I recently heard a behavioral scientist claim that New Year’s Day is an awesome time to start pursuing a goal because of something called the fresh start effect.
Many people hearing this would say, “Wait, don’t studies show that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail? If that’s true, shouldn’t we avoid making ‘resolutions?’ Doesn’t this make January 1st the worst time?”
Well, gym attendance does spike in January and has already crashed by February. I know this for a fact because I managed health clubs for 10 years. Also, there may be something to not calling it a resolution. Goal sounds better to me. There are thousands of studies on the power of well-set (SMART) goals to motivate. Resolutions are often casual alcohol-assisted New Year’s Eve promises.
But whatever you call it, this question about timing is worth serious consideration…
When Is The Best Time To Make A Change Or Set A Goal Like Starting A Nutrition Or Training Program?
Does the timing really matter? Haven’t many motivation-minded people, including myself, said things like, “The best time is now” and Just do it?” Yes, I’ve said that, and I’ll return to that topic in a moment. But according to psychology, timing does matter.
The scientist I mentioned was Katy Milkman, PhD, a professor at Wharton University of Pennsylvania. I came across her theory about timing in the first chapter of her book, How To Change (2021). She makes the case that one of the reasons many programs and initiatives aren’t acted on is that the best time to begin wasn’t considered. If a call to action catches us in the middle of our busy lives when we’re entrenched in other routines, it’s easy to ignore.
She says that according to her research, the best time to motivate yourself to start (or for an organization to motivate others) is when it feels like you have a clean slate. This is a time when no old habits or routines are working against you. It’s called the fresh start effect.
Three studies by her team showed that gym visits, commitments to pursue goals, and Google searches for the term “diet” increase following temporal landmarks. They proposed, “These landmarks denote the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.”
If You’re Skeptical About This “Fresh Start” / “Clean Slate” Theory, Then Consider Three Things
First think about the way our culture has more broadly held the the notion that fresh starts are possible, offering people a chance to improve themselves.
Milkman and colleagues explained, “Christians can be ‘born again,’ Catholic confessions and penance provide sinners with a fresh start, and the metaphorical phoenix rising from the ashes is a ubiquitous symbol of rebirth. This suggests a widely shared belief that we have opportunities throughout our lives to start fresh with a clean slate, with the ‘New Year’s effect’ representing just one example of a far broader phenomenon.”
Second, consider the Monday gym effect. According to research, gym attendance is 33.4% higher on Mondays compared to other days of the week. I can confirm this one is true from my club management days as well. It doesn’t even take a study for confirmation. Simply walk into the gym Monday night and compare the crowd to Friday or the weekend.
Third, simply ask yourself, what does your gut tell you? Do you feel more likely to start or restart the pursuit of health and fitness goals on January 1st, the 1st of the month, the 1st day of summer, on birthdays, after holidays, or even on Mondays? This is exactly what the research confirms – aspirational behavior increases in conjunction with calendar events and phases of life.
How We Perceive Time
Psychologists who study this discovered that people don’t think of passing time as a steady flowing stream. People see their lives as taking place in episodes or chapters. One new chapter might be when you move into a college dorm. Another could be the day you start a new job, get a promotion or leave a job. It could be the day you move into a new home. Getting engaged, married, having kids, or having the kids leave the house are other examples. A big one is birthdays, especially a milestone birthday like 40 or 50 or 60.
Milkman added that when the change is a big one, sometimes there’s a change in our identity at the same time. Suddenly, “Who am I?” shifts from student to working professional, renter to homeowner, single to married, adult to parent, young adult to middle-ager. Why is this important? Because how you perceive your identity affects your behavior.
On the day you turn 50 or the day you become a parent and you realize your health is failing, is that a moment you’re likely to feel strong motivation to finally get it together? I’ve seen this confirmed hundreds of times when people told me, “I want to be here fully for my children, and I want to be here to see my grandchildren born.”
Studies reveal that the start of any new chapter in life, even smaller ones, could give people the perception of having a fresh start or a clean slate. Milkman wrote: “New beginnings offer a kind of psychological do-over. People feel distanced from their past failures; they feel like a different person – a person with reason to be optimistic about the future.”
The big ones, like milestone birthdays can prompt us not only to feel motivated and optimistic about succeeding, but also to pause, reflect and think about the big picture. That becomes truer with the realization that more of your life has already been lived than what’s left, and you still haven’t realized all your goals, dreams and aspirations yet.
Making it through a health scare or brush with death at any age can be a time when this is felt more than any other. You’ve been given a second chance. You can say to yourself in earnest, “If I don’t make a change now, then when?” This highlights the point that fresh starts aren’t always connected to the calendar, but also to life events.
