new_year_mug

Resolutions for the Rest of Us

By Ross E. O'Hara
Ph.D.

January 03, 2019

Editor’s note: My newsfeed is flooded with articles about New Year’s resolutions. How to make "em, how to keep "em, how to avoid shame when you break "em.  All good insights … but what is at the core of all this resolution - making? Why now, at New Year’s? Can we break down this phenomenon into basic behavioral elements and apply those to our lives and organizations more than once a year?Should I reward myself with a cookie after editing this piece or can I hold out another day before breaking that resolution?

Ross O’Hara has answers to most of those questions.


“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” ~Mark Twain

Poking fun at the futility of New Year’s resolutions is as time-honored a tradition as making them in the first place. Our knowledge of behavioral science may give us a leg up on our forbearers in terms of keeping those resolutions, and advice on that matter can be found in abundance elsewhere (like here, or here, or here.) What’s more interesting, perhaps, is what behavioral science tells us about why we make New Year’s resolutions, and what that might mean for your organization.

The Psychology of a Fresh Start

New Year’s resolutions may be more than a tradition; they provide a clue as to how we understand time. According to research led by Dr. Hengchen Dai, a behavioral economist now at UCLA, New Year’s Day provides one example of a temporal landmark. Any event that divides time into meaningful units — a year, a month, a week, a season, a school year, a fiscal year — puts us in a frame of mind to make important life changes, thus dubbed “the fresh start effect.”

Two simultaneous processes explain why temporal landmarks inspire a fresh start. First, these landmarks disrupt our usual focus on the day-to-day minutiae of our lives. When the year comes to an end, we let go of our daily hassles and give ourselves the mental space to consider long-term goals. Second, a temporal landmark signals the end of a “mental accounting period.” In other words, we’re able to put aside the person who last year failed to quit smoking, or gained 10 pounds, or spent too much money, and focus on our goal with a clean ledger and renewed resolve. So when gym ads proclaim that it’s a “New Year, New You,” that isn’t far off from what our brains are thinking.

We let go of our daily hassles and give ourselves the mental space to consider long-term goals (and it) signals the end of a “mental accounting period.”

Fresh Starts for Customers

Speaking of gym ads, the health industry leverages the fresh start effect, whether they realize it or not. In fact, a study showed that gym visits by college students were highest in January and progressively fell over the course of the year. Of course, spikes in gym visits occurred on the firsts of the month, on Mondays, at the start of semesters, immediately following school breaks, and after birthdays (except for 21st birthdays, because beer). The opportunities for a fresh start, therefore, are more numerous than just on New Year’s Day.

A fresh start can be powerful even when it’s downright illogical. A Swiss study signed up dieters for a random drawing to win a free membership to an online diet support platform. Participants could begin their membership on Aug. 25 or one week later on Sept. 1, but regardless of their choice it would expire on Nov. 30. Forty percent more people chose September 1st as their start date, even though that meant sacrificing a week of their prize for no good reason at all!

A fresh start can be powerful even when it’s downright illogical.

So when thinking about customers, how can you leverage the fresh start effect to influence their behavior? You don’t need to sell a health product to inspire a fresh start, as people set all kinds of goals for themselves, like to read more, save money or learn a language. Showing how you can help them forge this new person immediately following a temporal landmark could be very persuasive. How can your product or service represent a fresh start for your customers?

What would be a meaningful temporal landmark to your customers? People are willing to forgive themselves their past imperfections when they enter a new timeframe, but you don’t necessarily have to wait for them to find their own fresh start. How could you suggest to your customers that it’s time to open a new mental accounting period? There are infinitesimal ways to slice time, but determining what divisions create a clear connection from your product or service to your audience can help guide your strategy around fresh starts.

Fresh Starts for Employees

Organizations can also use fresh starts internally to motivate behavior, as people seem eager to achieve goals around temporal landmarks. Two studies asked individuals to set an important life goal, and then offered to send them a reminder to complete their goal. In the first study, people were 350% more likely to request a reminder on the first day of spring compared to any other day that week. In the second, college students were 600% more likely to request a reminder on the first day of summer vacation compared to any other day that week. Much like the study of Swiss dieters, people seem to understand that they will be more motivated on these days to follow through on their plans.

Organizations can also use fresh starts internally to motivate behavior, as people seem eager to achieve goals around temporal landmarks.

These fresh starts can have a big impact, as well, demonstrated in a study by the U.S. federal government on benefits enrollment. In December 2014, more than 140,000 service members needed to re-enroll in an automatic savings program or their contributions would halt. When these individuals were sent emails that emphasized the new year as a time to make a fresh financial start, re-enrollment in the first week was higher by over 5 percentage points compared with a standard instructions email.

How can the fresh start effect help motivate employees? Many people complain that work can feel like a slow, tedious marathon where projects blend from one to the next. Determine temporal landmarks that make sense for your employees to give them the motivational boost that accompanies a fresh start. It might be worth delaying the start of a new project until after a temporal landmark (e.g., the first of the month, the end of the fiscal year, a vacation) so that a fresh start takes hold — even if that means having less time to complete the project.

Happy New Year!

This time of year represents a fresh start for us all, a chance to leave behind our old selves, make big plans and improve our personal and professional lives. But there’s no reason to only experience this sense of renewal on New Year’s Day. Use these lessons on the fresh start effect to bring that feeling to your organization year-round and motivate your customers and employees along the way.

(Editor’s note: Yes, the title is a reference to Festivus.)

By Ross E. O'Hara
Ph.D.

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