Researchers have found that we tend to motivate ourselves into good habits by using a new week, month, year or national holiday marker to put past behaviour behind us and focus on being better.
This innate desire to be a better human has also been found with exercise. Using gym attendance data, researchers found that, amongst university students, the likelihood of attending the gym increases at the beginning of a new week, month, semester, as well as soon after term breaks. It also increases after birthdays - a future gift to oneself, if you will.
Other related research (e.g. Wilson and Ross, 2001) has found that we see our current and past selves as being separable, and we often compare them to one another. Specifically, we tend to view our past selves in a way that flatters our current one. A common example of this is when we justify mistakes by pinning them to “the person I used to be”.
Pinning failures and shortcomings to our past selves helps preserve our current self image and in some cases may even inspire self-improvement. New time periods can help with such beliefs, by cleanly disconnecting the past and current self from one another (Peetz and Wilson, 2013). For example, a birthday is a landmark that separates your 19 year-old crazy, shopaholic, eternally-late teenage self from your 20 year-old young mature, good-with-money, reliable adult self. Why, of course it is…
And because we generally try to maintain a consistent self image, seeing our current self as superior will inspire decisions that are themselves consistently superior, such as going to the gym instead of not, eating more veg and less greasy burgers, paying bills on time etc.
A follow up study by the Wharton researchers found that we’re also more likely to commit to non-health goals too (such as our career & education) after these new time periods. Basically, the Fresh Start Effect influences pretty much all of our individual future aspirations. Yikes!
The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks That Motivate Aspirational Behaviour PDF (Dai, Milkman & Riis, 2013)
The post-birthday world: Consequences of temporal landmarks for temporal self-appraisal and motivation Article (Peetz & Wilson, 2013)