in turn, could give people “props” for their check-ins, answer questions, and provide encouragement. For a lot of people, that peer encouragement worked.
“You just don’t give people enough credit for how helpful they can be and how helpful they want to be,” he said. “If you’re a shy programmer like I was, your impulse was not to ask people for help with anything.”
Over time, the power of people connected through tech and not the technology itself became increasingly apparent. “We just kept replacing mechanical pieces with human pieces, and the community just did a much better job,” Stubblebine says. Many of the most active members of that community have been tapped for Coach.me’s first cohort of 700 coaches.
Tooth by Tooth
Still, a flossing coach? As it turns out, flossing holds a special place in the annals of habit science. Stubblebine cited psychologist B.J. Fogg, who heads Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. Fogg is perhaps best known for his idea that the best way to develop a new habit is to start “tiny,” and his best-known example is flossing. To develop a flossing habit, he says, start by flossing one tooth.
And that’s exactly what my flossing coach asked me to do. My coach is Kendra Kinnison. She appeared first on the roster of floss coaches, who were ranked according to how many check-ins they’d coaxed from others. Kinnison was responsible for nearly 750 check-ins. She clearly sees flossing as being about more than clean teeth. “This habit is perfect for building initial momentum; there’s little resistance to getting started and it makes the perfect anchor for a habit routine.”
The coaching started with Kinnison sending me an online survey asking about my goals, how I’d like to communicate, and how I wanted her to respond if I missed a check-in. Since then, we’ve communicated exclusively via text message in the Coach.me app (though she did offer to Skype with me for an initial consultation). We started with me committing to the idea that flossing just one tooth was enough for a check-in.
She also asked me to think of a daily activity I could pair with flossing—another piece of Fogg’s approach—but the activity had to be something other than brushing my teeth, which in my case clearly wasn’t working. We hit on flossing after I finish loading the dishwasher—pressing the button on the dishwasher is supposed to be the trigger. I haven’t been at it long enough to say whether it’s working. But since bringing my flossing coach on board, I’ve flossed three days in a row.
Promises to Keep
To be sure, Lift’s pivot into coaching as Coach.me also makes business sense, as Stubblebine acknowledges. And with $3.5 million in funding, including money from friend and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, a business is something Coach.me aspires to be. (Fun fact: Stubblebine was the sixth person to sign up for Twitter.) Coaching sessions cost $14.99 per week, though at the time of this writing I’m still in the one-week free trial. I’m flossing more than I used to, but I doubt a week is long enough to go from zero to full-blown habit, so I’ll probably pay, at least until it gets more expensive than getting a filling.
I doubt I’ll need a flossing coach that long. That’s the whole point of a habit, right? To truly deserve the name, a habit is something you just do. And if human beings were perfectly rational, we would do all the right things all the time simply because they are the right things to do. But we’re not, which is why I’m going to keep mashing that checkmark and, with some help from my floss coach, life-hack my way to a New Year’s resolution I actually keep.
By Marcus Wohlsen
Photo: Getty Images