Want to Make Better Choices? Contrive a ‘Fresh Start’ Out of Thin Air

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Everyone has made a New Year's resolution, or written up a list of things they want to do better on their birthday, or used the sleepy period after Thanksgiving dinner to think about how to get along better with their crazy brother-in-law. It's easy to view these moments as overly mawkish and clichéd, but a new paper in Management Science argues that marking fresh starts via birthdays, holidays, or other noteworthy events is indeed an effective way to promote aspirational behavior like exercising more or eating healthier — and its findings suggest we may be able to contrive effective "fresh starts" out of thin air.

The researchers believe that these "intertemporal markers" may nudge us in the right direction in two ways: first, by "mak[ing] people feel disconnected from their past imperfections," and second, by "disrupt[ing] people's focus on day-to-day minutiae, thereby promoting a big-picture view of life." This, they think, can help explain the results of their three studies:

Study 1 showed that people are more likely to Google the term "diet" on the first day of the week or month, in January, or on the first weekday after a federal holiday (with holidays with more of a fresh-start perception causing a bigger increase).

Study 2 tracked undergraduates' visits at their school's gym via their ID cards and found the kids were more likely to work out early in months, days, or years, immediately after school breaks, and immediately after a birthday (with the interesting exception of their 21st birthday, which appeared to make them less likely to work out).

Study 3 found that people are more likely to make so-called "commitment contracts" — that is, agreements in which they agree to lose a certain amount of money if they don't accomplish a given goal by a given date — on the website StickK immediately after many of the same intertemporal events.

These findings have obvious applications both for people trying to rein in undesirable behaviors and for companies trying to profit off of their desire to do so (not to mention for public-health officials and other do-gooders), but even more intriguing here is the idea of contriving a "fresh start" out of thin air. Even if you don't have an upcoming holiday or birthday and don't think a new week will be much of an impetus for you to improve yourself, it may work to simply declare a fresh start.

This paper, after all, suggests fresh starts work because they offer an opportunity to separate ourselves from past "misbehavior" and spur us toward higher-order thinking that may promote goal-oriented behavior that is usually stymied by the demands of day-to-day life. So there's no clear reason you couldn't impose these two criteria from scratch by, for example, sitting down at your computer and writing a note to yourself about how you've been an unhealthy eater for a long time, but tomorrow you're starting a new era of salad enthusiasm.

The researchers didn't test this notion directly, but I ran it by Katherine Milkman, a UPenn researcher and one of the paper's coauthors, in an email, and she replied that she couldn't "see any reason not to make that prediction," and that it would be an easy enough thing to test experimentally.

Anyway: Sorry if this wasn't the best blog post I've ever written. But starting tomorrow I am going to be a better, smarter, more thoughtful writer. It'll be a new day and a new me.