Video: Why Having Clarity of Values and Clarity of Action Helps Us Keep Our Habits.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation. I posted videos for the other twenty strategies a while back, but somehow, I never posted about the Strategy of Clarity! A very important strategy. So, voila.

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 book, Better Than Before (can’t resist adding, bestseller) describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits.

I spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as, “How do we change?” “Why is it so hard to make ourselves do things that we want to do?” ( for instance, why is it so hard to make myself go to bed?) and “How can we stick to our resolutions?“

I realize now that a big challenge is clarity. Often, if there’s something that I want to do, but somehow can’t get myself to do, it’s because I don’t have clarity. This lack of clarity often arises from a feeling of ambivalence–I want to do something, but I don’t want to do it; or I want one thing, but I also want something else that conflicts with it.


Lack of clarity, and the paralysis that ensues, seems to be common. Here’s a list of aims in conflict that I’ve heard. Do any ring a bell for you?

  • I want to eat healthfully. It’s wrong to waste any food.

    I want to give 110% to work. I want to give 110% to my family.

    I want to work on my novel. I want to exercise.

    I want to spend less time in the car. I want my children to participate in many after-school activities.

    Making money is not important. Making money is important.

    I want to be very accessible to other people. I want time alone to think and work.

    I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.

    I want leisure time when I come home from work. I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run.


Have you experienced this — a paralysis that comes from conflicting values?

I have to admit, I’d been researching and thinking about habits for a long time before I grasped the significance of the Strategy of Clarity. It’s very, very important.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    You nailed it, Gretchen. It’s one of my worst ‘habits’ personally, this idea of conflicting ideas of what I want to do and then wondering why it’s so hard to do it. A timely reminder! The road to right action is paved with focused attention.

  • Ana

    Many of these are clearly false dichotomies—you can certainly eat healthy and not waste food if you don’t buy unhealthy food to begin with! Or carve out time to work on your novel and exercise. Or outsource your house cleaning so you can have leisure time (etc…). I admit, I fall into these sometimes, but if you really think about them, they can be solved with concrete solutions.
    But some of them do reflect some muddiness in defining your values, like the money one—maybe what that boils down to is “I want to be secure financially” Or “I want to live within my means, whatever they may be”—which does not involve placing a value on earning a lot of money. These happen a lot when you are influenced by outside voices telling you different values & priorities that “sound good” so you try to adopt them all.

  • Ardys Zoellner

    I’m not sure if this qualifies in the clarity you are describing, but at the beginning of this year (coincidence, not a 1st Jan resolution!) I decided to take a new photo every day for a year and post it on Instagram. Before starting, I wrote down what I wanted to achieve by doing this, so that it wasn’t just a rote activity. Many times over the year (I’m now on day 291) I have referred to that list of goals and it has helped keep me motivated. That kind of clarity is what helps me, a Questioner, to achieve my goals. Thank you for Better than Before. I really had sworn off ‘self improvement’ books, but I couldn’t resist it after following your blog for a while. It has helped me understand myself so that hopefully I can use my skills to better advantage.

  • Ella Mari

    This is very helpful! I just decided to be pescetarian last week and it was hard for me to stick to the habit of just eating fish and vegetables everyday because of the availability of food in our family (i’m the only one in the family who’s into green living). But then I found out it’s alright if I do not eat veggies daily, for a start. So now, I guess it will be clearer for me if I tell myself that I should only be eating meat/poultry twice a week then the rest is fish and veggies/fruits. Thank you, Gretchen!

  • Ella Mari

    However, I seem to not stick to my habit when the situation is giving me anxiety (just an exaggeration haha). Like, yesterday, our professor gave us free pizza as a thank you for a successful semester – I, as a new pescetarian, did not know what to do. My thoughts at that time were: I do not want to eat pizza, because it has meat in it. But this is our professors treat, wouldn’t it be offending if I refuse? And so I ate pizza yesterday. It was delicious but I felt guilty before, during and after eating it. 🙁

  • gaining clarity seems to overcome a conflict of values or interests. but sometimes I find the conflict of values is so overwhelming that it’s difficult not to identify with it.

  • Nicky

    I loved this post, Gretchen, it really hit the nail on the head for me. This lack of clarity is my biggest problem (that, and procrastination!) I find I avoid making decisions often because of feeling very vague and ambivalent about certain things (e.g. exercise) – and not really knowing myself how important it is to me. Also, sometimes I overthink whether or not I should do something, and end up doing nothing (same amount of time as actually doing something!) Now I am consciously thinking about what I want (not what I think I ‘should’ want) and making it a priority, then doing it. Practising it until it becomes a habit. Noticing the benefits keeps me stronger and more focussed, and gives me more clarity about what I really want to change and achieve in my life. Thank you!

  • This is a great explanation, thanks! The interesting thing about the conflict is that there’s not always even a conflict there—just a conflict in the way we think about those things (because of social messages, conditioning, etc.) For example, we might not need money in the way that we’re taught we need money (to buy symbols of status and success) but we do need it to pay the bills and have security, which is a different thing. I’ve found that getting clear on those subtle distinctions helps me see where my beliefs and perceptions are causing the conflict. Then, I can resolve it 🙂