Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance you’ll fail to keep your New Year’s resolutions.
Fortunately, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to redeem yourself, even before January 1, 2017.
The key? Be on the lookout for days that seem like transition points.
In doing so, you’ll be harnessing the power of what researchers call the “fresh start effect.” Whenever we feel like there’s a chance to leave our old, lazy selves behind and become our new, ideal selves, we’re more motivated to make progress on our goals.
A team of researchers led by Katherine Milkman at the Wharton School discovered the fresh-start effect recently, when they found that visits to a university fitness center spiked around turning points like birthdays, the beginning of the semester, and the beginning of the week.
In one experiment, researchers asked participants to describe a goal they would like to pursue. Then they prompted participants to imagine that they had just moved to a new apartment. Some were told that this was the first time they had moved since coming to this city nine years ago; others were told they had moved every year.
All participants were asked to indicate how motivated they would be to pursue their goal, and how different they felt from their past, imperfect selves.
Sure enough, participants who imagined that this was the first time they had moved in nine years were more motivated to make progress on their goals, and experienced more distance between their current and past selves.
Taken together, these findings suggest that “new beginnings” can prompt us to tackle personal goals. That’s likely because we feel empowered to leave our past selves and all their failures behind, and embrace our new selves and their potential for success.
This research has some important implications for anyone hoping to adopt healthier habits. The study authors write: “For individuals who hope to curtail bad behaviours but struggle with initiating goal pursuit, temporal landmarks that open new time periods may prevent vicious cycles of impulsive behaviour stimulated by ‘what the hell’ rationalizations.”
In other words, the perception of a new beginning can give you a boost when the motivation to pursue your goals is flagging. And there are dozens of new beginnings throughout the year — from big (first day of your new job) to small (first day of the month). All you really need to do is recognise that it’s an opportunity to try again.
As Milkman told Stephen Dubner on an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, “You sort of can’t hit a home run if you don’t swing. So it’s never going to work if you don’t start, and I think that, that suggests that we want fresh-start moments to motivate people and hopefully eventually they will actually hit the home run, even if they fall off a bunch of times.”
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