New year isn’t the only time for a clean slate, making resolutions, changing your behavior or achieving a goal. How many times have you heard people say ‘tomorrow is another day’? There is always time for starting anew.
Many people use a specific date to set their intentions. It could be 1st January, or it might be another signifier – first day of a new job, birthday, ‘Monday’. Such milestones all provide opportunities for a fresh start. And this “fresh start effect” is scientifically proven! Wharton’s Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and Jason Riis’s research study The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior, from 2014, has been repeatedly quoted every new year.
‘Fresh start’ milestones or – as the authors call them: “temporal landmarks” – like a new term or year – make people reflect on their past and future lives or careers, and help people to more effectively set and achieve goals that involve behavioral change. They are pivotal events marking an opportunity to change direction or take different action.
As a Harvard Business Review article quotes: “People are more likely to exercise after a birthday or the start of a week, month, year, or semester (7%, 33%, 14%, 11%, and 47%, respectively, relative to baseline), suggesting that temporal landmarks make it easier to engage in aspirational behavior.”
And why is this? Katherine Milkman states that it’s “Because in these fresh-start moments, people feel more distant from their past failures. Those failures are the old you, and this is the new you. The fresh-start effect hinges on the idea that we don’t feel as perfect about our past as we’d like. We’re always striving to be better. And when we can wipe out all those failures and look at a clean slate, it makes us feel more capable and drives us forward.”
Katherine Milkman says that “For managers, my research suggests that the best times to encourage your employees to take new steps toward their goals—and to give them the tools they need to achieve them—will be these fresh-start moments, because that’s when people have a natural inclination to put in the extra effort.”
How do you leverage the Fresh Start Effect?
1. Create fresh starts
Every day / week / month offers the opportunity to make a fresh start. It’s not just for new year – you can also create fresh start effects and motivate people (including yourself) at any time. Katherine Milkman says: “according to our findings, you can pick days that people wouldn’t normally notice, and say, “This is a great opportunity to reflect on your goals, think about what you want to accomplish in the coming year, or in the coming months, or in the coming weeks.”
- What will be your fresh start?
2. Select the ‘right time’ for optimal motivation
In terms of the motivation and longevity is concerned, Milkman says, “The effect seems to vary by how big the fresh-start moment is. The New Year’s effect is bigger and lasts longer than the Monday effect. But then Monday is better than Tuesday, Tuesday is in turn better than Wednesday, which is better than Thursday, and so on.”
It’s a case of harnessing people’s natural motivation to make a fresh start, and couching goal-setting milestones in that language. For example, in the research, participants were given a choice of receiving reminders of their goals on the ‘third Thursday of March’ or ‘the first day of Spring’ – and despite them being the same day, 20th March, most people chose the ‘first day of Spring’. People are naturally more motivated at the start of something new.
- What day/date/event will you choose to start something new?
3. Make it matter
Select resolutions, goals or intentions that matter to you (or to the person who needs to be motivated). There needs to be a powerful “why.” Perhaps you want to exercise. What is your compelling reason? It may be to increase your energy, or live longer, or look great for an event. Answering with a powerful reason why will give you more motivation and determination to keep to your plan whenever you are weary, demotivated or need that extra push. And, if you have ‘slipped’ – there’s always a fresh start to be made, the next day or week, or occasion, which – with a strong “why” – you can utilise to get back on track.
- What is your “why” behind your intentions?
4. Keep it simple
Don’t overcomplicate things by trying to achieve too much, or by setting too many goals and resolutions all at once. Focus by concentrating on one or two goals at a time.
Some resolutions or goals like ‘giving up smoking’ or ‘losing weight’ are complex in themselves, and contain numerous actions – in terms of mindset, behaviors and practicalities. They can also be complicated to achieve. There may not seem to be much in the way of short-term consequences or negative effects from not keeping resolutions like these – but over the longer term, your life, health and longevity will be improved for quitting smoking or having got fit. But establishing both – or more – as your simultaneous goals, running concurrently, is more likely to end in failure, unless you are very motivated and committed to achieve them.
Having just one or two simple resolutions is more likely to result in success. In the study Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, there is evidence that setting multiple goals usually results in people only focussing on one of them. So, why berate yourself for not following up on them all? Just select one goal from the outset.
- Which one or two goals will you prioritize now?
5. Make it easy
In Atomic Habits, James Clear emphasises that your habits should be easy, obvious, appealing, and satisfying to achieve. New habits should follow the path of least resistance, so, make it easy on yourself by removing temptations that distract you or destroy your resolutions. If your resolution is to eat more healthily – it goes without saying that you only buy healthy food, and you rid yourself of temptation by throwing away your chocolate stash and unhealthy food items.
- What do you need to put in place to realize your goals?
6. Maintain momentum
One fresh-start isn’t enough, unfortunately – and one intervention doesn’t maintain motivation forever. Milkman advises, “be attentive to the fact that motivation tapers off, and that you need to keep motivating people and keep looking for opportunities to grab their attention and give them the sense of empowerment they need to succeed.”
- How can you set a series of fresh starts, reminders and opportunities for renewed efforts?
Remember that you’re not coercing or forcing anyone to do things they shouldn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do. You’re motivating people (including yourself) to do what they want and need to do but might be struggling to do. So, you’re helping them to make progress and achieve. And if you can leverage the fresh start effect – even better!
Who doesn’t love a fresh start?
And if you would like to go deeper in setting you and your goals up for success – check out our upcoming working on Setting Your Year Up For Success: Designing The Year You Want.
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