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Wellness

Psychology Behind The Fresh Start Effect Of The New Year

7 Mins read

For many of us, the new year represents a fresh start, which is a concept that holds a lot of power. Metaphorically hitting the ‘reset’ button on January 1st helps give you some mental clarity and internal motivation to put your best foot forward next year.

Making a “fresh start” isn’t just a figure of speech, it’s a psychological concept – one which has inspired a lot of discussion over the years. Some people believe fresh starts can be an excellent way to motivate ourselves and improve our chances of reaching various goals while leaving unhealthy habits in the past. Some argue that wiping the slate clean is only beneficial in certain circumstances. Below, we’ll reveal the psychology behind the “fresh start effect” and how it can benefit or hinder your path to success.

What Exactly is the Fresh Start Effect?

The fresh start effect essentially refers to the motivational powers of January 1st’s representation of a new beginning. The fresh start effect can also take effect when other major life events symbolize a new beginning. 

A study by Hengchen Dai identifies the “fresh start effect” as a person’s ability to disassociate past performance outcomes from their current or future goals.

The fresh start effect is most powerful around the new year. However, as mentioned, other meaningful occasions can spark a fresh start. According to Hengchen, “The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks.”

In other words, from a psychological perspective, we associate specific days (such as the 1st of January) with the symbolic act of metaphorically hitting life’s reset button. At the end of the year, we see the start of a new calendar year as an opportunity to regain our focus, update our targets, and decide on new goals. It’s no coincidence that gym memberships spike in January, or that doctors get more patient calls about quitting smoking in the New Year.

The question Hengchen Dai and other researchers have been asking is whether jumping on the bandwagon of the fresh start phenomenon is always a good thing.

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The Benefits of a Fresh Start

Fresh starts can be a wonderful thing. There are times in our lives when we all want to make meaningful changes to our routine, our diet, or our jobs. Unfortunately, many of us suffer from the issue of complacency. We continue to follow the same routine, wishing we were doing better in various aspects of our lives, but failing to take real steps toward change.

For many people, the most common reason for inaction is self-limiting beliefs. Sometimes, envisioning our future, we concentrate on what we’ve done wrong in the past, and use our mistakes as evidence that we can’t improve. Our past failures and imperfections stop us from moving forward.

An opportunity to start fresh gives us a little bit of a boost to our self-confidence. The fresh start effect helps us become optimistic. 

Self-limiting beliefs can be difficult to overcome and may even lead to issues with depression and stress for some people. However, there are special moments in our lives, or “temporal landmarks”, which inspire us to overlook our past mistakes and set new goals.

Memorable moments, such as the day your child is born, the day you won the lottery, or the day you get married can all inspire action and self-improvement. According to Michael S. Shum, temporal landmarks “emerge from and stand in marked contrast to the seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences that happen to us every day.”

Dai’s research suggests that using temporal landmarks as a launching point for pursuing a new goal can be quite effective. Notably, the “fresh start effect” can help people to overcome “willpower problems that often limit goal attainment”.

However, fresh starts aren’t always the right move. If you’ve been successful at reaching goals in the past, ignoring your efforts and “resetting” can make it more difficult to reach your targets in the future.

The Pros and Cons of Fresh Starts: Why the Reset Button Doesn’t Always Work

An in-depth study into temporal landmarks and their ability to motivate aspirational behaviour exposed participants to a series of four experiments.

In the first test, participants took part in 10 one-minute word games, where they received a cash reward for every correct answer given. Halfway through the process, the subjects received feedback. To create the “fresh start”, the testing group applied a reset with the last five rounds of scoring, offering a new starting point for a new score.

The second test involved participants using performance tracking apps to improve a specific habit. All participants were given “resets”. and half were assigned to a “weak performance” group. The people in the poor performance team were told they were doing badly, while the other half was assigned to a “strong performance group”, and were made to feel they were doing well. 

In both of the first two studies, the only people who benefited from a “fresh start” were the people who felt they had not been performing well. The resets actually harmed the performance of people who had done well before. 

