The Power of Habit in Dentistry
In this week’s episode, I want to talk about habits and why it’s important to (1) identify undesirable habits in your day-to-day routine, and (2) how you can go about changing these habits to create a more productive workflow in your day.
Cues and Resulting Actions
The concept of habits and what it entails became clear to me after I read the book “The Power Of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. The basic premise of the book is the “Habit Loop” in which Charles talks about different cues in the day like eating breakfast or coming home from work, and the actions these cues trigger in us. For instance, coming home and heading straight to the fridge, or washing hands as soon as we finish a clinical procedure with a patient. All these cues trigger certain actions within us, and we finally get a reward or outcome in the end.
What was really instrumental to me, in the past year and half, was understanding this habit loop. And the idea that essentially everything we do on a day-to-day basis, is a habit that can be broken down and reconstructed into something more positive, efficient or healthy. For example, I used to have the habit of coming home after a long day at work and heading straight to the fridge to grab a bottle of beer, and sit down in front of the TV. The cue here was coming home and the reward was grabbing a bottle of beer. It was my way of dealing with the day’s stress.
Over time as I recognized that this is a habit which can be broken, I started taking conscious action to change it. I realised that I could replace coming home and having a beer, to maybe coming home and going out for a quick run or sitting down to have a talk with a friend or partner. I understood that new actions could replace the old automatic actions and one could potentially form a new routine (in an average of 66 days).
Habit Loop From a Dental Perspective
How does this relate to dentistry, you ask? In dentistry, a lot of what we do on a day-to-day basis is very procedural. When patients come in and get booked for a cavity on an upper first molar, we as dentists automatically fall into a set routine we’ve been practicing everyday. We apply the topical, give the anesthetic, and then start prepping the tooth.
If you want to improve in any dental procedure, it’s important to identify what your habits are and what the rationale is behind them. For example, what’s the reason you apply topical before giving anesthesia? Is it just because your clinical guide told you to or because you learnt it from a friend? Really think about your actions because as you get more and more ingrained in your ways, it becomes trickier to understand why you do certain things the way you do. For example, if you want to incorporate using rubber dam, or a new type of sectional matrix or bonding protocol, it’s going to take conscious action to break your old habit and introduce a new one. That’s why it’s hard to master a new procedure or skill we take on, in just a day!
Take the time to understand what your habits are and your actions are. Think about the sequence of events you are doing at your workplace. If you’re doing a tooth extraction, think about why you’re luxating the tooth before using the forceps. If it’s a restoration, think about why you’re etching for 10-20 seconds. Is it something that you were just taught in dental school and are following through with? Or Is it a habit you picked up from your colleagues? Once you understand that everything you do is a habit, you can then take conscious actions to improve those habits.
Habits Outside Dentistry
This applies to life outside of dentistry as well. For example, if you want to improve your health and fitness, then you need to regulate what you eat, how much you eat and how often you eat. We feel that our eating habits have become so ingrained in us that we cannot change. We may like sweets, we may like beer, but all these things are just habits we’ve picked up or had reinforced into our subconscious over time. So it’s important to identify what these habits are, in order to have that neuroplasticity to change them.
To summarise, the first step is awareness, the second step is conscious decision to change and the third step is sticking to it. In the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, 66 days seems to be the magical time for a conscious action associated with a cue, to become an automatic habit.
Take some time out and look at your full day. When you wake up, look at your morning routine and your habits. Do you just wake up and start eating right away or do you have a morning ritual where you do a bit of stretching, have coffee and then indulge in some journal writing? Try and incorporate new things into your morning routine. Only then you will be able to develop healthy habits that can over time make a big difference to your personal growth, your growth as a clinician, as well as your health and wellbeing.
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