We’ll more likely achieve goals set at the start of a new time period

Fresh Start Effect (2014)

We’ll more likely achieve goals set at the start of a new time period

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.

Dai, Milkman & Riis (2013) The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks That Motivate Aspirational Behaviour. The Wharton School Research Paper No.51

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!

Takeaways for decision-makers:

  1. Create a campaign across different time scales
    Advertising during fresh start moments such as just before the start of the week, month and year can motivate aspirational behaviour. This technique can be of particular use to fitness centers and even luxury auto and retail brands that advertise an aspirational attribute to their products. Fitness and diet brands tend to currently focus on large yearly campaigns in January, but they’d do well to focus on the power of a new week or customer birthday too.
  1. Highlight The “new you”
    Framing certain days as opportunities for a fresh start can also be particularly useful to marketers (Dai, Milkman & Riis, 2013). For example, a gym that advertises: “Have a healthy new year. Sign up for our new year’s offer and get 20% off on your membership fee” may be reinforcing a desire to start a year with exercise.

  2. Handling the giver-uppers
    Identify and understand how long fresh start feelings generally persist in relation to your product, and advertise accordingly. This is because the study found that while motivation spikes on the first day after a federal holiday, it declines rapidly after. This implies the need to follow up with advertising messages that triggered the bias. Also combine fresh start feelings with other biases like the Goal Gradient Effect, to encourage longer-term goal completion and reduce drop-off.

  3. Think about frequency
    On the other hand, the study’s authors suggest that in the case of behaviour that requires just one single action (such as donating to charity, getting a vaccine etc.), one fresh start advert may be sufficient to motivate behaviour change.

  4. Pull it all together for maximum impact
    For single actions like this, perhaps when January comes, a donator could be reminded of their contribution the previous year, using that value as an anchor, and using a strategy that works upon our desire to feel superior to our past self, as well as consistent with our decisions. For example, “You donated £10 a year ago, with your contribution resulting in x. Have an even bigger impact today by donating £15 for y”.