Does this mean that if you’re already doing well, trying to start fresh could do more harm than good? Possibly. After all, there is a famous expression that goes, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Now, back to the experiment. The same outcomes were evident in the third experiment, in which participants were given an opportunity to complete further rounds of a wordplay game to earn more money. After resetting scores, strong performers were less likely to want to continue with additional rounds.

The fourth and final experiment involved looking at archival data which demonstrated how a baseball player’s batting average changes after its reset to zero after a team trade. When batting averages ranked lower than the rest of the league average, the trade and “fresh start” increased batting averages by 3.8%. Alternatively, players performing above average saw a 5% decrease in their batting performance after a trade.

Clearly, there’s a correlation between our performance levels before a reset or ‘fresh start’, and how well we respond to a fresh start. If you were doing well before wiping the slate clean, resetting could leave you feeling demotivated and lead to reduced performance. Alternatively, if you weren’t doing well before, a reset gives you a chance to separate yourself from previous failures.

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How to Use Fresh Starts Effectively

Fresh starts can be an excellent opportunity to nudge yourself in a better direction. If you have a moment of motivation in your life inspired by a significant event, you can use this as momentum to drive yourself towards your goals. However, this doesn’t always have to mean starting from scratch.

If, in the past, you know you’ve had a very difficult time overcoming certain hurdles which have prevented you from reaching your goals, a fresh start might be a good idea. For instance, you might choose to start fresh with diets, overcome bad habits, and achieve personal goals. However, you’ll need to follow a few crucial steps, such as:

1. Evaluate your previous performance

As the studies now show, fresh starts work best when you use them following a bad performance. When you’re already making progress towards your goals with your existing strategy, it doesn’t make sense to start again. Instead, focus on building on what you’re already doing.

Perhaps your new exercise routine is making a difference to your energy levels and improving your immunity against illness. However, you might not be losing as much weight as you’d like around your stomach. If that’s the case, ask how you can enhance your existing efforts to achieve more of your goals. You could add some more tummy-toning exercises to your routine, for example.

2. Learn from your past

Making a fresh start doesn’t mean ignoring your past or pretending it doesn’t exist. When you’re “wiping the slate clean”, look for opportunities to learn from your mistakes and failures up until now. Your ability to recognise efforts that haven’t worked for you so far will help you to avoid making similar mistakes again.

Think of it this way, trying to give up cigarettes “cold turkey” every January 1st won’t get you far if you already know this strategy leads to you quickly falling off the waggon. Instead, acknowledge that one of your strategies hasn’t worked, but don’t let the failure define you.

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3. Don’t rely too much on temporal landmarks

Temporal landmarks, including the new year, or the day you start a new job, are excellent for delivering a boost of motivation. They can give you a boosted desire to start something new or work harder on achieving your goals. However, you don’t have to wait for the new year to make a change.

If you’re tired of something in your life, you can decide to “start fresh” whenever you want. Give yourself permission to see every morning as an opportunity to reset.

Making the Most of Your Fresh Start

January 1st and other “temporal landmark” dates don’t have any special power on their own. In a way, it’s sort of like a placebo effect, even if it does motivate you and effect change. It’s the power you give these moments to motivate and inspire you that matters. 

If you feel motivated because of the new year, that’s fantastic. Don’t question it. After all, it doesn’t really matter what the source of your motivation is, as long as you’re feeling motivated. If you find yourself feeling ready to tackle your aspirations again this new year, it’s worth considering whether now is the right time for you to make a fresh start.

Used correctly, a reset can be a wonderful way to stop failures and self-esteem issues from holding you back. When you view your past and future selves as two separate entities, you can step away from any memories or bad habits which might be dragging you down. However, if you’re already making the right progress towards your goals, don’t let the arrival of a new year convince you that you need to start from scratch.

Remember, you can always learn a little more about who you are and the person you can become with a CircleDNA test. This is because a CircleDNA test helps you get to know yourself better. If you’re planning on making a meaningful change in 2022, getting to know what’s in your DNA could help to set you on the right track.

Rebekah Carter
127 posts

About author
Rebekah is a committed copywriter and freelance content producer with a history in the technology, marketing, and health sectors. She’s worked with leading brands around the world, and is constantly searching for new ways to expand her knowledge, and skills.
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