New Year’s Resolutions Failed? Be Prepared to Leverage Other Fresh Starts

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Photo: Ray from LA, Flickr.com

It is three months into the year 2015. Some of us who made a promise to exercise every day in 2015 may be struggling to exercise barely once a week; some of us who resolved at the beginning of the year to go to sleep before midnight every day may have reverted to an unhealthy sleep schedule. To people who are critical of New Year’s resolutions, the fact that more than 90% of people break their resolutions may make a good case for why New Year’s resolutions are meaningless. However, the failure to keep New Year’s resolutions simply reflects the nature of goal pursuit: We cannot always muster the requisite motivation to pursue our goals, regardless of when our attempts are initiated.

The difficulty of persisting with goal pursuit opens up an important question: Besides New Year’s, are there other points in time when people are inspired to act on their goals? If the answer is yes, then people who have failed to achieve their New Year’s resolutions may have other chances throughout the year to improve themselves rather than waiting for the arrival of the next New Year’s.

“Besides New Year’s, many recurrent points in time that demarcate adjacent periods on the calendar may naturally motivate people to tackle their goals…the “fresh start effect.”

Together with my collaborators Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis, I have conducted a series of studies to investigate when people naturally experience enhanced motivation to take actions that facilitate goal achievement. We focus on “temporal landmarks,” which are personally-relevant life events (e.g., anniversaries, birthdays) and time dividers on the calendar (e.g., holidays, the start of a new week) that stand out from other ordinary days and demarcate the passage of time.

In our paper published in Management Science, we analyzed the frequency with which Americans searched for the term “diet” on Google, undergraduate students visited a university gym, and Internet users committed to pursuing a goal on stickK.com. We found that interest in dieting, gym visit frequency, and the creation of goals (both health-related goals and health-irrelevant goals) increase following temporal landmarks, including at the start of a new week, month, year, and academic semester (for students) as well as right after federal holidays, birthdays, and school breaks (for students). In other words, besides New Year’s, many recurrent points in time that demarcate adjacent periods on the calendar may naturally motivate people to tackle their goals. We refer to this phenomenon as the “fresh start effect.”

Can we leverage the fresh start effect to increase goal pursuit? As an initial attempt at addressing this question, we ran two laboratory experiments in which we offered people—including survey respondents recruited online and students in a university—an opportunity to receive a reminder from us about a goal they planned to begin pursuing in the next few months. People who elected to receive a reminder were given a list of days in the coming months and were asked to choose when they wanted to be reminded of their goals. We found that people preferred to be reminded of goal pursuit on days that were labelled as a temporal landmark. For example, the percentage of online survey respondents who elected to receive a reminder on March 20th increased by 354% when we described March 20th as the first day of spring, compared with when we described it as the third Thursday in March. Similarly, labeling May 14th “the first day of summer break” for university students increased the probability that students chose to receive a reminder on that day by 657%.

Can we strengthen the fresh start effect by highlighting how meaningful a temporal landmark feels to people? We conducted a laboratory experiment in early 2014. We recruited people who failed to achieve an important goal in 2013 and planned to pursue it again in 2014. Some people were asked to think about and write down a few reasons why the start of the 2014 New Year felt meaningful, whereas others were asked to list reasons why the start of the 2014 New Year was ordinary. Then we invited participants to peruse six goal-related websites (e.g., stickK.com). We found that after participants were prompted to reflect on the meaningfulness of the 2014 New Year, they clicked on three times as many goal-related websites and spent 46% more time reading website descriptions.

Why does the fresh start effect emerge? Why do temporal landmarks motivate actions that facilitate goal achievement? Our ongoing investigation of the fresh start effect suggests one possible explanation. Temporal landmarks are associated with the beginning of new cycles that make people feel more distant from their past failures. People may tell themselves that “The old me failed to pursue this goal last year, but I can do it this time.” When we wipe out our failures and start with a clean slate, it makes us feel more capable and drives us forward.

It is March 31st. If you have failed to keep your 2015 New Year’s resolutions, prepare yourself for the arrival of a new month. April 1st can be more than just April Fools’ Day—it can be turned into a fresh start for you.

About Hengchen Dai

hengchen_profile_imageHengchen Dai is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Operations and Information Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her main stream of research applies insights from behavioral economics and psychology to motivate people to behave in line with their long-term best-interests (e.g., saving for retirement, maintaining a healthy lifestyle). Using archival data analysis, field experiments, and laboratory experiments, her recent research focuses on how fresh starts can influence individuals’ motivation to pursue their goals and improve their performance at work. She is looking forward to her upcoming fresh starts: (i) her graduation from the PhD program and (ii) her life in St Louis as an assistant professor at the Olin Business School.

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