Back to School: Using the “Clean Slate” Approach to Kickstart Healthy Habits

Back to School: Using the “Clean Slate” Approach to Kickstart Healthy Habits

The Benefits of a Clean Slate

Whether you have kids in school or not, Labor Day tends to be a collective transition. It’s a doorway we pass through into fall. Our schedules settle down; there are fewer family reunions, destination weddings, and vacations; and we get into a rhythm of regularity that isn’t disrupted much until the holidays roll around again.

While the “back to school” season can be busy, there’s a hidden advantage to this sudden change in schedule: the clean slate.

You can “hack” your healthy habits by taking advantage of the clean slate. A new season not only brings new routines that you can harness for your benefit – sometimes, a change in schedule or pace actually removes obstacles or problems that had been previously holding you back.

Gretchen Rubin says of the clean slate (which she discusses at length in Better Than Before) that we can “take advantage of the fact that when we go through a big transition, old habits get wiped away, and new habits form more easily.”

This is because habits have less to do with force of will (or character or self-control) than they do with associations.

We do certain things every day because we are conditioned to respond to our environment in a particular way. We associate some activities with others (or with places or people), and these associations become so strong that they become mindless habits.

Autopilot is good when it’s something to our long-term benefit (like when an exercise habit becomes so strong that we practically do it asleep in the morning). But mindlessness is a liability when it’s a routine that’s keeping us stuck. For example, maybe you stop frequently for takeout at a particular place because it’s on your way home from work.

The blank/clean slate gives us an opportunity to break free of these associations, and temporarily reboot the conscious planning centers of our brains. We can ask ourselves questions like:

  • What do I really value about my healthy habits?
  • What do I want to achieve this season (losing 10 pounds, running a 5K, starting a meal prep routine, etc.)?
  • What activities really belong on my schedule?
  • What do I want to prioritize?
  • What do I want to let go?

The key is that the clean slate – the big transition – makes it easier to add things in or let go of things than at ordinary times. In other words, it’s easier to make or break habits when everything else is already changing.

Clean Slate vs. Full Plate

As you ask yourself these questions, I encourage you to take James Clear’s advice: “Imagine everything gets wiped. You inherit no tasks or responsibilities from your past or present. Then, add back only what you miss.”

He concludes: “Choose what to add to a blank slate, not what to keep from a full plate.”

If you’re like me, you tend to use time management as a way to get more, and more, and more done. Instead of taking things off of a full plate, I try to engineer a bigger plate to fit more things on it.

This is not time management – this is self-sabotage.

Over time, I’ve learned to use James Clear’s “blank slate” approach. Instead of adding more, take everything off the list and then only add the essentials back in.

In other words, you may be struggling to fit exercise or meal prep into your routine because you’re so busy. In a time of major transition, like the “back to school” season, you have the opportunity to drop responsibilities, instead of just adding more and more.

Secrets to Using the Clean Slate Approach

Do it fast.

Don’t wait for the second or third week of fall, “when things calm down.” The whole key to the blank slate is that you don’t have any existing routines or associations. You have the opportunity to create them. If you wait for routines to settle in before you layer in exercise or other healthy habits… you’re missing the vital window.

Start your new habits right way, even if it seems challenging. The reality is that the transition would be busy and challenging anyway… this just means you’ll have some great new habits on the other end and the struggle does not have to continue.

Question everything.

You may have lingering responsibilities or obligations on your plate that actively block your healthy lifestyle, but you keep justifying that you have to do them.

Do you? Can they really be eliminated? Why are you clinging to them? How can you gracefully let them go (or delegate them)?

Maximize existing routines.

Can you do familiar things in a novel way, like stopping at the gym on the way home from work or on the way to pick up your kids from school?

One of my clients just started using her office building’s gym, which allows her to walk at lunch and to work out after hours.

How can you harness what you already do and take advantage of the back-to-school chaos to improve it?

Don’t forget your environment.

When people think about habits, they almost always think about behaviors (and ideas like willpower and self-control), but they often neglect the importance of environment. Our surroundings often nudge us toward certain actions and routines.

How can you re-design your environment to promote and support the goals you want to achieve?

Do something notable.

Don’t be vague. Instead of just saying, “I want to be healthier,” pick a fun and notable goal that you want to accomplish. Maybe you want to run a race, or tackle a longer distance or a different event. Maybe you want to fit into your pre-pregnancy jeans. Maybe you want to do pull-ups or handstands or lose 50 pounds.

Pick something that has personal meaning for you, that makes it easy to track progress, and that you’ll definitely know when you’ve achieved it.

Picking a goal can give meaning to a season, and lend even more momentum and excitement to a clean slate.

Suggested New Habits

These are the routines that I see my most successful clients use to thrive:

Putting healthy food on autopilot

Whether you meal prep, buy frozen foods, or use a meal delivery service, this is key. Just get it out of your conscious mental bandwidth and into a repetitive routine, so that you don’t have to think about it every day.

Getting on an exercise schedule

Instead of waiting to feel motivated, do certain types of exercise on certain days of the week. For me (right now), running is on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and strength training is on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Cleaning out your kitchen

Re-organize your kitchen so that “trigger foods” are thrown away, and your surroundings are optimized for health. When you open cabinets, what do you see? When you open your refrigerator, what’s at eye level?

Make healthy foods inviting and beautiful and easy-to-grab, and make less-healthful foods disappear into high cabinets, opaque containers, or into the trash.

Pairing exercise with another activity

How can you naturally get more exercise, or make exercise more fun? Can you walk on a treadmill while you’re on a Zoom meeting? Can you take your dog for more, or longer, walks? Can you do a workout while you’re watching TV?

Working toward a goal

What would you be proud to post about on Facebook or Instagram? As silly as this sounds, work toward a goal that you would be so proud of that you couldn’t help but talk about it.

Picking a theme

What is this fall going to be “all about” for you? A centralizing theme can help you sort what activities belong among your priorities and which ones don’t.

What about you? How are you going to take advantage of the clean slate this week?