Around this time of year, I tend to look back at the list of commitments I made in early January: I will exercise more often, spend more time with family, do a better job balancing my personal and professional lives, leave my laptop home when we go on vacation, and so on. And yet, only two months into the new year, I find I am not doing such a good job. And I am sure I am not alone. On January 1, people around the globe commit with vigor to all sorts of virtuous goals, from losing weight to being a more understanding boss or partner to eating more healthfully to saving more money. And, before too long, most of us find we’re back where we started.
Setting virtuous goals at the beginning of the year can be quite effective, recent research tells us, since the first day of the year is a temporal landmark. Temporal landmarks signal the start of a new, distinct time period — making us feel we can start from a clean slate. They highlight a contrast between current and future goals (which are often different!) and can thus be a relatively simple way to motivate yourself to accomplish your virtuous goals. So, here is the good news: If you feel like you already failed on your resolutions like me, you do not need to wait till December 31 to start fresh. You simply need to identify a good temporal landmark, and give it another shot.
The start of a new year or a new week, a birthday, or a holiday are dates that have something in common: they all stand out as being more meaningful than other days. These temporal landmarks generate “fresh start” feelings that can motivate us to meet virtuous goals, such as exercising regularly, according to research from the behavioral scientists Hengchen Dai (Washington University in St. Louis), Katherine Milkman (University of Pennsylvania), and Jason Riis (University of Pennsylvania).
Here is why temporal landmarks work. They highlight the gap between our current behavior (such as watching TV every night or overspending) and our rosier, desired future behavior (working out every night or saving more). We all regularly face a conflict between choices that mainly provide instant gratification and pleasure (relaxing and watching TV) and more virtuous ones that primarily provide longer-term benefits (working out and eating better). Mounting research evidence, from both psychology and economics, suggests that we often choose what we impulsively want over what we should choose given our long-term goals and interests. (In fact, I wrote an entire book on how easily we get sidetracked while trying to reach our goals!)
One way to boost our commitment to our goals is to make a clear contrast between our present shortcomings and our hoped-for outcomes. For instance, research has found that when people who intended to quit smoking first wrote about their desired personal future and then wrote about the negative aspects of their current reality, they were more effective at kicking the habit than people who only wrote about their imagined future success.
As long as temporal landmarks highlight a contrast between a desired future state and present reality, and we do not feel close to our ideal state already, then these reflections motivate us to act on our goals.
But there is more. Temporal landmarks also give us an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, a feeling that inspires beneficial behavior, at least in the short term. Turning the page on a new year, month, or even week allows us to attribute our negative traits and failures to our past selves. By blaming our past selves, we can create and better maintain a positive image of our current selves. We feel more motivated and empowered to work hard toward reaching our goals when we feel like our past failures are behind us, and our future success is ahead of us—what Dai and colleagues call “the fresh start effect.”
Temporal landmarks don’t even have to be particularly significant. Not surprisingly, the researchers found a surge in Google searches for the word “diet” close to the New Year. But they also found that searches for “diet” also peaked at the beginnings of weeks (Mondays) and months (March 1, etc.), and the day after national holidays (including Thanksgiving and Labor Day). Dai and her colleagues also found that we are more likely to follow through on our goals if we begin working on our commitments (such as a diet) on a Monday rather than a Thursday. The bottom line? Being strategic about when to start changing our behavior (usually for the better) matters.
Fortunately, we tend to gravitate toward such landmarks naturally. In one study, Dai, Milkman, and Riis had participants describe a personal goal that they were planning to pursue in the near future. Next, they were offered a chance to receive a customized email to help remind them of their goal and how to accomplish it. When given a choice of dates, they were far more likely to choose to receive the email on a particular Thursday in March when it was identified as a temporal landmark, namely the first day of spring, than when it was not identified as a unique day on the calendar. The researchers also found that university students were far more likely to visit the university fitness center at the beginning of a new week, at the beginning of the semester, or right after their birthday.
This research suggests that we do not need to wait until the beginning of the year to get off the couch more often. The start of a month, your birthday, or the first day of work after a holiday can be equally motivating. Even more interesting, the fresh-start effect can be more powerful than other factors we would expect to influence our success. For example, the increase in a person’s probability of going to the gym immediately following her birthday is equivalent to the effect of keeping the gym open for two extra hours.
The calendar offers us plenty of opportunities throughout the year to make a fresh start. When we find our commitment to our New Year’s resolutions drifting, we may be able to revive them by focusing on a new “fresh start” date. I find it refreshing to think that by picking the right date to revisit my commitments, I can trigger the same sense of dissociation from the past that I felt on New Year’s Day and begin to move closer to my virtuous goals again. I hope you will join me in recommitting to those broken resolutions. The first day of spring is coming right up.