Fresh Start Effect: The Science Behind New Beginnings
Have you ever felt more motivated at the start of a new season or school year? Does the beginning of a new week give you the feeling of starting over? There are many reasons for you to be experiencing a renewal in your goal-driven attitudes at the passing of certain calendar dates or temporal landmarks. Here we will take a closer look at what researchers have coined the “fresh start effect” and how it affects our everyday behaviours.
What is a temporal landmark?
Before diving into the topic of fresh starts let us take a look at what researchers refer to as “temporal landmarks”. Temporal landmarks are a way of organizing experiences and memories. Up until recently, temporal landmarks were believed to include only given calendar dates, namely the start of a new year, a new month or even a new week. However, Dai, Milkman and Riis (2014) stated that the feeling of starting anew encapsulates more than simply specific calendar dates. According to their findings, temporal landmarks should also include relevant life events, “such as developmental milestones, life transitions, first experiences, and occasions of recurrent significance” (Dai, Milkman and Riis).
Dai and Li (2019) furthered this definition by defining two types of temporal landmarks. On one side they introduced those landmarks that provide us with the chance to renew our energy and motivation through breaks and relaxation, such as the day after a holiday or Mondays after the weekend. On the other side, there are those landmarks associated with changes in our environment. These include moving to a new place or transferring schools and are linked with establishing new, positive habits by breaking old ones.
Underlying Cognitive Mechanisms
The idea behind the fresh start effect is that a temporal landmark or special calendar date gives us a motivational boost. The two main reasons for this boost are the separation of our current selves from our past selves and the disruption of our focus on day-to-day minutiae.
By generating separate mental accounts for each time period, we relegate past mistakes to our former selves. As laid out by Peetz et al. (2014) “Individuals can selectively and spontaneously highlight temporal landmarks to regulate connections between temporal selves, typically to create distance with an undesirable version of themselves”. This psychological separation of selves gives us the feeling of starting over on a clean slate which in turn boosts our motivation. The feeling of starting over nudges us towards more goal-driven behaviours. In addition, we actively attempt to stay on track in order to avoid ruining the clean slate.
With this in mind, it is important to make a small disclaimer regarding fresh starts. If the chapter we are currently closing was a particularly good one our motivation levels may drop when we face a fresh start. For example, on the Monday after a particularly productive week, we may feel demotivated and think that we are not capable of repeating the same feat.
The second way in which fresh starts aid us is by allowing us to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Taking a step back changes the way we analyze our goals and objectives. By putting everything in perspective we are able to change from a bottom-up approach, in which we look only at the smaller pieces of our behaviour, to a top-down approach, where the main goal is the true driver of our decision-making. In this way, a top-down approach allows us to start breaking our bigger goals into more manageable chunks.
Applying the fresh start effect
The fresh start effect can actually affect our behaviour through our anticipation of the event. Simply knowing that a future landmark is coming up has an effect on our current motivation, since it reminds us of an ideal future state which we would like to achieve. Future landmarks also provide a dissociation between selves and allow us to compare our pre-landmark self with our desired post-landmark goal. The anticipation of an upcoming landmark also allows us contemplation of future hurdles which in turn makes it easier to prepare the necessary strategies for working around them.
In their article on the economics of personal plans, Beshears, Milkman & Schwartzstein (2016) list some ways in which the fresh start effect can be used to our advantage. For instance, they emphasize that if we simply prompt ourselves to “form concrete plans of action regarding when, where, and how [we] will implement [our] intentions” then we are already on track towards an improvement in follow-through. By making plans we are changing our behaviour for the better since planning helps us when it comes to overcoming barriers and following through on our intentions. Briefly put, “the simple act of planning to take an action can increase the likelihood of taking that action.”
As we look at a new school semester or a new season in the face, we would like you to take away some useful tips to make the best of this fresh start and of many more to come.
Firstly, remember that you can create your own fresh starts. You don’t need to wait until the turn of the month to make use of the fresh-start momentum. Find those moments that are unique to you which allow you to refill your aspirational batteries.
Secondly, remember that anticipation also builds a motivational drive. In order to be prepared to make the best of an upcoming temporal landmark make sure you plan ahead, as “contemplating logistical hurdles in advance makes it easier to develop strategies for working around them.” (Beshears, Milkman & Schwartzstein 2016).
Finally, understand that not all fresh starts will fill you with motivational energy. Fresh starts after a particularly good run can actually be hard, as can be anticipating a fresh start for a future self whom you hope to avoid. Remember that it is okay and that fresh starts not only come around often, but that you also have some control over when you start over.
Beshears, J., Milkman, K. L., & Schwartzstein, J. (2016). “Beyond Beta-Delta: The Emerging Economics of Personal Plans”. American Economic Review, 106 (5), 430-434. http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/aer.p20161100
Costall A. (2017) “1966 and all that: James Gibson and bottom-down theory”. Ecological Psychology. 29(3):221-30.
Dai, H. and Riis, J. (2019) “How experiencing and anticipating temporal landmarks influence motivation”. Current Opinion in Psychology (26)44–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.04.012
Dai, H, Milkman, K. L., Riis, J. (2014) “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior”. Management Science 60(10):2563-2582. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2014.1901
Peetz J, Wilson AE (2014) “Marking time: selective use of temporal landmarks as barriers between current and future selves”. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 40:44-56.