Downsides Of The Fresh Start
There are potential downsides of fresh starts. Psychologists learned about one of them from sports. When baseball players were performing well with high batting averages and were traded (a disruption and new start), the trend was for performance to drop. Apparently, this happened because their stats on the old team were strong, but they got erased after joining the new ball club.
When things are going great and you’re on a hot streak, a new start is a disruption and may have negative effect. The fresh start effect usually leads to the most positive outcomes when previous performance was weak (or you were off the wagon).
Another example is going on a long vacation. You were doing great with your nutrition, but then you arrive at the beach. Too many pizzas and margheritas later, you were off track, and you got off track so long or so far, you never got back on. People who have established good habits and routines who know a disruption is coming up must be on high alert to protect and maintain their successful streaks.
Here’s another downside that might have popped into your mind: If you’re always looking for temporal milestones to motivate you, wouldn’t that be an excuse to procrastinate until those dates rolled around? I was thinking the same thing. So were some researchers in Korea.
In a 2020 study, Minjung Koo and colleagues acknowledged the good work that was previously done researching the fresh start effect, but also raised a red flag: Waiting for those perfect times can indeed undermine motivation to start pursuing or continue pursuing a goal.
The good news is that their research found this risk is reduced if you’re reminded of daily activities you must do consistently to meet your goal. This is another reason why focusing on outcome goals alone can cause problems and it’s important to focus on process goals and daily action steps as well. You must break your big long-term goals into short term goals and then all the way down to goals for daily behaviors and habits.
I don’t think we should interpret the fresh start effect as meaning we always have to wait a long time to start. We don’t have to wait until the New Year to start if we fell off the healthy eating and training wagon in the fall or over the holidays. If we choose, we don’t have to wait at all.
The Power Of A New Day
One thing I didn’t see mentioned in any psychology book or study I read about the fresh start effect is the idea that every day can be a clean slate. I don’t have any research to cite, this is only my opinion, but think it over for yourself.
Some days are disappointments. There are days that are almost over and you realize you got nothing important done. Days where you missed your a.m. workout and after the pent-up stress from work, you can’t bring yourself to lift, run, or even walk in the evening. Days where your diet was so blown you felt like you undid the whole week and went into “what the hell” binge mode by dinner time. Days which ended at the bottom of a bottle.
Some days are objective, unmitigated disasters. Yet when you wake up the next morning, you can open your eyes, breathe, and appreciate that it’s a new day, a new dawn. No matter how bad it was yesterday, today is a new day. You have a clean slate, if you choose to frame it that way.
I’ve always loved affirmations for motivation and mental training, provided they’re crafted just right so they resonate with you. If the idea of every morning being a fresh start appeals to you, then you might write one of your own. Every morning, I say something like this:
It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a fresh start again. I’m grateful to be alive with the gift of another 24 hours before me. I vow not to waste any of it. I vow to use it and be present in every moment.”
The idea that every day can be a fresh start might not seem to jive with what the scientists were talking about – that there are dates and important chapters in life that don’t roll around that often. But I think these two ideas do mesh. There are momentous fresh starts that only come around once in a lifetime, once a year, or several times a year. There are others that arrive more frequently and might not be as impactful or enabling. But the psychologists agree that it’s not only about specific calendar dates or life episodes. There is such a thing as purely psychological fresh starts. It’s about how you perceive any given moment in time.
The power of a new day, seen in the right light, may be stronger than you think. You don’t have to wait for a midlife brush with death to say to yourself, “If not now, then when?” On any day, those five words can motivate you to do incredible, bold things you’ve been putting off after years of saying, “Someday.” As the famous quote goes, “Do not wait, the time will never be just right.” If you believe the time is right and recognize any new day as a fresh start, then it is because you believe it is.
What Research Really Says About New Year’s Resolutions
Let’s circle back to that big once a year fresh start – January 1st. When Katy Milkman published her findings, she was interviewed by a slew of journalists who all pounced on her with the same hardball question: “What about that study showing that over 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail? Shouldn’t we just cancel this silly tradition?”
If you’d seen the most publicized survey on New Year’s resolutions, you might be pessimistic too. In 2007 British psychologist Richard Wiseman did an experiment tracking 3000 people after they set New Year resolutions. According to Wiseman’s website, after one year, 88% had failed to achieve what they set out to do in January. That’s a depressing statistic.
But as far as I can tell, this was only one informal survey. I wondered if there were other studies focusing on exercise and weight loss that were published in science journals where I could read them. It turned out there aren’t many, but I found a few.
