Why September Is the Other January, and How to Take Advantage of This Clean Slate.

Clean slate black board

I’ve noted many times that for me, every year, September is the other January—a clean slate, a fresh start, a chance to use new pencils, fresh notebooks, and begin again.

In fact, in my book Happier at Home, I did a happiness project that stretched from September to May, to take advantage of September’s atmosphere to make my home a happier place.

But of course, this September is different from any other September we’ve experienced. The disruptions to school, to work, to home and community life, are dramatic.

There’s so much uncertainty, unhappiness, disappointment, and frustration right now. One of my aphorisms is “Make people happier by acknowledging that they’re not feeling happy,” and I’ve been doing that a lot with members of my family and my friends.

But because of the pressures of the pandemic, I think that perhaps now more than ever, we have happiness-boosting resolutions and habits that we want to start. I know I have some that I want to pursue.

For one thing, counter-intuitively, instead of making me hungry for more social life, the pandemic has lessened my desire to create social situations—even ones that are perfectly safe. For a while, I was making lots of “walk-and-talk” dates, where I’d walk in the park and talk to a friend on the phone. I really enjoyed these…but I’ve stopped making the effort. I know I’ll be happier if I make a regular habit of it.

September feels like a good time to make a new push. Orange is the new black, breakfast is the new lunch, Monday is the new Thursday, sitting is the new smoking, self-expression is the new entertainment, and September is the other January.

January is the official start of the new year, and I always get a burst of renewed zeal at that time, but here in the United States, for me, September also gives the same feeling of an empty calendar and a clean slate. The air seems charged with possibility and renewal.

Back-to-school is a time of self-evaluation and reflection–and also a time when I feel the urge to clean out my office.

In Better Than Before, my book about how we make and break our habits, I identify the 21 strategies we can use to master our habits. One helpful strategy is the “Strategy of the Clean Slate.”

When we go through a big transition, old habits get wiped away, and new habits form more easily.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A milestone in time can also act as a clean slate: a significant birthday, the new year, an important anniversary—or September.

The Clean Slate is so powerful that we don’t want to miss the chance 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.

If you’re thinking about doing a happiness project yourself, or you want to work on your habits, now is always the best time to start—but if you do like to pick a particularly auspicious time, September is a good one. Think about it! From September to May, in one school year, you could take some steps to boost your happiness or change your habits.

A few years ago, Anne Marie Chaker wrote a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal about the power of September: “Now Is the Real New Year.”

Some interesting points about why people make resolutions in September:

  • with the start of school, families get back into routines, and that helps people get organized and set goals
  • January is a tough time for resolutions, because of post-holiday exhaustion
  • summer efforts can get derailed because of vacation
  • September is one of the biggest months for enrolling in weight-loss programs, going to the gym, and cooking at home
  • people often change their hair style in September
  • people often take steps to change careers in September, and work on household budgets
  • September is now bigger than June as a time to get married; it’s second only to October

Of course, this is no ordinary September—still, I find it interesting to hear how September affects people.

It’s also important to think about fun! Things are feeling quite flat, and I’m looking for ways to add fun, play, whimsy, and surprise to our lives. Any ideas? I could use them.

For you, is September the other January? If so, what new habits or resolutions do you want to start? Begin planning now, to hit the ground running in September.

If you want my free Checklist for Habit Change, you can download it here.



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