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Kenneth Carter Ph.D.
Kenneth Carter Ph.D.
First Impressions

How to Keep a Fresh Start from Stopping You in Your Tracks

New beginnings can be a lock or a key. Keep these three things in mind to help.

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of starting a new writing project—and I do it old-school: fresh composition notebook, new pen, steamy cup of coffee. And then I stare at the page, maybe play a game on my phone, and then stare at the page some more.

It happens to all of us. When we start something new, we want that fresh start to be perfect. It’s the beginning, so we don't want things to go wrong. In our mind, everything is perfect. And if we never start, things can never go wrong.

Maybe it’s the mocking blinking cursor on a blank screen, the first day of school, or a new job. New beginnings can be exciting or terrifying, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell those emotions apart. Fresh starts can be a big boost and get you going, or they can lock you up and stop you in your tracks.

Keep these three things in mind, and maybe your new start will be a boosting motivator rather than a stressful circumstance.

Don’t worry so much about that first impression.

Sometimes the anxiety of getting started can come from wanting to make a good first impression. For some people, this desire sets them up to worry too much, and they freeze up due to their own performance anxiety or perfectionistic tendencies.

Why do people put so much weight on that first impression? We’ve all been told that it’s important to get it right the first time: After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression… or do you? How realistic is it that you only get one chance to show someone who you are? After all, we change our minds about people all the time as new information comes in.

In fact, Thomas Mann and Melissa Ferguson have suggested that when you provide a specific reason for a previous negative thing you’ve done, it may decrease the impact of the negative impression that you may have made.

This means if you can explain why you’ve messed up, it’s possible to update how people see you over time. This means that the first impression might not be so Earth-shatteringly important after all.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. Flaws are okay.

Sometimes the thing that creates action paralysis, that fear of starting, is the thought that a fresh start has to be perfect. The thing is, people might not mind flaws as much as you think. Studies suggest that showing flaws and vulnerability is humanizing and displays authenticity.

To put this principle in practice, I even tell my students that I sprinkle in a few typos into my syllabus just to seem more approachable (I’m not sure they believe it’s on purpose). Turns out, people don’t really like people who seem too perfect. So don’t try so hard to be perfect.

Use a fresh start as a way to reset.

Beginnings can trip you up, but they can also be a great way to press reset. But you don’t have to wait for the start of a project or the semester or a brand-new year for that boost. The start of anything can give you the same boost. Psychologists call these temporal landmarks. A temporal landmark is a date that defines the start of something fresh and can be a great motivator.

And it doesn’t have to be the start of a new year or a new semester. It can be the beginning of a new week or even the top of the hour. It’s called the fresh start effect, which helps people feel that they can leave their mistakes in the past. I know I feel that way at the beginning of the semester. I think, “It’s a good thing these students don’t know any of the mistakes I made last year.” (Whew!)

So, if you are starting off something new, finish one last round of a game on your phone, and give yourself permission not to worry so much about blemishing your fresh start. It might be a great way to make the most of that beginning.

©2019, Kenneth Carter. All rights reserved

About the Author
Kenneth Carter Ph.D.

Ken Carter, Ph.D., is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University. He has published extensively in both academic and lay publications.

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