A Fresh Start

Jan 15, 2016 | By David Munguía Gómez & Jaclyn Lefkowitz in Blog

It’s now 2 weeks into the new year, and chances are most of us have spent the first several days of 2016 diligently working to keep our New Year’s resolutions. Once again, we’ve dragged ourselves to the over-crowded gym after work, we’ve braved the long lines at grocery stores to fill our carts with healthy snacks, and finally taken the dreaded steps to make a budget. We’re feeling determined to make this year a better one. Yet for the majority of us, this year is really no different than last year, and this month is no different than the last. Why this spike in motivation now?

Recent research by Katherine Milkman, one of our academic affiliates, explores this phenomenon called the fresh start effect. Her work shows that people are more likely to take action on their goals immediately after a distinct event like the start of a new week or year, a holiday, and even our birthdays. Landmarks like these increase our likelihood of searching for the term “diet” online, actually exercising, and making a commitment to new goals.

These points in time separate our lives into periods with a finite beginning and end. The beginning of each new period represents a break from our normal routine and provides us with a moment to start fresh. At these milestones on the calendar, we have a tendency (and opportunity) to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture instead of focusing on day-to-day matters. We may even feel as though we are different people “now” than we were before those landmarks. That feeling may cause us to want to leave behind the imperfections of our ‘old’ selves – ‘my 2015 self didn’t exercise enough, but my new self is going to be healthier!’

At this point, the perennial self-improver in us may wonder how we can take advantage of the fresh start effect. One clear takeaway is to make a plan to act on our goals following a calendar event. That said, we don’t always have to wait for these events to come about – we can create them ourselves. In the same way the New Year gives us an opportunity to reflect on and leave our old ‘2015 selves’ behind in order to begin anew, we can take advantage of other personal milestones and markers like starting a job, moving to a new home, or even something as small as returning from a vacation.

Practitioners and policy-makers can also use the fresh start effect to improve the effectiveness of programs. For example, campaigns that aim to reduce household waste or energy consumption could achieve greater impact by timing their appeals with the start of spring. While many of us have the good intention to lead a greener, more sustainable lifestyle, it can be difficult to take the first step. Practitioners can modify their messages to emphasize a fresh start; rather than describe March 20th as ‘the third Tuesday in March’, they can describe it as ‘the first day of spring’ (as Milkman did in a 2009 study) and provide easy steps for households to start conserving energy while they’re thinking of starting anew. By utilizing our understanding of the fresh start effect, making simple changes like this can turn seemingly mundane dates into moments for us to clean the slate and change our behavior for good.