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You might not have heard of the “fresh start effect”, but if you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution you’re familiar with it. The “fresh start effect” refers to the human tendency to take action towards achieving a goal after a special occasion or key date has passed. We might promise ourselves in January that this is the year we’re going to get fit and healthy. We might plan to overhaul our lives after moving to a new city, or pledge to put more money aside after starting a new job. The fresh start effect isn’t just a theory – it’s backed by science – so how can we use it to our advantage?
How the fresh start effect works
The fresh start effect is pretty simple. Most people want to improve themselves in some way, whether that’s to become smarter or richer or healthier. When we hit important milestones, we’re often more prone to reflection: are we where we thought we’d be by a certain age? Was this year a successful year, or did we waste it? Annual landmarks like birthdays, or the start of a new year, signify a new time period and a slate wiped clean – an opportunity to leave slip-ups behind and to set new goals for better behavior.
Research shows that anticipation of a new beginning is a key motivator for the fresh start effect. One study showed that when people were approaching a new decade, they were more likely to search for meaning in their lives and try to improve themselves: e.g. people aged 29, 39, 49 etc. were 48% more likely to run a marathon for the first time. As humans, we tend to see our past self as separate from our current self, so when we “discard” our past selves – our younger selves– we feel more free to introduce new goal-oriented aspirational behaviours.
What’s interesting about the fresh start effect is that we don’t need to wait for big milestones to take advantage of this sudden dose of motivation. Studies show that the first day of each month and even each week can inspire us to do better. Known as “temporal landmarks”, these days encourage us to step back and evaluate our current situation – and when we do this, we gain the stimulus to move forward and be better: we become more driven and more productive. This is why people are more prone to start diets or exercise regimes on Monday, rather than the next day.
Using the fresh start effect
Fresh starts are exciting opportunities to learn from your missteps and move forward. So if you’re currently experiencing loss of motivation, questioning the meaning of your work, or just feel like you’re stuck in a rut, how can you use the fresh start effect in your own life?
Track your performance
Before you can utilize a fresh start to your advantage, you first need to have a good idea of where you are. If you don’t know where you currently stand, you won’t be able to get a clear direction of where you’re headed – for example, how can you aim to be twice as productive if you don’t know how productive you are at the moment? Basing performance on your feelings, or how productive you “think” you are isn’t enough; you need cold, hard metrics.
Conducting your own performance reviews isn’t something most people look forward to, but it doesn’t have to be a fiddly or frustrating process: if your goal is to improve productivity and get more work down, an time tracking can effortlessly show you where your time is going, how long you spend on specific tasks and how you get distracted. There are tons of other task-specific tracking apps out there which can help surface your behaviors – whether your goal is to save money, do more exercise or lose some weight.
To guide your analysis and form a plan to improve, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following:
What are you doing well right now?
What do you want to do more of?
What do you still want to achieve this year that you haven’t yet started?
Is there anything you need to make this happen?
Timing your fresh start
Now you know how you want to improve and how you’ll measure your success, the next step is timing your fresh start. The obvious and easy choice is to pick a temporal landmark – maybe the first Monday of a new month, or the first day back at work after a vacation, or even your birthday. If you don’t want to wait, choosing the next Monday that rolls around can work – but there are times when you might require a more immediate fresh start.
Let’s say you intended today to be your fresh start – but suddenly find that lunchtime has arrived and you haven’t done half as well as you planned. Maybe you intended to do three hours of deep work in the morning, but instead you wasted most of the time replying to emails and reading the news. Do you have to write off the rest of the week and wait for Monday to come again to “restart” your fresh start again? Definitely not!
Setbacks like these can actually be helpful when it comes to boosting our motivation. Daniel H. Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, calls moments where we feel we messed up the “uh oh” effect, and says that because they flood us with a healthy dose of stress, they can kickstart our motivation and rewrite our strategy. Bear in mind that time is just a matter of perception, and while Tuesday isn’t the start of a new week, it’s still a new day; the only thing stopping you from making it your new fresh start is you.
It’s completely normal to hit a bump in the road – the important thing is finding your way forward, and sometimes hitting the “reset” button is the best way to do that.