Psychologist shares the nightly routine she uses to make new habits stick: ‘It really helps me keep going’

Seattle-based clinical psychologist Rachel Turow
Photo: Rachel Turow

When Rachel Turow gets ready for bed, she flosses differently than most other people: She talks to herself while doing it.

"That's so great that you floss! Wonderful! So great!" the Seattle-based psychologist tells herself, internally.

The overly excited mental pep talk is intentional, Turow tells CNBC Make It: A "wild amount of encouragement" gives her the "burst of reinforcement" she needs to accomplish a task she otherwise hates.

"It makes me gag," she says. "I just can't stand flossing, but I know I have to do it." 

While you might feel silly congratulating yourself for something so mundane, the simple technique is a great example of a mental trick for whenever you want a new habit to stick, Turow says.

In therapy terms, it's called "behavioral activation," which Turow says is "a fancy term for doing stuff even when you don't feel like it." By "leapfrogging" over her lack of flossing motivation, she gives herself just enough of a push to at least get started.

"Evidence shows that motivation actually follows behavior," she says. "It's really a 'just do it' kind of thing."

Of course, that's easier said than done — which is why starting with something as small as flossing can help kick you into action. And while excessively praising yourself might usually fuel unhealthy feelings of superiority, it's almost impossible to overly boost your ego when the topic is something as simple as flossing.

"I'm not going to be super conceited about flossing," Turow says. "I don't think I'm better than anybody else [for flossing]."

The strategy can be useful in plenty of contexts. Try congratulating yourself after sending a difficult email, for example, or after finally reaching out to a coworker or friend you've been meaning to connect with.

These small actions make a difference — and they're worth celebrating, Turow says.

Her technique also cultivates self-compassion: Even if she only flosses briefly, she still celebrates the win and tells herself she'll do even better next time.

Self-compassion is more likely to lead to long-term success than self-esteem, and linked with lower levels of procrastination, she adds. It also correlates with better overall well-being, and positive mental and physical health outcomes.

Turow's takeaway: If being kind to yourself is one of the best motivators out there, orient your actions around that — which is exactly what she's done with flossing.

So far, it's been effective: "It really helps me keep going," she says.

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