Trick Yourself Into Creating a Fresh Start
How to get the feeling of a clean slate without a major event or life change
It happens every year: With the turn of a calendar page comes a feeling of hope and opportunity, a renewed determination to tackle goals that have been on the back burner, plus some new ones for good measure. But then a month goes by, and then another, and that ambition slowly fades as you settle back into your ruts. And barring any huge change on the horizon, like a new job or a cross-country move, that’s likely where you’ll stay until a new year starts and the cycle repeats.
There is evidence that a clean break can be a powerful way to say goodbye to old habits; research has shown that shaking up our routines and circumstances can make it easier to enact positive changes. Behavioral scientists call it the fresh start effect—but thankfully, a growing body of research also shows that it’s not limited to the start of a new year or a big life event. To reap the benefits of starting over, we just have to recognize and leverage the opportunities around us.
The premise is this: Our brains register momentous dates, like the beginning of a new season, a holiday, or a birthday, as temporal landmarks, which can motivate aspirational behavior. Temporal landmarks disrupt the regular flow of our day-to-day routines, causing us to step back and think differently about our lives.
Katherine Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has studied fresh starts and their impact on behavior. In one 2014 study, she and her colleagues found that people are more likely to create and pursue goals — for example, getting a gym membership and sticking to a workout routine — around temporal landmarks, compared to other, more arbitrary points in time.
Even small tweaks like getting a haircut, rearranging your furniture, or switching up your daily commute can punctuate how you see episodes of time.
Since we tend to think about time in episodes, Milkman says landmark dates are like the punctuation, creating a clear, mental break between the “old you” and the “new you.”