The Fresh Start Effect: How To Use New Beginnings For Motivation

It’s the middle of the day and nothing has gone right.

You’ve had a late start to the morning. Then where you’ve just started to gain some momentum in your work, you get derailed. If there isn’t an emergency that has just cropped out, it’s a random video your friends have sent you. Before you know it, you’re sucked into an endless loop of YouTube videos.

We’ve all been there. No matter how well you start out, you eventually hit a wall. It’s the slump nobody can escape.

Most of the time, we give up. We call it a day and hope to carry on the fight tomorrow. But eventually these days pile up and we find that there aren’t enough tomorrows. What if there was a better way?

How New Year Resolutions Arise

We don’t just have bad days. Sometimes we have bad months. Eventually, we view that as a wasted year.

It’s the reason why we come up with New Year’s resolutions whenever 31st December rolls around. Yet, when we think about it, the resolutions themselves haven’t really changed.

Most people want to lose weight and save more money. It doesn’t matter which day of the year it is. All we’ve really done is some form of mental accounting where we’ve decided that past failures are left on an old ledger.

As Chip and Dan Heath noted in The Power of Moments, this is what we’re really telling ourselves each time:

All of my past failures are from last year and I can think, “Those are not me. That’s old me. That’s not new me. New me isn’t going to make these mistakes.”

What we’re really doing is relegating our old selves to the past. We disconnect ourselves from past mistakes and imperfections, which leaves us confident about our new, superior selves. That confidence gives us the motivation to begin something new and challenging — something we would have never done otherwise.

This sounds like we’re just fooling ourselves, but it does work. Researchers have found that Google searches for the word “diet” always soared on the 1st of January. Visits to the gym increased. Almost every activity related to self-improvement saw a spike.

Of course, the amount of time spent on these activities cratered as time passed. By the end of January, about half of us would have failed our New Year’s resolutions already. There are a number of reasons why this happens, but let’s take a look at why fresh starts have such power.

The Fresh Start Effect

We’ve established that there is an increase in activities which betters ourselves over the New Year. But researchers have also found that this spike occurred at the start of every calendar cycle. Searches for the word “diet” spiked on the first day of every month and the first day of every week.

These days are known as temporal landmarks. They stand out from other forgettable days and break our normal behavioural patterns. It causes us to take a step back and evaluate our surroundings. In that instant, we gain the motivation to make and follow through on our decisions. The correlation with new beginnings has caused researchers to term this the “fresh start” effect.

If you’re 19 and about to turn 20, there is a shift into adulthood. If you’re 29 and about to turn 30, you’re probably thinking about how your career has shaped out so far. If you’re 39 and about to turn 40, family now becomes a greater priority.

These seemingly arbitrary milestones grab our attention because there is a sense of a new beginning. We get the sense that we’re entering a new phase of life. And beginnings are especially powerful because we get a clean slate. It’s a chance to start all over.

Timing A Fresh Start

Back to the original story. What do you do when it’s the middle of the day and you’ve gotten nothing done?

It’s natural to get stressed. Midpoints often cause mental alarms to go off. It’s what Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, calls the “uh oh” effect: it’s the moment when we realise we’ve squandered half of our time. Yet it’s also beneficial because it injects a healthy dose of stress that revives our motivation and reshapes our strategy.

The obvious thing to do is look for a fresh start. Daniel Pink suggests in When that these days are particularly effective as temporal landmarks:

  • The first day of the month and the week
  • The day of an important religious holiday
  • Your birthday or a loved one’s birthday
  • The anniversary of a promotion or raise at work
  • The first day back from vacation

But if you require something immediate, it’s important to realise that time is a matter of perception. Wednesday marks the middle of a work week. But it is also a new day. The person who views Wednesday as a fresh start would be more motivated than the person who views it as a midpoint.

The key is to make sure that you’re able to disconnect past mistakes or failures from the present. If you’ve taken a short twenty-minute break and came back feeling refreshed, part of the reason is that you’ve had some time to rest. The other reason is that you’ve created a mini temporal landmark that allows you to tap into the fresh start effect.

New Day, New Me?

It’s normal for us to hit a slump. What matters is that we find a way to continue even when we feel like giving up.

Strategies like designing your environment work better than keeping yourself motivated. But if you need a small boost, consider resetting and creating a fresh start for yourself.

You don’t have to wait for fresh starts. No more waiting for the next year, the next month, or the next week. If you seize the day and give time your own special meaning, you’ll find new beginnings every time of the day.