Has a “Clean Slate” Ever Led to a Major Habit Change for You?

In my forthcoming book on habits — the most fascinating subject ever — I explore the various strategies that we can use to shape our habits. Strategies such as Monitoring, Convenience, the delightful Treats, and the hilarious Loophole-Spotting.

One effective strategy is the Clean Slate.

The fresh start, the do-over, or the new year is a crucial time, because it offers tremendous opportunity for forming new habits — but it can also pose great risk to existing habits that we want to maintain. It’s important to stay alert for signs of a clean slate, because too often, we fail to use the opportunity of a clean slate to form a desirable habit, or we fail to recognize that a clean slate is triggering a habit that we don’t want to form.

The slate may be wiped clean by a change in personal relationships: marriage, divorce, a new baby, a new puppy, a break-up, a new friend, a death. Or the slate may be wiped clean by a change in surroundings: a new apartment, a new city, even rearranged furniture. Or some major aspect of life may change: a new job, a new school, a new doctor.

Even minor changes can amount to a clean slate — a change as seemingly insignificant as taking a different route to work, or watching TV in a different room.

One reader wrote: “I’ve always been a regular exerciser, and the weirdest thing happened once my son started taking the bus to school. I stopped. Why? Because my routine was to drop him off at school, then go right to the gym every week day. It was an ingrained habit. Once he stopped taking the bus, the trigger was gone.”

The Clean Slate is so powerful that it’s a shame not to exploit it, and by making ourselves conscious of times of beginning, we can harness these crucial moments of opportunity to forge new and better habits. For example, in one study of people trying to make a change — such as change in career or education, relationships, addictive behaviors, health behaviors such as dieting, or change in perspective — 36% of successful changes were associated with a move to a new location.

So if you’re moving, take advantage of your Clean Slate! What might you do differently in this new environment? And be wary of allowing new, bad habits to form. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for habits: Temporary often becomes permanent, and what we assume is permanent often proves temporary.

Here’s my question for you: have you experienced this? Did you find that you changed a big habit after a major change, such as getting married, or getting divorced, or moving, or starting a new job? Or after a small change? I’d love to hear examples from other people.

Beginnings are so important; in fact, two habit-formation strategies take advantage of beginnings, Clean Slate and First Steps.

Habit-formation is an endlessly fascinating subject. If you want to know when my book goes on sale, sign up here.

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  • chadgardner83

    About a month and a half ago, I ended my (long-distance) relationship and a job (I thought I loved) in a 24 hour whirlwind. It was all incredibly sudden and was absolutely terrified of what this fresh start would entail (failure, loneliness, etc). I had been dealing with a lot of stress and lack of sleep as my personality is to worry about whether or not I am meeting expectations and not letting people down. In this short amount of time, I have completely sprung back and am in such a great place. I am no longer stressed, am finally sleeping again, have a new/incredibly amazing job and trying to find more creative ways to meet people.

    The lesson I’ve learned from this? Living outside your comfort zone, to me at least, means putting yourself in the position to be excited about whatever comes your way. The challenge of overcoming those obstacles is the catalyst for personal growth and builds character. I can tell you that with complete certainty because I feel like I am in the process of completely redefining myself for the better. Few good things come from staying in a comfort zone.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      “Few good things come from staying in a comfort zone.” Wow, that is certainly powerful Chad!!! I am going to remember and employ that one.

      • Debbie

        I HIGHLY recommend the book The Comfort Trap by Dr. Judith Sills!!! One of the themes is that sometimes a big change happens–job loss or change, geographic move, a relationship ends–and we may be forced to get out of our comfort zone. The book is about how to get out of your comfort zone in the absence of some big change. I’ve found this book extremely helpful when it comes to changing habits.
        On another note, Penelope I very much enjoy and relate to all your posts. Thank you.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    This is powerfully reminiscent of the Biblical story about the cleansing of seven devils leading to an empty house in which more wickedness, worse than what was swept away, quickly took up residence. Also of the I Ching ‘danger / opportunity’ character. A clean slate can be wonderful, and yet it is a clear field for temptations. In 12 step programs, people who try to fix themselves, others or their lives by moving, are said to be trying to ‘take the geographic cure.’ Well, wherever you go, THERE YOU ARE. Sometimes a new place can help you to implement long desired changes by removing bad old habits and detaching you physically from bad old relationships, jobs, or social circles.
    The key thing is that you have to ‘fill the empty space’ with something good and good for you, otherwise you will just do the same bad stuff all over again. Dashiell Hammett, I think it was, had a story about a man who suddenly left his job, wife, and family and disappeared. Years later he was found in a nearby city, with a similar job, wife and family. Nothing had changed but his location.
    Clean slate? Danger . . . but a great opportunity if you make use of it.
    My own ‘story’ is that I made a geographic move in the late 90s from a place where my primary social circle centered around church. I never found the same kind of satisfaction at church in my new home, but all the time that had gone into that, suddenly went into something I had wanted to do for a long time–sewing and quilting. In my new location I could afford a larger home and set aside a room for sewing. A whole new passion came from my geographical ‘clean slate.’

