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  • Writer's picturelindsayannkohler

New year, new me: the fresh start effect

This post originally appeared on scarlettabbott's insights blog on January 1, 2020.

What do gyms, health food stores, banks, dieting providers, and internal communication teams have in common? They're all eager to harness the new year as a way to motivate change.

New year’s resolutions have been around for years and, while the actual resolve to see them through remains firmly in the individual’s hands, the annual desire to hop on the bandwagon is still strong. So, what makes an insubstantial date in the calendar such an effective catalyst for potential change? Many researchers have sought to understand how certain situations, like the turn of the new year, work to motivate people to pursue their goals. One theory is “The Fresh Start Effect.[i]

This effect essentially states that certain milestones which mark the passage of time—a new year, a birthday, even the start of a new week—give us the idea that we can “start again.” It’s a clean slate. And these prominent temporal milestones are correlated with an increase in aspirational behaviour. Why? Because they break our focus on the day-to-day and encourage larger reflection.

We all need a nudge here and there for behaviours such as saving money or exercising more because, while important, they aren’t exactly motivating in themselves long-term. We’d rather do what feels good now, versus what we know we need to do in the future. If you can understand when your people are most motivated to pursue their goals, you can jump in at the right time to support their efforts.

Using the fresh start effect – all year long.

  • Identify temporal milestones. These don’t have to be based on the calendar, such as the new year or someone’s birthday. They can be events, too. One privileged moment is when someone starts a new job with you. Use the onboarding experience to encourage behaviours you know are in your employees’ best interest.

  • But use the calendar milestones, too. Health insurers in America, for example, have been known to send birthday cards to members, encouraging them to schedule their preventive check-up.

  • Our culture has long touted the idea that we can reinvent ourselves. Use employee testimonials of successful change and share at natural temporal milestones.

[i] Dai, H., Milkman, K., Riis, J. (2014). "The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior." Management Science 60(10), 2563-582.

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