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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“Accept My Limitations, Or…Fulfill My Promise?”

“How do I know if the time has come to

Accept my limitations,

Or whether I still ought to try to

Fulfill my promise?”

— Judith Viorst, “Twenty Questions,” in How Did I Get to Be Forty & Other Atrocities

I’m on a Judith Viorst reading bender right now, which is utterly enjoyable though not really fair to Viorst, because the work of most writers doesn’t benefit from being read one book right after the other. (I must add that in addition to writing for adults, Viorst wrote the immortal picture book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.)

This quotation reminds me of one of the most important challenges within happiness and habits: “Accept myself, and expect more from myself.

Or as W. H. Auden put it, “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

Or as Flannery O’Connor observed, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” 

In Happier at Home, I write about how I struggled with this question as I faced my fear of driving. Should I accept a fear of driving as a natural limit of my nature, or should I expect myself to conquer that fear? Very reluctantly, I decided to make myself start driving again.

Is there an area where you struggle to decide whether to “accept my limitations” or to “fulfill my promise”?

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The Most Unconventional Writing Advice I’ve Ever Read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favorite novels, so I’ve been working my way through everything that Muriel Spark wrote. As I was reading A Far Cry From Kensington, I came across some highly unusual advice for writing which actually sounds like it might be pretty effective, for the right person.

The narrator of the novel, Mrs. Hawkins, works at a publishing house, and a retired Brigadier General tells her that he wants to write a book but he “can’t concentrate.” (A common problem, right?)

Mrs. Hawkins recounts:

I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp.  The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

I can’t test this proposition, because I’m allergic to cats and don’t want any pets, but it really struck my imagination. Oddly, I’ve found, a burning candle helps me to concentrate. Or snow or rain falling outside the window. There’s something about the presence of  spark of life and movement that gives a sense of focus. I imagine that a living creature would provide that much more powerfully.

In my forthcoming book about habits, I write about the strategies we can use to shape our habits, and one of the most powerful strategies is the Strategy of Other People. But in fact, animals, like people, can have a profound effect on our habits — as anyone who regularly walks a dog can attest. And so a cat can help with writing! (If you want to know when my habits book goes on sale,  sign up here.)

Another unorthodox writing strategy was used by novelist Victor Hugo. According to legend, Hugo forced himself to work by ordering his servant to take away all his clothing for the day. Left naked in his study, with only paper and pen, he had nothing to do but write.

Have your habits been affected by a pet? Or have you found an unconventional way to help yourself concentrate?

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The Secret to Happiness, in Three Words, According to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

I had the chance to make a quick visit to my hometown of Kansas City yesterday. There was an event at which Justice O’Connor was interviewed, along with two of her clerks — one of whom was me.

As always, I was so happy to see the Justice, and I was reminded of a conversation we had a few years ago, about happiness, so I decided to re-post this account.


Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – which was one of those rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime work experiences. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

The other day, I was on the phone with the Justice. We were talking about her terrific new site, iCivics, which teaches children about civics, and she’d also visited my website.

“I can tell you what I believe is the secret to a happy life,” she said.

“What’s that, Justice?” I asked. (Sidenote: when you speak directly to a Justice, you address him or her as “Justice” – e.g., “Justice, the cert petitions are here.” This, I always thought, must act as a frequent reminder to them about the value they are supposed to embody!) “What’s your secret?”

Work worth doing,” she answered firmly.

“What about relationships?” I asked. From what I can tell, looking at modern science and ancient philosophy, if you had to pick a single factor as the one most likely to lead to a happy life, having strong relationships would be a strong candidate. Of course, most people form a lot of strong relationships at work.

“No,” she said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said.

Work worth doing. What do you think? Is that the one thing you need for a happy life?


The more I’ve thought about “work worth doing,” the more I realize the brilliance of this three-word encapsulation. Because, of course, “work” can mean so many different things, to different people; and for us to do work that’s “worth doing” means that we must choose work that reflects our values. If you feel that your work is pointless, well, that’s not good. And most of us have many kinds of work: work-work, and relationships-work, and self-work, for instance.

Agree, disagree?

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Story: The Fact Is, It’s Nice to Be Appreciated.

This week’s video story: It’s nice to be appreciated. Even if you don’t do something for the recognition — the recognition is nice.

How I love stories when virtue is rewarded! Here’s the one that I mention in the video, that I already posted, and here’s one for today:

Note that my friend’s acts of kindness weren’t “random acts of kindness “; they were very specific. But they were very kind.

How about you? Have you ever recognized — or been recognized — in this way?

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