The Five Cent Key to Happiness
What if the key to success, happiness and better health was to be
found in a five cent piece of string that required one minute of your time,
twice a day? If my life is any indication, it IS that simple. Late last
Summer, I finished a marvelous little book called Willpower by John
Tierney. The aptly titled book finished with a bit of a warning for
those who hope to effectuate great change: think small...very small.
Those who want to change more than one thing at a time will almost surely
So, small it was...that little piece of string. Everyone has something
small he wants to change about himself before even considering the big
things (thinner, richer, funnier). For me, it was my gums. Yes, like
many people, I vowed every time I walked out of the dentist's office,
"THIS time it will be different. I will show the kind patient hygienist
that I WILL floss and I can change. We have this unspoken relationship
over nearly 20 years: she will ask if I have been flossing and I will
stumble, fib and then promise to stick to a regimen. Lies, damn lies.
She deserves better.”
So, upon closing that book, I vowed to make that one teeny change: I
will floss nightly. I decided that this would be the proxy for the rest of
my life - nothing less than my future hangs in the balance. My love handles
and all the other vestiges of my lack of self-discipline will be determined by my ability to run a piece of string through my teeth before I go to bed. Taking a tip from the book, I leave nothing to chance and set an alarm that goes off at 9:55pm with the single word: FLOSS.
The first night is a breeze, as is the second. And the first week goes by
effortlessly. Beginner's luck? The honeymoon period? Who is this guy
with this willpower invading the body of the man with gingivitis?
Another week goes by, then another, and now I am hooked. I decide to get
cocky. I call my oldest friend Larry, a dentist, and do a little
bragging. Unimpressed, he tells me that the real benefit of flossing
comes thru a twice-daily regimen. Undaunted, I put a 6:30am
alarm on my iPhone for a morning floss. A little side benefit of the
9:55pm floss alarm is a new routine of getting ready for bed by 10pm and
getting up at 6:15am after a restful night of sleep. The morning routine
becomes as automatic as the evening routine after just a few weeks. The
trip to the dentist about a month later produced the happiest and
proudest patient in the history of the practice. I cannot contain
myself. I want to be wrapped in a big Glide gold star and have my name
bronzed as Patient of the Year. They are impressed. The gingivitis is
but a memory of that long forgotten slacker patient.
That visit was nearly six months ago. In the span of these past nine
months, I have not missed a single day of flossing twice and have
continued on a disciplined pattern of early to bed and early to rise.
More importantly, I am much calmer and happier. The confidence in
knowing I can change something has given me the inner confidence that I
can change anything. Because I am getting up earlier, I am sticking to a great fitness routine and I am getting to work earlier, making me much more productive. That
inner confidence has led me to feel more confident about running
my own business and the ups and downs that go with being an entrepreneur.
The spillover has been shockingly good. A lifelong habit of worrying
about money has suddenly disappeared with my gingivitis. My wife and I
haven't had an argument in all this time; sometimes she just shakes her
head and laughs. What started out as an annoying obsession (I quizzed
her daily about her flossing) has become a habit as ingrained as any
Observing these positive changes in myself has made me a convert to the
school of Good Habits as Religion. Recently, I read another great little
book on the subject of habits, which is closely intertwined with
Willpower - The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it he dedicates a
chapter to Paul O'Neil's tenure as CEO of ALCOA, where O'Neil's
single-minded dedication to changing just one thing, worker safety, had
such great spillover effect onto the overall company, which became the
best performing Dow Jones stock of the 1990's.
If we look hard, we see this played out in all sectors of society. Rudy Giuliani's adherence to the Broken Window school of crime prevention by going after the small things like turnstile jumpers yielded huge benefits. The same thing can be said for the reigning Super Bowl champion NY Giants, whose coach Tom Coughlin has a single-minded attention to discipline, famously illustrated by his obsession with punctuality.
I have always admired those with great willpower - the people who can sit in a restaurant for 30 minutes or more before their meal arrives and
never touch the bread, or those who walk thru a casino without dropping
even a quarter into a slot machine. Those qualities breed success.
These are the people who study hard, eschew temptation and more often
than the rest of us, lead happy, productive lives.
Now that I have gotten a little glimpse of what life looks like over here
at the altar of Self Discipline, I encourage everyone to make a tiny
little change today...set that alarm for 9:55. We can change the world
one piece of string at a time.