'New year, new me': The Fresh Start Effect and re-framing resolutions

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Exercising, eating healthily, losing weight, saving more, drinking and smoking less; sound familiar? Google lists these as some of the top 10 new years’ resolutions made annually. This means they’re also the easiest to break. Some barely outlast the hangover... If you’ve attempted any of these, or plan on doing so in 2016, know this in advance: changing behaviours is hard! But, it doesn’t have to be. It’s what behavioural psychologist’s call the ‘New Year Effect’ and it always starts so well. Birds flying high, sun in the sky, breeze drifting by; the 1st of January arrives and “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life…” and we’re feeling good! And then, as always, life happens. Old habits die hard, even the most noble of dreams much faster. So where does all that ‘new year, new me’, ‘I-ain’t-stopping-for-NOBODY’ go? If only there was a reset button on unrealised resolutions.

Ready, set, Re-set

Behavioural Scientists Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis seem to have found just that. They call it the ‘Fresh Start Effect’. It turns out we’re more inclined to tackle goal-driven action following temporal landmarks. It’s no coincidence that Google searches for ‘diet’ jump by over 82% on the 1st of January each year. Importantly, these ‘fresh starts’ don’t just occur at the outset of each year, but also new months and even every week. It’s Thursday evening, my far-too-clean trainers are looking up at me, and I tell myself “I’ll go on Monday”. Another study Milkman conducted asked participants whether they’d prefer to receive motivational messages on the 3rd Monday of the month, or the 1st of spring. Most people chose the ‘fresh start’ without realising that these were the same day.

We’re also more motivated to do so after more personal landmarks such as birthdays, religious holidays, moving house or even getting a haircut. Another of their studies looked at gym attendance. Like searches for ‘diet’, there were significant spikes in gym attendance at the beginning of each week, month, year, semester, holiday and following birthdays (with corresponding weakening as time and willpower wound down). Temporal landmarks such as these fundamentally structure our memories and experiences. They create what Richard Thaler refers to as ‘mental accounting’ periods. All those days I didn’t get active, drank too much, saved too little, become old news - the ‘old me’ - and just like that I get an untainted ‘fresh start’.

You owe it to the ‘old you’

We’re always a little harder on our ‘old’ selves and a little overconfident about our ‘new’; “I’m wiser now than I was then”, “I’m going to be a much better person in the future”… Sound like the ‘new you’? This is the theory of temporal self-appraisal. Even if a little naïve, this overconfidence is incredibly important. As Henry Ford so aptly put it “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”. It is only when we see ourselves positively, or taking meaningful steps towards self-improvement, that we’re most motivated and likely to keep acting in this way. If you wake up eyeballing the old you on day two, you’re doing it wrong.

As these landmarks are so pivotal to our identities and experiences, they also tend to refocus our attention on ‘the bigger picture’. We’re sucked out of the stream of stresses of the everyday and forced to take perspective. Moreover, these ‘new’ moments motivate our aspirational behaviours; we adopt higher level thinking, resolving, goal-setting, daring to dream. This is particularly important because in these motivated, ‘higher level’ states we focus on end-goal satisfaction – the ideal outcome – as opposed to all the early mornings, everything-free meals and effort it’s going to take to get us there.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

So how do we maintain that motivation? The truth is that almost all of us suffer from a will-power problem; we lack the self-control and intrinsic motivation to achieve a lot of our goals. This isn’t just detrimental to you and your ambitions, but society at large. Global warming, domestic violence, obesity epidemics, cancers, HIV/AIDS, racism; think how significantly each of these social issues could be solved with a little more individual resolve. Ipods, cars, computers, immunizations, aeroplanes, electricity – think how different our lives would be without it? More and more psychologists agree that our self-control is variable, particularly temporally. However, after such milestone, transitional or ‘first time’ events our motivation, aspirational behaviours and optimism are, undoubtedly, at their highest.

Some goals – like setting up that retirement annuity or savings debit order – just take a moment. Task one, day one, over-optimist of the week: just do it. You can thank us later. Others, as we know, require a little more consistent effort; maybe even a little more than we’ve got. So, just (re-)focus your attention on that next fresh start. Make this new week, month, mantra or meal plan the reset that you require. There’s motivational value in near-misses. It’s why you keep coming back to Candy Crush.

Nudging the new

And, when your willpower starts to wear down and that kale mountain seems too high to climb, here are a few tools, or pre-commitment devices as the Behaviouralists call them, to get you back into gear:

1. Make your commitment public. By introducing a little social pressure you’ll instantly become more accountable, have more people checking up on you, and feel more driven to succeed. Take a look at how Alex Laskey, from Opower, used social pressure to save not only money but our planet through energy bills which reflect your energy consumption as opposed to your neighbours’.

2. Make a detailed, concrete plan. Don’t just say you want to run a marathon. Research training schedules and eating plans, personalise them to suit your routine and budget, write it into your diary, keep your trainers next to your bed, imagine yourself waking up early, running along the promenade, crossing the finish line. Shelley Lewin has a great GPS metaphor for this. You can’t jump in your car and tell your Garmin where you don’t want to be. Enter your destination, pick your route, account for traffic jams and speed bumps, get into gear and drive!

3. Realise the risk. Most of us are risk-averse. Use it to your advantage. Specify the consequences of what will happen if you don’t stick to this commitment. Then, put your money where your mouth is. Place something you value on the line. Day 76 and you sneak a cigarette outside the office? Donate R500 to cancer research. It couldn’t hurt, right? There’s an ingenious app called iCuckoo. The premise? You snooze, you lose – and someone else gains. Every time you hit snooze on your alarm clock you automatically donate money to the charity of your choice.

4. Yet another of Milkman’s marvellous ideas: bundle your temptations. Really love reading but ‘don’t have the time’? Really should gym but can’t find the drive? Listen to audiobooks when, and only when, you exercise. It’ll give you that incentive to get there and by page 50 you might have cycled further than you thought you could. Pay your bills with a glass of wine. Watch Arsenal while you iron. You may even start to crave those chores.

Hitting Refresh

The fresh start effect can be incredibly beneficial in business too. Adopting a new procedure? Moving to new premises? Frame it as a fresh start, a chance to begin again. Get out of those ruts and shake off tired habits; the most dangerous phrase in language is “we’ve always done it this way”.

So, when you see a ‘fresh start’ moment approaching, in life or business, maximise it to its fullest potential. Make that new week, month, year or moment work for you; ride that motivational wave and movement for change. And if it seems like there’s a mile before the next milestone, create one for yourself. Make tomorrow, your new job, route to work, bicycle or bagel filling that reset you’ve been looking for. If you’ve failed already, try again. As Madiba said, “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. It’ll be easier on round two; at least you’ll know what not to do. And if it were too easy it wouldn’t be worth it. In the words of Beckett, “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter! Try again, fail again. Fail better!”

Nina, Sammy, Michael – you know how I feel?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Edwsf-8F3sI

 

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