  • Margaret Graham

    What a remarkable discussion! I often want a clean slate, but I’ve lived in the same house for 15 years and been married for almost 20. I often WANT a clean slate, and maybe it’s simpler than I imagine. I love the example of looking for triggers (like dropping off a child at the bus as a trigger for a workout).

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I am intrigued by the idea of ‘what would it take’ to give me a ‘clean slate’ in some area of my life. I have been living in my current home town for 15 years, in the same house for 14 years, and I surely don’t intend to change any of my major relationships, nor do I really have a major feeling of discontent with any life pattern or habit. And yet, the idea of some sort of clean slate, some blue sky, some free empty space in which to test a new aspect of myself . . . my, but that’s intriguing, isn’t it?

      • Gillian

        Yes, that is the question – how to create the perception of a clean slate without the radical physical changes that would automatically provide one. One of the most interesting things about Gretchen’s Happiness Project was that it did not involve ditching her husband or moving across the country or around the world; it was about changing herself and her attitude, not her circumstances or geography. A 46-year marriage and 27 years in one house generate an overwhelming amount of inertia that it is very difficult to overcome. I so admire people who can make substantial change and find that empty space and blue sky in spite of serious constraints. This is also related to the accidental and necessary limitations issue – overcoming one’s natural tendencies.

  • Meg

    Yes, I have experienced this! I have a bad habit of leaving a pile of clothes on the floor next to my closet. They’re not dirty though, (I just toss dirty clothes in the hamper), it’s the clean clothes I have trouble with – clothes I try on and then decide not to wear, or a cardigan I toss on for for a few hours but doesn’t need to be washed. It seems like so much work to hang them back up so they end up in a pile, which grows and grows and becomes a big annoyance. Last summer when I moved to a new apartment, I unpacked all my clothes into the closet and I just declared to myself “there will never be a pile of clothes by this closet.” And just like that, I fixed the problem. I never could make myself do it an any of my old apartments but something about the fresh start worked for me.

  • I wish I employed this strategy when I started law school in a new city. I wasn’t ready to let go, and so I found myself struggling to keep up my old habits instead of coming up with new ones. I could have re-framed it into an exciting opportunity. Now I am graduating, starting a new job in the fall and living in a new apartment. I am determined to use this as a positive opportunity to change some things I don’t like about myself (staying up late; getting distracted with small side tasks when I’m trying to do a big task; etc.)

  • Miriam

    I agree that clear slates mean change for better or for worst. I used to have a personal ritual that made me very happy and helped me develop my confidence. At least once a week, I would turn on the radio and dance in front of my bathroom mirror at my apartment. When I moved in with my boyfriend 3 years ago I suddenly stopped doing that and I didn’t realized it until a month ago that he went on a trip. I suddenly found myself alone in an apartment with an urge to dance. It was so liberating that I think I danced for an hour! Since then I have consciously tried to take every opportunity his out to have my little ritual, although I want to find a new trigger to do so even if he is around the apartment. I think it is important to keep those rituals or habits that make you connect with your inner self.

  • HEHink

    Very timely thoughts for me, as we are close to finalizing the purchase of a new home. I have made the mistake, in previous moves, of thinking that I would magically be able to change my old cluttering habits just because I would be living in a new place, and making a fresh start. The problem was, I didn’t understand exactly what I was doing that allowed the clutter to accumulate, and I didn’t have a plan for preventing it. I also didn’t get an early enough start on clearing it out before the moves, so some of it came with me to the new places. What Penelope mentioned was so true for me – Wherever I went, There I was, with my same old problems. (To be fair, I moved into the last two places without having seen them first – they are housing provided by my husband’s employer – so it was difficult to plan ahead for organizing.) This new move will create the need for many new habits, involving organizing as well as scheduling. So this time, while appreciating the clean slate opportunity, we are also trying to prepare, by cleaning out first, as well as plan ahead for the new habits, to avoid falling into the same old traps.

