The Fresh Start Effect is a Powerful Tool for Change
If you’re like me, you might have a love/hate relationship with the New Year. One the one hand, I’m optimistic enough to believe that new and great things are possible in my future. On the other hand, I’m also jaded enough to know that reality rarely lives up to those lofty ambitions. My interest in New Year’s Resolutions waxes and wanes depending on which sentiment is stronger in my life at the time.
I’ve found that my attitude about new years resolutions is a gauge of my confidence and outlook. When I am feeling empowered, I enjoy setting my sights on new goals and challenges. When I’m feeling impotent, I avoid anything that may prove that feeling to be true (like setting a goal that I may not achieve).
So how are you feeling right now? Empowered or impotent? Ready to take on the world? Or ready to crawl back in a corner and try not to be noticed?
If you are feeling strong and empowered, then go ahead and stop reading now and get back to outlining your goals and resolutions for the new year.
If, however, you are feeling more toward the impotent side of the spectrum, here is something to help you change your mindset.
The Fresh Start Effect
You don’t need me to tell you that there is a certain power in a “clean slate” or a “fresh start.” You’ve experienced this in your own life many times. New years, birthdays, anniversaries, new school terms, graduations, and commencements all have this effect. There is just something invigorating about starting over.
If you’re familiar with Christianity, it’s all about fresh starts and new beginnings. For example, baptism by immersion is full of fresh-start symbolism: there is the cleansing the past (sin) and emerging clean (sinless); there is the death and burial of the old self and the emergence and resurrection of the new self. The Holy Sacrament becomes a weekly renewal of this re-birth.
Even our physical world supports new starts. Circadian rhythms and the rotation of the earth around the sun helps us to be “born again” when we wake up from the death of night and slumber.
Occasionally, academia “discovers” age-old wisdom and re-labels it for a secular audience. A recent example of this is research from Katherine Milkman, a young researcher and behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She’s been working on experiments that prove that people are more likely to change at the start of a new cycle or at temporal landmarks like new years, birthdays, or other anniversaries. Sometimes it’s helpful to put a label like “The Fresh Start Effect” on it so that we can then refer to it and actively use it as a tool. Okay, fine with me. The point is that there is a “fresh start” phenomenon that you can use to your advantage.
Why it works
For most of us, there is a gap between what we think we should do and what we actually do. We should exercise, but we watch Dancing With the Stars instead. We should eat clean whole food, but we eat sugar-packed processed food instead. We should save part of the bonus money for retirement, but we buy a new flat screen TV instead. We should build our career skills, but we endlessly process email instead.
Academics and researchers call these “want/should” conflicts. The conflict is between what you want in the short-term vs what you should do for your long-term benefit. Whenever you succumb to the short-term wants, you tend to feel guilt and diminishing self-confidence. Those feelings of guilt and low confidence become like a sack of rocks that you drag along behind you. It gets heavy and it slows your progress.
A fresh start gives you the excuse to cut loose this baggage and start over. Ahh . . . how light and energetic you feel when you are no longer straining under this mental load.
How to use it to your advantage
The fresh start effect can be used at many levels of granularity: yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, and even moment-to-moment. One way to see how this works is to compare it to a season of football (New Years is the season for college bowl games after all).
- Each season is a new start with the goal of a championship.
- Each game is a new start with the goal of a win.
- Each offensive series is a new start with the goal of a touchdown.
- Each play is a new start with the goal of a first down.
The coaches and players must become masters at the “new start effect.” The best coaches help their players reset over and over again. Each play is a new opportunity to execute the plan. The team cannot afford to have players carrying mental baggage from prior plays or games. Great quarterbacks quickly mentally recover from an interception and are ready to execute on the next series.
So how do you relate this to your life? Don’t wait for once a year to roll around to harness this powerful tool. You can use the fresh start effect any day you choose. In fact, ideally, you would cultivate this skill so that you could use it at any moment. Think of the possibilities.
It can be very effective to make a big deal about the new start (like a baptism, bar mitzvah, or quinceañera), and New Year’s resolutions will probably always hold their place in the world. But possibly the most important fresh start effect is the one you can create for yourself today (i.e. now).
You do realize that most of life is only a mental game, right? The details of the world and your position in it do not change, but your belief in your abilities and your outlook have a huge impact on what you accomplish. All day long you are accumulating “want/should” conflicts. Sometimes you win them, sometimes you lose them. Don’t carry the baggage of the losses for too long. Give yourself permission to cut it loose and start over. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is today.
Add the “fresh start effect” as another tool in your personal growth toolbelt. And if you’re not doing it already, now is the time to start a daily ritual of personal investment. Commit to daily effort towards building your health, wealth, and wisdom. Start by learning to get up early (take the 30-day challenge). That’s the essence of the FirstHabit.
What do you think? Do you like making new years resolutions, or do they make you cringe? How do you handle your “want/should” conflicts? Share your comments below.