From Inspiration to Motivation: The Fresh Start Effect
The phenomenon of using January 1 as a marker for change is well documented, and as we will learn, well-advised. But what explains our (usually sudden) desire to make change only once a year?
After all, we could just go on a diet mid-day. Or vow to wake up tomorrow morning as a vegetarian. Over the top? Ok, we could take it slow, planning to gradually phase out all sugar and carbs from our diet by the by the end of the week. After all, we have to consume the cookies and chips we already have in our cupboard and desk drawer. And everyone knows that few people can quit anything cold turkey.
But we don't do any of those things, nor have most of us ever planned to. But like clockwork, late December every year, we start making our lists again. Well, actually if we are being honest, we are not really re-creating the wheel here. We are resurrecting last year's unkept promises and unfulfilled goals. Why?
When It Comes to Making Goals: Timing Matters
When it comes to goal making, each New Year brings a new opportunity. Apparently, the beginning of designated time periods provides a great opportunity to reinvest in goals, because they provide at least a temporary boost in will power. A study by Hengchen Dai et al. (2014) entitled “The Fresh Start Effect,” documents how this works.
Their research shows that temporal landmarks such as a New Year, month, birthday, or even academic semester, create new “mental accounting periods” which serve multiple purposes, including creating distance between the present and the past, and prompting a broader life view.
Specifically, Hengchen Dai et al. note that their documented fresh start effect is consistent with two psychological processes they proposed. First, they note that new mental accounting periods set apart by temporal landmarks provide psychological distance from a person's past imperfections, encouraging them to tailor their behavior to match their new, positive self-image.
This makes sense, because after all, who doesn't want to shift the focus from past failures to future opportunities for success? This is why we gravitate toward people who cheer us on when we embark upon a new path for the future, rather than bring us down by reminding us of the past.
Second, the authors note that temporal landmarks break up the daily routine, giving people a chance to regard a “big-picture view” of their lives, which in turn can enable them to devote more time and effort into achieving their goals.
With the benefit of psychological distance and a broader life view, what types of New Year's resolutions do people choose? The answers will probably not surprise you.
(The Same) New Year's Resolutions
Most people make similar resolutions. Although modern resolutions include era-specific ambitions such as saying “no” more often to reduce over-commitment, sleeping without your cellphone, and limiting Facebook use, the old standbys are still there. You guessed it, they involve diet, exercise, and money; usually in that order. Again, research findings use the empirical to corroborate the anecdotal.
Hengchen Dai et al. found Google searches for certain terms all increased following temporal landmarks. The terms they examined were “diet” (Study 1), gym visits (Study 2), and commitments to pursue goals (Study 3).
In defining aspirational behaviors as “activities that help people achieve their wishes and personal goals,” they cite as examples: saving money, exercising, dieting, dating, and studying. They recognize that one challenge in attaining these goals is lack of self-control to proactively pursue aspirations, which results in procrastination.
Is procrastination goal-specific? The authors note that research reveals three common goals plagued by repeated procrastination are exercising, dieting, and quitting smoking. We could probably add significantly to that list.
So why do we make goals and then procrastinate? Can we really link motivated goal-making to temporal landmarks alone? Apparently, we can.
More Than Compensating for Overindulgence
The research by Hengchen Dai et al. included an excellent discussion of how they ruled out alternative explanations for aspirational goals immediately following temporal landmarks. For example, many people without New Years resolutions nonetheless begin counting calories after January 1 in an attempt to compensate for holiday season overindulgence, in order to fit back into their clothes.
The researchers discounted this alternative explanation by showing an increase in health-unrelated goals after temporal landmarks, an uptick in aspirational behaviors after time periods not typically associated with gluttony (such as Thanksgiving and Christmas), and a consistent finding of increased intensity of aspirational behaviors at the beginning of the month rather than the end, because neither time period is linked with an increase in indulgence.
The takeaway? Whatever your New Year resolutions are this year, make a fresh start. Research is on your side.
This post was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 3,00 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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