  • Emily

    What an intriguing concept! I like to treat the first of each month as a clean slate. Some months are more successful than others depending on what my goals are. I feel ready to tackle May 1st with renewed passion!

    • Debbie

      I do this too. It started when I read The Happiness Project… I adapted Gretchen’s monthly charts so that each month I have a chart with a few goals for that month. Every day I give myself a star for each goal if I did well that day. I have an easy visual of how I’m doing by seeing where the stars line up in each column and where there’s a run of blank space. I make mid-month adjustments when necessary, and at the end of the month I can carry over some of the goals and/or start some new ones. I like the idea of New Year’s resolutions for a clean slate, but we’ve all seen the statistics of how many people drop their resolutions by February. So small monthly goals was my way of taking small steps, sticking with it, and checking in with myself at least once a month. It sounds time consuming but it doesn’t need to be; it could just take a minute at the start or end of each day.

      • Lynn

        Thanks. I like your ‘stars’ or blank space. You inspire me to start a fresh chart for May.

        • Penelope Schmitt

          Really! Tomorrow is May 1. I am thinking that keeping my car clean inside and out could be a clean slate item. It is always kind of a mess. I am going on a trip in May, and it would be nice to get through it with a clean car. A small clean slate item, but one that would address a feeling of embarrassment everytime someone rides with me.

  • AnnaKate

    I have many clean slates in my life. I also have a dream that is in the yet to come portion of my life. My dream is to live in India for 6 months. I can do this in a years time if I want to. To make it work all I would have to do is save up for the plane ticket. I have savings to do that, and could do that if I wanted to. I hope to set up this dream becoming a reality.
    I am taking a break form my boyfriend of two years. I have to short out if this is a permanent break, or a temporary break. This means thinking about what type of relationship I want to be in, and seeing if the person I was with and loved very much is the person who will lead me to the type of relationship I hope to be in. It also means enjoying my freedom in being alone, and getting over my heartache at the ways I wanted the relationship to be that it could not be.
    Within the next few years I would like to find my soulmate and get married. This means sharing a home with someone. My home is just for me right now, and very messy. I want to organize it, and get it ready for someone else to live with me in it. This means organizing things, and finding places for things. I will begin doing that tomorrow. I have someone coming to help me organize the closet. I’m excited about this!
    I have found a wonderful new church to belong to. I want to connect to people who go there, by helping out in some way, and taking a class there when it happens. I love belonging to this church, and hope to connect enough to the people that are there that they miss me when I am gone.
    I have a bad eating disorder that I am ready to deal with. I am going to deal with how I eat, what I eat, and getting enough, but not too much food into me.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Best wishes for success with all your dreams. I notice that what you mentioned in the LAST paragraph might be your FIRST priority!

    • Holly

      It sounds like you are an ambitious young woman who is eager to meet life’s challenges. Keep in mind, though, you can’t change everything at once. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is that I can be better than I am now, but I can only do it in tiny steps each day. If I try to be too drastic, I will fail and increase my self-doubt. If I document my incremental progress, I can look back and see what I have achieved. I wasted a lot of time when I was younger setting unrealistic goals and being disappointed in myself. I visualize it like a brick wall I am building. I can’t use giant bricks. I’ve got to use those everyday small, manageable bricks.

      Good luck to you;you can reach your goals, just don’t be too hard on yourself. I agree with the other commenter that the eating disorder should be top priority.

  • Rosefinch

    I’m moving house: I think I’ll pose the question to the kids “you have a clean slate in the new house – what new habits do you want to make and which do you want to keep?” I’m sure they’ll come up with some hilarious things, and some will be inspired or utterly delightful.

  • Kathy Johnson

    Funny that you should post this this week–I just had an unwanted clean slate: my hard drive crashed! I had backed up my documents so I’m OK there, but my photos will be a bit harder to replace (long story–I thought I was backing them up, but I really wasn’t). I’ll be starting over with a new hard drive, which should increase my computer’s speed and stabilty–both good things, but a pain in the neck to get working again.

  • I’ve had it happen both ways. When I bought a house a few years ago, the clean slate caused me to lose some of the housekeeping habits I’d developed in my apartment. 5 years later and I’m still trying to get in a good routine at my house.
    On the other hand, a falling out with a friend a little over a year ago led me to try to be the “best me I could be”, and I re-set my eating habits and exercise habits and proceeded to lose 50 lbs and reach a healthy weight/size.

