Image: Dental insurance © Creatas, SuperStock

The dentist peered into my mouth. "You're not flossing!" he barked.

"Yes, I am!" I tried to protest as dental equipment rolled around in my mouth. (This was a lie, of course.) Once the cleaning was done, he asked a few questions and then gave a warning: "You'd better start flossing or your teeth are going to fall out of your head. I mean it."

Dentists say this stuff to patients all of the time, and the patients typically go right back to neglecting to brush before bedtime. But, for some reason, his words really struck me that day, and I decided to floss every day until my next appointment in six months.

But I didn't merely just floss every day for six months. I became a "flosser." Through this nightly ritual, I began to see myself as someone who had the discipline to stick to a new habit. Each night that I flossed was a small personal victory, which gave me the motivation to keep going. As a result, after just a few months, the routine became automatic.

It took years to put the two events together, but I ultimately realized that my flossing challenge was the catalyst for another radical shift: my approach to finances.

The power of keystone habits

My new routine became what Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business," calls a keystone habit. In my quest for self-improvement, I did a lot of reading about habit-changing, and Duhigg's book really resonated for me -- especially the chapter on keystone habits, which "unlock all other patterns in your life," encouraging you to improve across the board.

In other words, they set off a chain reaction of change in other, unrelated areas. Keystone habits are effective because, when you stick to them consistently, they create "small wins," a strategy that psychologists use to inspire hope in people who are looking to improve their lives because they help keep motivation high when the road is long. Ultimately, every "X" on my calendar was a small win.

According to Duhigg, "we get a sense of identity from what we do, and when a keystone habit bolsters a positive sense of identity, it's powerful." Through the flossing challenge, I accidentally proved to myself that I was capable of long-term change.

Little wins = big change

Once flossing became an automatic habit, I asked myself: What else can I change? At the time, I wasn't paying attention to my finances -- and the debts were piling high. I had convinced myself that I could never be disciplined about money, but here was concrete evidence that I could be disciplined in at least one area of my life. Who was I to say that I couldn't show that discipline elsewhere?

One night I took a hard look at everything I owed. It was a scary figure -- I was nearly $30,000 in debt. That night I committed to two powerful habits: checking my balances every day, and reviewing my budget weekly. Feeling bold, I also decided to stop using credit cards.

At first, shifting my money patterns was an uncomfortable but necessary change -- just like flossing. Instead of making X's on a calendar, I kept a list of my debt, from smallest to largest balances. As I paid off each one, I took great pride in ripping up the last bill and drawing a red line through the account name.

With my new habits, I was paying down my debt systematically. I finally felt at peace with money.

Five months into my money challenge, my new habits became second nature. And I felt such a sense of relief when I started to notice that the habits were becoming second nature -- money wasn't so scary anymore. Previously, when I wasn't looking at my finances, there was always anxiety around not having enough money. But with my new habits, I was checking in regularly and paying down my debt systematically. I finally felt at peace with money, and 18 months later, I was debt-free.

What I took from my experience is that a little discipline -- in any area of your life -- can go a long way. If your finances need a lift, choose something small that you can commit to for at least two months. (Research shows that it actually takes at least this long to turn your new keystone habits into a routine.)

And if I can pay off $30,000 of debt, there's room for you to improve too. My keystone habit was flossing, but there are other positive, daily habits you can try:

  • Make your bed each day. A recent Hunch.com study showed that people who make their beds daily report being more advanced in their careers, liking their work more and exercising more regularly.
  • Drink eight glasses of water daily. Drinking water on a regular basis improves mental alertness and relieves stress -- two things that will help you change stubborn habits.
  • Exercise consistently. Studies show that exercise triggers all kinds of beneficial habits, such as better eating, lower stress levels and less alcohol and caffeine consumption.
  • Meditate frequently. Quieting your mind for just ten minutes a day can strengthen your willpower in all areas of your life -- including your finances.

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