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Why It Really Is Easier to Improve Your Habits on January 1

Research reveals the secret to making a fresh start this year.

From Inspiration to Motivation: The Fresh Start Effect

The phenomenon of using January 1 as a marker for change is well-documented, and as we will learn, well-advised. But what explains our (usually sudden) desire to make change only once a year?

After all, we could just start a diet today. Steamed vegetables and broiled chicken for dinner. Or we could take it slow, planning to gradually phase out all sugar and carbs from our diet by the end of the week. After all, we have to consume the cookies and chips we already have in our cupboard and desk drawer, and everyone knows that few people can quit anything cold turkey.

But we don't make spur of the moment decisions to change our habits. Like clockwork, however, late December every year, we start making our New Year resolution lists again. Well, if we are being honest, we are not really re-creating the wheel here. We are resurrecting last year's unkept promises and unfulfilled goals. Why do we consistently embark upon this exercise in futility?

When It Comes to Making Goals, Timing Matters

When it comes to goal making, each new year brings a new opportunity. Apparently, the beginning of designated time periods provides a great opportunity to reinvest in goals, because they provide at least a temporary boost in willpower. A study by Hengchen Dai et al. (2014) entitled “The Fresh Start Effect” documents exactly how this works.[i]

Their research shows that temporal landmarks, such as a new year, month, birthday, or even academic semester, create new “mental accounting periods,” which serve multiple purposes, including creating distance between the present and the past and prompting a broader life view.

Specifically, Hengchen Dai et al. note that their documented fresh start effect is consistent with two psychological processes they proposed. First, they note that new mental accounting periods set apart by temporal landmarks provide psychological distance from a person's past imperfections, encouraging them to tailor their behavior to match their new, positive self-image.

Second, the authors note that temporal landmarks break up the daily routine, giving people a chance to regard a “big-picture view” of their lives, which in turn can enable them to devote more time and effort into achieving their goals.

With the benefit of psychological distance and a broader life view, what types of New Year's resolutions do people choose? The answers will probably not surprise you.

#NewYear Resolutions

Most people make similar resolutions. Although modern resolutions include era-specific ambitions, such as saying “no” more often to reduce over-commitment, sleeping without your cellphone, and limiting Facebook use, the old standbys are still there. For most people, they involve diet, exercise, and money. This is consistent with research findings, which again use the empirical to corroborate the anecdotal.

Hengchen Dai et al. found Google searches for certain terms all increased following temporal landmarks. The terms they examined were diet (Study 1), gym visits (Study 2), and commitments to pursue goals (Study 3).

In defining aspirational behaviors as “activities that help people achieve their wishes and personal goals,” they cite as examples: saving money, exercising, dieting, dating and studying. They recognize that one challenge in attaining these goals is the lack of self-control to proactively pursue aspirations, which results in procrastination.

Is procrastination goal-specific? The authors note that research reveals three common goals plagued by repeated procrastination are exercising, dieting, and quitting smoking. We could probably add significantly to that list.

So why do we repeatedly make goals and then procrastinate? Can we really link motivated goal-making to temporal landmarks alone? Apparently, we can.

More Than Compensating for Overindulgence

The research by Hengchen Dai et al. included an excellent discussion of how they ruled out alternative explanations for aspirational goals immediately following temporal landmarks. For example, many people without New Year's resolutions nonetheless begin counting calories after January 1 in an attempt to compensate for holiday season overindulgence, in order to fit back into their clothes. Couldn't this explain the sudden interest in diet and exercise at the beginning of the year?

The researchers discounted this alternative explanation by showing an increase in health-unrelated goals after temporal landmarks, an uptick in aspirational behaviors after time periods not typically associated with gluttony (such as Thanksgiving and Christmas), and a consistent finding of increased intensity of aspirational behaviors at the beginning of the month rather than the end, because neither time period is linked with an increase in indulgence.

The takeaway? January 1st apparently is a great opportunity to make a fresh start. So whatever your New Year's resolutions are this year, make them — again. Research is on your side.


[i]Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis, “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior,” Management Science Articles in Advance, 2014, 1–20,