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.”
“You have this sense of a dissociation from past failures that gives you a clean-slate feeling, and when you have that distance from past failures, you may feel more motivated, capable, and optimistic about the future,” Milkman says. “Maybe the old you couldn’t quit smoking, but the new you can.” Here’s how to benefit from the motivation of a fresh start without making any profound changes in your life.
Mark up your calendar
Milkman and her colleagues found that enhancing dates — essentially, inventing your own personal temporal landmarks — can increase motivation to meet goals. For example, labeling a day as “the third Thursday in March” isn’t all that motivating; our brains interpret it as just another normal day. But Milkman says describing the same day as “the first day of spring” can influence how excited you are to start pursuing goals on that day.
“If people are looking to change, they may be able to look for more opportunities on their calendar that feel like fresh starts for them,” Milkman says. “When is the next date you see as a new beginning that could be your motive to start fresh on something?”
While there are only so many first days of anything on the calendar, what matters is finding and emphasizing days that are personally meaningful or motivating to you — like a birthday, an anniversary, the start of an event or activity, or a religious occasion. Highlighting these as opportunities sets you up to feel that burst of motivation more frequently.
A clean break, like moving out of state or starting a new job, naturally resets your habits and, to a certain extent, your sense of self, because you’re physically distanced from your old routines. But even getting that distance temporarily can achieve the same result — think about how the first day back from a weekend trip can feel different from a regular Monday morning. Milkman and her colleagues have found that even short breaks — like a few days off work, a holiday, or a vacation — can increase engagement with goals by giving us a literal opportunity to start again without making a permanent change.
Seek out small changes
In the same vein, smaller tweaks to your day-to-day life — things like getting a haircut, rearranging your furniture, or even switching up the route of your daily commute — can punctuate how you see episodes of time.
“Theoretically, something as simple as buying new clothes can give us a sense that there’s been a change and could be as psychologically motivating as a temporal landmark,” Milkman says.
Psychologist Talya Miron-Shatz, CEO of the personal development platform Buddy&Soul and an associate professor at Ono Academic College in Israel, says decluttering your home or workspace could also give your mind the jolt it needs.
“Since clutter is a stressor, clearing your desk, organizing your closet, or rearranging your bedroom not only provides a fresh start effect, but provides more mental energy, which you need for coping with new behaviors,” Miron-Shatz says.
Even something as simple as leaving the house could be enough. Perhaps you recently spent a few days home sick or wallowing after a setback, and even though you’re feeling better, you’re still a little mentally foggy. Miron-Shatz says the physical act of going out can remove you from the place where you were sick or upset, and, in turn, take you out of that role.
“It obviously takes some physical strength to pull yourself out of bed, stick the sheets in the washing machine, and pick out a nice button-down shirt to replace your pajamas,” Miron-Shatz says. “But once you do it, you are telling your mind that things have changed from ‘sick mode’ and you are back to normal and functioning.”
Visualize your future self
When it comes to setting goals, it helps to picture yourself as what you want to become, along with each step you’ll take to get there. Research has shown that visualizing a desired behavior can help reset current habits. In one study out of McGill University, for instance, students who imagined themselves eating healthier food were more likely to follow through on changing their diets. Miron-Shatz says that affirming the change aloud — for example, “I will eat fruit today so I can be healthy” — could result in similar positive behavior changes.
“Even if nothing changes externally, a fresh image you conjure can help you orient toward the new you,” Miron-Shatz says. “This way, the walls surrounding you may be the same walls, but you, your goals, and your mindset are different. This is what a fresh start is all about.”