When and how to trust experts over scientific research

by | Jan 4, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

What do teeth flossing, meeting agendas, and meeting ground rules have in common?  And why should you care about them?

They’re examples of “keystone” habits, as explained by author Charles Duhhig in his best seller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Keystone habits work as a launch pad to influence how you “work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate,” according to Duhhig and confirmed by those of us who study and work with habits.

Once you adopt even one keystone habit and stick with it, you can be on your way to building more good habits. Pretty soon, you can be on your way to making several life-transforming behavior changes.

Because early January is such a popular time to focus on new habits, you may want to join the crowd and commit to doing something new for 2017.  (To set yourself up for success, choose habits over resolutions. Habits, keystone and otherwise, are much easier on your brain. For the reasons why, check out Be kind to your brain; resolve to build habits.)

Yet, don’t feel a need to do what everyone else is doing or even to adhere to the “science.”

Rather, take into consideration your personal preferences and experiences for what positive change you want to make and how to integrate it into your life. And then look into what the experts advise.   

That’s not to say you should ignore the science. Or, you should avoid actions that aren’t backed up by research.

Instead, you need to be clear about the relationship between scientific research, evidence and experience. Otherwise, you could find yourself stuck, not getting the outcomes you want.

For example, take tooth flossing – the habit I adopted five years ago thanks to BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits® program. I had spent 10 years trying as my dentist and dental hygienist nagged me. (See Success! Adopting 3 tiny habits about my experience.)

Last summer a report came out questioning the value of flossing, based on 25 studies that compared tooth brushing and flossing with tooth brushing alone.

Why did flossing get a bad rap?

It seems that there haven’t been enough randomized controlled trials – the highest standard for scientific research – to prove that flossing works.  And there probably never will be because of the difficulty, cost, and ethics of doing such evidence-based research. (For a great description of this situation, check out this New York Times article Flossing and the Art of Scientific Investigation).

The lack of flossing research doesn’t really matter though from a practical purpose.

Dentists know best on this topic, based on their clinical experience in examining patients who regularly floss and those who don’t. The dentists, experts in their field, will tell you that when patients floss properly, flossing works well, including contributing to better oral health. (So I’m still proud that I’ve flossed at least once a day since Dec. 19, 2011.)

In the work world, there are similar processes that work well, yet we don’t have results from definitive research studies at our fingertips to prove it.

Two great examples are preparing meeting agendas and using meeting ground rules.

These two useful tools are absent from so many meetings. When I ask why – especially when individuals complain about their awful, inefficient meetings that don’t get the results they need, I get lots of excuses.

Meeting leaders tell me they don’t see the benefits, especially compared to the time it takes to prepare; they find it too hard to do, or whatever.

Yet experts – namely those of us who have spent more than 10,000 hours in meetings – can speak to the value of the habit of agendas and ground rules.

These tools get everyone on the same page, improving outcomes, including better decisions; reducing the time spent meeting; and increasing satisfaction among participants.

But just because I and others love agendas and meeting ground rules doesn’t mean you should adopt them as habits this year.

Until you learn the skill of building habits, you need to focus on things you want to do, not should do.

And if you have any questions, take a moment to query experts, including me. We experts may be under attack on a number of fronts. Yet, we can still be helpful – especially on subjects we’re passionate about, such as habits.

Happy New Year! And good luck with your 2017 improvement plans!


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