  • PolarSamovar

    I am doing this right now. My husband died in November. I have always been introverted and not very social. I love people, but I found socializing tiring and I’d get run-down if I didn’t have 4 or more evenings at home a week.

    But after losing my husband, I was worried about depression and loneliness, so I made a TON of social plans for the subsequent few months. I knew that people would understand if I had to cancel, and I thought that having lots of people around would be smart under the circumstances.

    Six months later, I still make plans to do something social almost every day. Part of this is, of course, that my husband was absorbing a huge amount of my interpersonal energy. *All* my home time is down time now, so I recharge faster. And there is *so much* less housework, now that I live alone.

    It’s a striking change, and it’s really working for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep it up, but I have and it’s easy.

    Now, about my gym membership …

  • Alyssa

    Yes! I had struggled with my weight my whole life. After my son was born, I knew that everything about my whole life was going to change, and I decided that the new me was not going to overeat. And it was a really extreme example of this, because really everything about my life was completely different. I was at home with my son, not working. And I had 3 months to live this completely new life before I returned to my old life. By the time I went back to work, I had already lost all the baby weight, plus 20 extra pounds. All the positive reinforcement allowed me to keep going, and I ended up losing 65 more pounds. I’ve maintained most of the weight loss, and continue to live a healthier lifestyle three and half years later.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      May your success continue for your whole life! I am doing my very best to think of my eating / exercise regime as a permanent habit and not an effort focused on a specific weight. I intend to celebrate anniversaries of my healthy regime, and not specific weight goals! Thank you for your inspiration.

  • diana

    So funny. My habits on my habit app got wiped clean this afternoon when I transferred to a new iphone. So, I get to begin again. Just like they say in Buddhism.

  • Don

    What good grist for the mill! One of my slate cleanings happens when I travel. I do this at least twice a year and hope to widen these trips soon to more exotic destinations. Maybe this will mean more exotic habb

  • delighted2write

    I recently had my first baby, and after weeks of (non-elective) C-section recovering, it couldn’t have felt better to start exercising again. I’ve always been active and healthy, and the large months of pregnancy and post-surgery definitely kept my movement minimal.

    My baby’s three months tomorrow, and I feel I have a new lease on life. Now I exercise six days a week, I’ve finally learned how to (really) swim, and I eat to fuel my body – keeping my fridge stocked with fresh, sliced vegetables. This Clean Slate will have me even healthier than I was pre-pregnancy, and I couldn’t be happier about it!

  • Leanne Sowul

    I take advantage of a Clean Slate every week, when I bend my “limit sugar” rule on Saturday, knowing I will go back to healthy eating habits on Sunday. I’m aware now that I’m creating a loophole on Saturdays, but maybe it’s balanced out by the Clean Slate virtuousness on Sundays. At least, I hope so.

  • Apostolos

    A clean slate: tell me about it! Three years ago, I found myself coming out of a long drawn out relationship that should have never lasted seven years. I realized that at 34, I wasn’t really enjoying my life. Although I was intelligent I hadn’t been very successful career-wise. My social skills were poor and I frequently struggled with internet and porn addictions that were destroying me. Whenever I went out I found myself drinking excessive amounts of alcohol just to feel comfortable. I was the typical people pleasing nice-guy.
    Being single again, I realized that I was fully in charge of my life and that I didn’t need to seek approval from my (ex) girlfriend. I started out with the purpose of becoming more social, cultivating hobbies and improving my social skills with women. The first habit I changed was spending more time reading and learning and watching less TV. That triggered a chain reaction of habit changes . As my relationships improved, my confidence and performance at work improved. That made me want to try harder. I realized I didn’t need any alcohol to drink when I went out.
    I made more friends in real-life and spent less time online. My dating life improved dramatically which changed my entire attitude towards women. I recognized the value of waking up early and going to bed early. I also started cooking healthy meals. In my quest to try out new things I tried yoga and meditation. That taught me to be more focused and grounded in my life. Three years later I am a very different person from the one I used to be. That breakup was a clean slate!

    • Jen

      This is really inspiring. I’ve resisted making many positive changes for no real reason (mostly laziness and fear) and all the changes you made are the ones I want to make. I’ve spent a long time saying that when I get a new job I’ll make all these changes but the fact is the changes can be made BEFORE the new job and then are more likely to stick. I have to admit I hate yoga, but everyone I know who does it seems more focused and happy than me so maybe I’ll give in to it and take it up, just a little.

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