Leveraging the “fresh start effect”

The Brilliant Report

By Annie Murphy Paul

Here are a couple of things you already know about resolutions: One: We customarily make them around New Year’s. Two: These resolutions often fail.

And here’s something about resolutions that you probably didn’t know: You can use them in conjunction what psychologists call “the fresh start effect” to effectively generate motivation throughout the year.

Fascinating research conducted by Wharton professor Katherine Milkman and her colleagues shows that we are more likely to start a diet, go to the gym, and make commitments to reach our goals around the start of a new year. But, the researchers found, we’re also more likely to make such moves toward self-improvement aroundother “temporal landmarks”: a birthday, a holiday, the start of a new semester, a new month, or even just a Monday, the start of a new week. Even without all the hoopla around New Year’s, we seem to seek out occasions to declare a fresh start, and these fresh starts work—for a while, at least.

Milkman and her colleagues suggest that there are two processes operating here:

• These milestones create for us a new “mental accounting period,” with the accompanying sense that past lapses are behind us and we’re facing a clean slate. A line has been drawn between our fallible “past self” and our as-yet unsullied “present self,” which we (ever the optimists!) expect will do better.

• Temporal landmarks also prompt us to momentarily turn our gaze away from the daily grind, toward a larger vision of what we want for ourselves and how we can achieve it.

These processes constitute powerful psychological levers that we can use on ourselves again and again. It doesn’t seem like they should keep working, but they do—because we never stop being motivated to see ourselves in a positive light, and therefore to create distance from our past failures. We get a little boost in motivation each time we embark on a fresh start—not a lot, but enough to get us to the next temporal milestone.

So, if you’ve already fallen down on the resolutions you made on January 1st, don’t despair. Just look for minimally meaningful occasions to “start over” going forward: the first day of spring, the first day back from vacation, the first day of a new fiscal quarter. In fact, a fresh-start opportunity is just four days away: the shiny new Monday that awaits at the beginning of next week.


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