The first was by Alan Marlatt in 1972. A write-up on this study published in the Journal Addictive Behaviors said, “15-week success rates for multiple resolutions were 50% for men and 38% for women, respectively. The success and durability of New Year’s resolutions have been routinely underestimated by laypersons and professionals alike.”
It also offered a caution: “Nonetheless, New Year’s resolutions shouldn’t be entered into lightly or casually. Flippant resolutions spontaneously offered as New Year’s Eve diversions may have negative effects on a person’s confidence.” That brought to mind a favorite quote from Zig Ziglar: “Goals that are casually set and lightly taken will be freely abandoned at the first obstacle.”
A major study was conducted by John Norcross in 2002 and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. Among 200 subjects with goals including losing weight, exercising and quitting smoking, 46% of those who set a New Year’s resolution were successful after six months. That’s pretty good, but here’s the most surprising statistic: Among the people who didn’t set a specific goal in January, only 4% had made any headway in those health domains six months later. That’s the power of well-set goals (with an added boost from a fresh start).
In 2020 the largest study ever on New Year resolutions was published in PLOS One by Martin Oscarsson and his research team. They followed 1066 people for a full year after they set New Year’s resolutions. At the end of the study, 55% considered themselves successful. The study found that some people did better than others for specific reasons. One was that approach goals were more successful than avoidance goals. Another was that The group that received support was significantly more successful than the other groups.
I read the study and to my surprise the very first sentence was, “When people want to change something in their lives, they often start at a temporal milestone, such as the beginning of a new semester. Dai, Milkman, and Riis refer to this as the fresh start effect.”
The Reason To Say Yes To New Year’s Resolutions (Goals)
In responding to the cynics, Milkman didn’t quote studies like this one, her response was simpler. She said, “New Year’s resolutions are great! So are spring resolutions, birthday resolutions and Monday resolutions. Any time you make a resolution, you are putting yourself in the game.”
She’s right. You have zero chance of success if you’re not even in the game. If you cherry pick the most pessimistic statistics and believe it’s too hard, your defeatism makes you less likely to try. And if you try, but you’re expecting to fail, your odds of success are dismal. You achieve what you believe and expect.
Among those who fail to reach their New Year’s health and fitness goals, the list of explanations is long: Poor goal setting skills, poor planning skills, unsustainable program, incomplete program (missing important elements), following fads, no social support, lack of persistence through obstacles, and on the list goes on. There are many goal setting and goal pursuit mistakes that have nothing to do with when you start.
But if you approach your goal setting, program planning and goal pursuit seriously and intelligently, your chances are good! (A serious and intelligent program like Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle helps a lot, as does a great support group like Burn the Fat Inner Circle).
Start Anytime, But At Some Times, Your Motivation May Be Stronger
Let me wrap up with a personal case study. For years I encouraged people to set a fitness goal at the beginning of the holiday season and work on it through Thanksgiving and Christmas. These Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle challenges were successful, with high completion rates. We received countless thanks from participants for giving them motivation they normally didn’t have over the holidays.
After many years, thousands of people had posted their before after photos and success stories proving it’s possible to transform over the holidays. Then one year we decided to retire our much-loved holiday challenge, move it up to January and call it a New Year’s transformation challenge. Our participation doubled! We’ve been doing a New Year’s challenge ever since.
Then every year in May, we announce our summer body transformation challenge. Technically the first day of summer is around June 21st. But we tell everyone as fitness goals go, the first day of summer is in late May around Memorial Day. We have our highest enrollment of all during this event.
Why does this happen? Because we’ve proven you can set and achieve fitness goals even at the so-called “worst” time of the year filled with the most temptation. But the fact remains, twice as many people are ready to do it at the turn of the new year. It feels like a huge fresh start. As body transformation goals go, the start of the summer is when many people are most ready. It’s the change of a season, and the new season is swimsuit season.
Parting Thoughts About The Fresh Start Effect
We do have the ability to initiate a change on any given day because we all have the power of choice. All it takes is a positive attitude and a decision. The point of this fresh start principle is not to suggest that we can’t start any time we choose. The idea is that every start date may not carry the same motivational weight.
It means when the big fresh starts roll around, don’t miss them. Keep your eyes open for them. Create them yourself if you can, even if that means inventing them or resetting the way you track success.
If you want to know how to motivate yourself, take advantage of a clean slate, especially when you’ve been in a slump or off the wagon. When you get the invitation to join the gym, start a nutrition program or enter a fitness challenge on any significant date like the first of the year, seize those special opportunities.
You can even start right now. Visit the web page linked below to learn more about the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle New Year Body Transformation contest.
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscleis an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here to learn more about Burn the fat Inner Circle
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