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Why We Form New Year’s Resolutions

Why temporal landmarks motivate new beginnings.

The running joke about New Year’s resolutions is that they don’t outlast the hangover. But if you’re going to make a resolution to improve yourself, New Year’s Eve is a good time to do it. Recent research helps explains why we pick this date for personal renovation, and how we can restart the clock if we slip up. 

In work presented last month at the Society for Judgment and Decision Making’s annual conference, and currently in press at Management Science, Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and Jason Riis of the University of Pennsylvania document what they call the “fresh start effect.” That is, temporal landmarks (such as the New Year) often motivate aspirational behavior (such as dieting or learning to unicycle). These temporal landmarks can be widely recognized markers such as holidays or the start of the month, or more personal milestones such as weddings or birthdays. In three studies, the researchers document the phenomenon among a broad selection of people and goals. They also offer possible mechanisms for the effect and use their data to rule out alternative explanations.

The first study was pretty simple. Dai and colleagues looked at Google’s archives to see when people searched for the word “diet.” Not surprisingly, searches surged by 82% immediately following New Year’s Eve. There were also smaller peaks at the beginnings of new weeks and months and after federal holidays. Any big demarcation on the calendar is an excuse to get fit.

Do people follow through with their aspirational Googling? In a second study, the researchers looked at log files of a university gym and found that attendance increased at the start of a new year, month, and week. Students also exercised more at the start of a semester, the first day after a school break, and after a birthday—except their 21st, for obvious reasons.

The third study used data from the website stickK.com, on which people form “commitment contracts,” pledging to achieve goals or else pay penalties to designated friends or charities. Users formed more contracts most often at the beginnings of weeks, months, and years, and after holidays and birthdays—and not just for health-related goals but also for things like being on time or reducing debt.

There are a few explanations for the findings that can be ruled out. Maybe people simply behave badly before or during these landmarks and try to compensate for overindulgence afterward? Probably not. The results didn’t change dramatically when gluttonous holidays were removed from the data set. And additional analysis didn’t reveal decreases in aspirational behavior right before the time points. This finding also rules out the explanation that people start new behaviors after temporal markers because they didn’t have time beforehand. As does the fact that people typically don’t have more spare time afterward. Mondays are busy days. Another possible explanation is that some of the markers—holidays, weekends—offer a respite from the grind, allowing people to rejuvenate their willpower and dive into a new resolution. But people didn’t engage in fewer aspirational behaviors on Fridays, when they should have been worn down, than they did on Saturdays and Sundays.

Instead, Dai and her collaborators offer two likely mechanisms for the fresh start effect. First, we like to think we’re improving over time, so we attribute past mistakes to inferior versions of ourselves. And we use our current self-conceptions to inform our behavior, so if you look back and think that you’re a harder worker today than you used to be, you will continue to work harder than you used to. Temporal landmarks—even something like a new haircut—help us psychologically separate our current selves from those gremlins we used to be, bringing the comparison into relief and accentuating our positive identity. We then try to follow through on that image.

Second, in various activities we often lose sight of the forest and get lost in the trees. Interruptions force us to pause and look around. Instead of thinking in concrete, detail-oriented terms, we think more globally and abstractly. Rather than stare at the path ahead of us—the how of reaching a destination—we look into the distance and recall the why. Temporal landmarks may interrupt linear time, causing us to glance around and consider our ultimate goals. We may then become more motivated to reach those goals, whether we want to lose weight or be a better parent.

The researchers offer a number of ways to capitalize on the motivation to improve after temporal landmarks. One is to reframe changes in your life, even small ones like getting a new desk at work or returning from a vacation, as chances to make a new start. Another is to nudge others (and yourself) into new behaviors around landmarks, when the nudges will be most effective. A third is to create entirely new turning points when you want to get a fresh start. You could move, or just buy a new jacket.  New-jacket you will be much better than old-jacket you. You swear.

More broadly, this work points to the power of rituals. The authors note that many religious traditions endorse fresh starts, through purifications or “born again” ceremonies or penances. But any kind of ritual can demarcate time periods and offer a contrast between an old way of doing things and a new. On a large scale, we have inaugurations and graduations. On a small, we have saying grace at dinner—this is now communal family time—or simply washing our hands—it’s time to start a fresh activity. Anything you do can be symbolized as a gateway to a new, better you. Especially if you time it for when you have to buy a new calendar too. 

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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