Behavioral science can explain the “New Year, New You!” cover lines splashed across magazines around January 1. It can explain why it’s harder to nab an open gym locker the first few weeks of the year. And when you take a closer look to know why our motivational drive jumps after the ball drops, it can also help you take advantage of the effect any time during the year.
While it’s long been known that gym membership and diet book sales skyrocket around New Year's, not until recently has the mechanism underlying this phenomenon been explored. It’s called the “Fresh Start Effect” and was coined by a group of behavioral scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard who found Google searches for the term “diet,” gym visits, and commitments to pursue goals all increase following temporal landmarks (e.g., the start of a new week, month, year, or events like holidays and birthdays).
While at first blush this may seem like a case of, “uh, yeah, no kidding,” it’s actually pretty interesting and has serious implications for how we think about taking on challenging behavior changes.
In particular, the researchers write that these temporal milestones or checkpoints “act as the start of new mental accounting periods which help us to relegate past imperfections to a previous period and to take a big picture view of our lives, thus motivating aspirational behavior.” In other words, “fresh starts” help us forget about how we didn't exercise last week/month/year, which gives us a clean slate.
“In fresh start moments, people feel more distant from their past failures,” says Katy Milkman, one of the lead researchers in this work. With the downward pull of failures behind us, it's much easier to move forward.
Just ask yourself: would you be more motivated to start a diet if the score is zero-to-zero, or if you are down by 10...as in 10 pounds gained during last month’s cruise?
How to Make the Fresh Start Effect Work for You
Strategically plan your most daunting tasks around fresh-starts. For example:
>>>Plan on completing your hardest activity first thing in the morning (OK, maybe after coffee). Subtle as it may be, there is increased motivational power at the start of a new day.
>>>If you need to reconcile with a friend or family member, try doing it on a Sunday night or Monday. You’ll both be more likely to forget about the big disagreement from last week.
>>>On the edge about a new project at work? Try ramping up on the first of the month. You’ll probably have a higher motivation to get started than versus on a random Wednesday.
>>>And if you feel like you need a major overhaul in your routine (e.g., going vegan, switching from power-lifting to running, or finding a new job), harness the momentous energy brought about by the start of a new year to make the change.
Warning: Be Careful Not to Have Too Many “Fresh Starts”
While fresh start framing can be super helpful and give us the extra oomph we need to make a big and positive change, we need to be careful that we aren’t “starting a new diet” every morning, or “reconciling after a week of fighting” every Monday. That’s the dark side of the Fresh Start Effect; it can give us a repeating sense of false hope. The key is to use fresh starts selectively and not too frequently. And most importantly, to finish what you started.
Brad Stulberg is a Population Health consultant for a large integrated health care system, specializing in behavior change. His portfolio of work includes exploring innovative ways to keep people healthy. He moonlights as an endurance athlete. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg