Lisa April-Naidoo
Harnessing the Fresh Start Effect
Balancing Aspiration and Action

As the new year begins, we have all done some goal setting. How many of you can say that you are still on track? I know I am off track and find myself saying, “It’s okay, I will start in February.” Why February? Theoretically, I could start tomorrow. This is because of a psychological phenomenon called the fresh start effect. In this article, I will define the fresh start effect and explore its benefits and pitfalls.
The Fresh Start Effect Explained

The fresh start effect refers to our tendency to feel more motivated to engage in goal-directed behavior during periods where we feel there is a new beginning. Are you familiar with the saying “Let bygones be bygones”? This idiom encompasses the essence of the fresh start effect. The fresh start effect is attributed to the psychological association of forgetting the past and starting fresh and is characterized by temporal landmarks.

Temporal landmarks are times where we feel that there is a new beginning. During these periods like New Year's, new months, and new weeks, humans feel increased motivation to achieve their goals. In a study, researchers looked at data from Google Analytics during the period of January 2004 and June 2012: American users' number of searches for the word “diet.” Results indicated that searches were most frequent during new calendar cycles.

Temporal landmarks are not only tied to new calendar cycles but also to significant life events such as birthdays, moving to a new city, or starting a new job. In the same study, researchers found that students who signed up for the gym on campus attended the gym more frequently after their birthdays, except for students who turned 21 that year.

The Benefits of the Fresh Start Effect
Temporal landmarks create a psychological reset where individuals feel a new sense of optimism. This newfound optimism results in increased motivation and commitment to achieve goals. Forgetting your unachieved goals from the past removes negative feelings that prevent behavior change.

This fresh perspective, researchers find, leads to a shift in our thinking. Instead of focusing on the daily grind, we start prioritizing the "big picture" - our long-term aspirations and desires. This broader view fuels our motivation, making us more likely to push for goals that truly matter to us, even if they require effort and sacrifice.
Dangers of the Fresh Start Effect
The newfound optimism that we feel can cause us to set goals that seem unattainable. We become hyper-focused on the bigger picture, often forgetting that we need to set smaller goals and gains to reach the big picture. Furthermore, we tend to believe that this new sense of optimism and motivation will last. Sadly, as time progresses from when we set our goals, our motivation often diminishes. So instead, we end up in an endless pattern of setting goals at every new temporal landmark, never achieving any of our goals.
How to Make the Most of the Fresh Start Effect?

James Clear, author of 'Atomic Habits', argues that the key to achieving goals is not about setting big picture goals but rather about setting up environmental systems for success. Think about goals as outcomes and environments as the necessary steps and processes to achieve those goals. For example, let’s say you have a goal of reading before bed. Propping up your pillow in the mornings is a cue that will help you remember your goal and achieve it.

James Clear, in "Atomic Habits", also emphasizes the importance of 'Identity-Based Habits'. This approach involves building habits that resonate with the person you want to become. For instance, if you aspire to be a writer, start by establishing the habit of writing a few lines daily. This small act reinforces your identity as a writer, making the habit more meaningful and easier to stick to.

Another critical aspect Clear highlights is the 'Two-Minute Rule' for overcoming procrastination and laziness. This rule suggests starting with a new habit that takes less than two minutes to do. Though the task seems trivial, it acts as a gateway to more significant, productive behaviors. For example, if you want to practice yoga daily, start with just two minutes of stretching. Often, the hardest part is getting started, and this rule helps to overcome that initial hurdle.

Clear also discusses the concept of 'Habit Stacking', where you tie a new habit to an existing one. By linking new behaviors to established routines, you create a natural trigger for your new habit. For instance, if you want to develop a habit of meditation, you could stack it with your morning coffee ritual – meditate for a few minutes right after you finish your coffee.
The fresh start effect offers a powerful opportunity for behavior change, blending renewed optimism with a psychological clean slate. However, the real challenge lies in transforming this fleeting motivation into lasting habits. As James Clear articulates in "Atomic Habits", the key is not just in setting ambitious goals but in building a system of small, manageable habits that lead to those goals. By focusing on tiny, atomic changes, aligning habits with our identity, and creating an environment conducive to our goals, we can harness the fresh start effect to its full potential. This approach ensures that our bursts of New Year motivation evolve into enduring changes, bringing us closer to the people we aspire to be.
Lisa-April is an experienced behavioral economics consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the management consulting industry.

Skilled in assisting clients identify key behavioral biases that affect decision-making.
Lisa-April is an experienced behavioral economics consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the management consulting industry.

Skilled in assisting clients identify key behavioral biases that affect decision-making.

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