Video: For Habits, the Strategy of the Clean Slate.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of the Clean Slate.

It’s one of three strategies that take their power from beginnings, and it’s particularly related to the Strategy of First Steps.


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.

The Clean Slate is so powerful that it’s a shame not to exploit it. 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 take advantage whenever the slate is wiped clean, as a moment to change a habit.

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?

  • Gillian

    The strategy of a clean slate can obviously be very effective. Retirement is such a clean slate which radically changes how one spends one’s time. I probably didn’t take advantage of that as much as I should have.

    My real comment, however, is about your final anecdote about the person who emptied the refrigerator at the beginning of every year. That is UNCONSCIONABLE!!! It’s bad enough to have to throw food away because it has gone bad; throwing it away just because it’s January 1 is unbelievably selfish and beyond the pale. It is not only the food that is wasted but all the resources used and pollution generated in the whole production, packaging and transportation process that is also wasted. Perhaps that person should use the next January 1 to start a new habit – reducing waste.

    By the way, Gretchen, there is no such thing as an UNDER-buyer. We should all be striving to buy and consume as little as possible. Making do without something is not a bad habit.

    • I agree, it does seem very selfish and heartless to throw away the food. I also agree that we all should be striving to buy as little as possible. However, I think Gretchen meant Under-average buyer.

      • gretchenrubin

        In her defense, she wasn’t the type to have much in her fridge—at all! I bet she actually threw away almost nothing. Maybe a half-finished carton of yogurt. It was more the symbolism of it.

        • Hmm, I suppose if it was just a few items, it is justifiable.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I guess my biggest ‘clean slate’ was a geographic move I made in 1999 to a new job with the same organization. I moved from Military Programs (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to Civil Works, same organization. The change revitalized my attitude about work for the final 12 years of my career. The organization was the same, but the subject matter was completely new. I moved to a different state. My children had graduated from high school and left home, so I was a single person again. This move accomplished several things for me:
    * Better finances (lower cost of living) and more living space
    * A new or at least vastly expanded and deepened hobby, quilting, which has become almost my retirement career
    * A renewed interest and enjoyment of my job.
    * Many new friends and experiences of a completely different place and part of the country.

    That said, I do think that people need to remember the all-too-true saying: “Wherever you go, there YOU are.” You may be able to make a geographic change that will help you to clear the slate, but a “geographic CURE” is an uncertain and slippery idea. And when you take YOU to a new place, you may discover things about yourself that you just didn’t know in your old context. It is an interesting and challenging experience. I also recommend that people who move for a clean slate to realize that it will take TIME to become at home in the new place. Decide beforehand how long you are going to commit yourself to the new place before deciding to uproot yourself again. I was ‘at home’ within 18 months, though I had decided to give it three years. Now I am pretty settled here.

    • Gillian

      Great clean-slate example. I’m curious, Penelope, which you think had the greater effect on your lifestyle – the geographic relocation or the fact that you returned to living alone. I haven’t gone through either change – geographic moves have been within the same region and I have been married to the same man since I was 20 (am now 67). It would seem to me that the greater influence would be going from living with others (children, spouse, parent) to living alone. Did you find it so?

      • Penelope Schmitt

        I’m the same age as you, Gillian. I think actually the big change was both living alone and living in a larger space. I went from a barely 900 square foot house with hardly any room for hobbies, and for way less, bought a larger but still modest 3-bedroom house in my new home town. Because the kids were grown and gone, was able to devote one room to sewing and still have a guest room.

        Now my Mom has moved in with me and things are a bit lavishly overfurnished (!!) and when guests come I have to find enough room on the sewing room floor to make up an inflatable bed for myself. It does not matter–the geographical change and the extra space (although sort of temporary) allowed me to give room to my creative urges. Now that is a firmly settled part of my life here. Seeing my Mom at 90 makes me realize that this lavishness is only going to last for a while–I may, like her, become unable to do my hobbies in time, and need to live in contracted space. That encourages me to make the most of my time while I still have health and eyesight and hearing for sewing and music.

        I guess you might say that I have had a ‘reverse clean slate’ since Mom brought 2 TONS of her stuff with her–downsizing is a relative term. But the benefits of my original clean slate, especially the hobby that is best done in my own home, has been the savior of my happiness and my sanity in my present circumstances!

  • Diana

    I just got home from a 3 week hiking and backpacking trip with my family. A wonderful trip but it was hard to eat my usual low-carb diet (which had gone off the rails anyway). I decided that when I got home I would start again with low carb. (And shop for all the foods I missed when I was eating freeze dried backpacking foods.) So far it has been 3 days and I have kept my resolution. Interestingly, I started my first low carb diet after reading your post about this topic, a couple of years ago I think roughly around this time
    of year, after my vacation.

  • Doing it now. Clean slate because I’m starting work full-time today. I’ve already asked two people to keep track of two healthy habits that I want to start doing. First, no sugar or meat at work. Second, exercising for 7 minutes (using an app) every day. I’m an Obliger + Abstainer.

  • Kristin Kahrs

    I have witnessed people clean-slated by tragedy as well, which can really redeem the that terrible event. An older couple I know lost almost everything in a house fire. No person or pet was harmed. The grieved, certainly, but while they were sad that they had lost precious moments, they rejoiced at being unburdened by the “junk” they had accumulated too! I almost envied them. They started OVER!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      This happened to a couple I knew many years ago who were virtually trapped in a home that had become a shrine to a child who had committed suicide at home. The fire wiped out all their mementos, but enabled them to move on from that terrible place.

  • Molly

    I had a clean slate moment that led to success, and it is amazing how much of my success in my career came from that moment earlier in life. I transferred colleges after 3 years, and had an unexciting B to low B GPA. At my new college, the slate was wiped clean, and while I started out with my old study habits, I realized one evening that it would be a waste of my second chance to do things the same way. Why make this big move (another new city) just to do things the same way. Something about that realization sunk in, and I ended up finding my major, graduating with a 3.8 GPA. This led to my getting into a really good graduate school, and I ended up with a PhD a number of years later. Early in my college life and even when I transferred, my entire goal was to get out of college and be done with education for good! Transferring forced me to take a class I never would have taken at my old school, which became my major, and eventually, my career! The clean slate works. The problem is doing it often has to line up with other events that couldn’t be foreseen in setting goals. (Ex…the fire that led to a life change.)

    • gretchenrubin

      Such a great example.

      In your story, and in others I’ve heard, a key is the moment when you think, “If I do things the same way that I did them before, I’ll get the same result.”

  • What is a good strategy if you *want* a clean slate, but don’t have any obvious pending clean slate scenarios coming up? I own my home, I’m currently looking for a new job, etc., but I want the clean slate to start ASAP. I’ve tried cleaning my entire house and that doesn’t do it for me. Any suggestions appreciated!

    • gretchenrubin

      I faced the same thing.

      I cleaned out a room, too!

      But I agree, it’s not quite the same, though very satisfying.

      I’d love to hear people’s suggestions, because I couldn’t come up with anything myself.

      • I think maybe starting a new blog would do it for me. The one I have has been around for 10 years and sometimes it just feels like so much baggage!