Want your new year goals to stick? Make use of the ‘fresh start’ effect

Want your new year goals to stick? Make use of the ‘fresh start’ effect

By Kate Neilson

Research shows that we’re more likely to achieve goals by utilising the ‘fresh start’ effect. But how can you ensure those plans don’t fall to the wayside? Two experts weigh in.

We often start a new year full of promise. We make grand plans to live a healthier, more fulfilling and productive life.

However, more often than not, these well-intentioned plans are pushed aside when competing priorities take over and busywork creeps back into our routines. We set aside time to hone a specific skill, but it’s often the first thing scratched off our to-do list when ‘more important’ work is thrown our way. 

So what can we do to ensure these goals are turned into a reality? Here are seven research-backed tips to keep in mind.

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1. Choose your timing wisely: the ‘fresh start’ effect

When it comes to setting a goal for yourself, timing is everything.

“People’s motivation to pursue personal and professional goals is not going to stay the same all the time,” says Hengchen Dai, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Behavioral Decision Making at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“Our motivation waxes and wanes. It fluctuates based on the temporal landmarks we experience.”

Temporal landmarks are moments of time that stand out for individuals – think birthdays, a change of season, the start of a month, or starting a new job.

“Some moments in our lives stand out in contrast with other fairly mundane time periods. These moments create a sense of separation from who you are now compared to who you were before. That motivates you to think at a higher level about the things you want to pursue and prompts you to feel more optimistic about what you want to achieve.”

As a result of these feelings, people feel more excited to pursue ambitious goals. This is called ‘the fresh start’ effect, a topic Dai has been studying for years.

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2. Hook goals onto meaningful moments

Dai and her co-researchers conducted a series of lab experiments to see if they could artificially incite the fresh start effect. Their findings have the potential to help HR professionals boost motivation and set themselves and others up for success when mapping out a lofty goal, such as professional development milestones.

They discovered that meaningfulness is the key to capitalising on the fresh start effect.

For example, they ran an experiment telling people it was the 100th day of the year to see if that encouraged a surge of motivation.

“People were like, ‘Erm, okay?’ It didn’t boost their motivation. Whereas for Jewish people, for example, mentioning that it’s Yom Kippur is where you find the sweet spot for motivation.”

“People’s motivation to pursue personal and professional goals is not just going to stay the same all the time.” – Hengchen Dai, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Behavioral Decision Making, UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In a chapter of a book titled Behavioral Science in the Wild, Dai and her co-authors Katy Milkman and Jason Riis describe an experiment they ran in partnership with the HR departments at four American universities. The goal was to encourage employees to save more money in their retirement funds. By getting them to do this at a personally significant time (their birthday, the start of the financial year etc), people saved 20-30 per cent more money in the eight months that followed.

“We also found [motivation was boosted] when you point out days that can be special, but people might not naturally think are special, such as the beginning of spring. It makes people more likely to take action on that day rather than if it were just another average Thursday.”

3. Make your goals realistic

Some of the most common advice around goal-setting is to make the goals small and achievable.

“We overestimate what we can accomplish in a day, week or year, but we underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade,” says Dorie Clark, executive education professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “In the short-term, we can be extremely over-ambitious.”

That’s why you should choose a limited number of goals, says Clark. She usually advises no more than three in a six-month period.

“And at least one of those should be a personal goal, so set two discretionary work goals that go above your day-to-day tasks. Otherwise you’re spreading yourself too thin.

“I generally like to re-evaluate goals with people at the end of six months and assess whether they want to keep those same three goals or change them.”

4. Chunk your tasks

Along with setting realistic goals, Clark suggests breaking them down into realistic tasks. This helps you to get clear about what success looks like on a granular level, she says.

“If you have something like ‘write a book’ on your to-do list, that’s not going to go very well – that’s not a task, it’s a multi-year project. You can’t just slap it on your list in the same way you would for, say, picking up some milk. You need to break it down into manageable chunks.”

Let’s take the goal of getting a promotion as an example. While that might be your end goal, your to-do list might be spaced over a few months. Your tasks laddering up to the goal might look something like this:

  • January – Find a suitable mentor for some one-on-one coaching
  • February – Do a short course in leadership and management essentials
  • March – Draft a business case for your promotion, including your past achievements and growth areas
  • March – Research the average salary for your desired position, so you can go in armed with the necessary information to negotiate a pay raise.
  • April – Walk through your development plan with your manager and discuss your desires to step into a new role in the near future.

5. Understand the four laws of behaviour change

One of the most well-known experts of habit forming is James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it). In this book, Clear talks about what he calls the “laws of behaviour change” that help you to make goals stick. They are:

  1. Cue: Make it obvious 
  2. Craving: Make it attractive
  3. Response: Make it easy
  4. Reward: Make it satisfying

The first law is about environmental design. What are the things you’re exposed to everyday and how can they aid your goal? For example, if your goal is to read more in 2023, consider setting yourself a recurring reminder in your calendar and carving out time to do it each night. Perhaps you also leave a stack of books on your nightstand as a visual cue.

The second law, making habits attractive, is connected to cravings. As Clear says, it’s the anticipation of a reward that motivates us to continue with a goal. To achieve this, he suggests a practice known as ‘temptation bundling’. For example, you might do some exercise while you watch an episode of your favourite TV show. You only let yourself watch that show when you’re exercising.

Making your habits easy is about removing barriers. For example, if your goal is to exercise every morning, place your gym clothes at the end of the bed, so this is the first thing you see when you wake up. Or if you want to eat healthier, make sure your fridge is stocked with healthy ingredients, and perhaps do your shopping online to avoid getting lured in by the sugary purchases you’re trying to avoid.

Finally, a goal needs to feel satisfying in order for us to return to it. For example, the endorphin released after a grueling workout is what keeps us coming back for more (or so I’m told). Make sure you receive a short-term, immediate reward for completing your task, because, as Clear says, “What is immediately rewarded is repeated.” 

6. Focus on impactful one-off commitments

This could include signing up for a gym membership, booking into a conference or paying in advance for a short course.

“Even though the motivation we get from a new year is likely to disappear two weeks later, we can still leverage that two weeks to do something good and impactful,” says Dai.

“Think about things like preventative healthcare, such as getting a mammogram. It’s something you keep forgetting, but maybe a birthday will remind you of it. That’s when you should book it in. It’s a one-time effort.

“In an HR context, you might have a training program that requires workshops over a few months. It might be hard to expect people to maintain motivation over a few months, but you can leverage the new year to get people signing up. Once they’ve signed up, you can assign them into peer groups so they feel a sense of social accountability,” she says.

“Without doing these things, they might make it to the first course and then forget about the others.”

7. Add some social pressure

In her book, The Long Game, Clark talks about commitment devices she’s found helpful.

“As humans, it’s difficult to summon the willpower [to achieve something] again and again. So we need to find structures to keep ourselves honest.

“One tool I love is a website called Stickk.com. You can pledge an amount of money to what’s called an anti-charity – one you despise. And if you don’t do the thing you promised to do, the money, which has been held in escrow, will be donated to that charity. That’s a very powerful motivator because of the principle in psychology called loss aversion.”

“If you have something like ‘write a book’ on your to-do list, that’s not going to go very well. You can’t just slap it on your list in the same way you would for, say, picking up some milk.” – Dorie Clark, executive education professor, Duke University.

Another strategy is getting people involved in your plans, so it’s hard to walk back on your promises, says Clark.

“Peer pressure, when used for good, is a very powerful motivator,” she says. “There’s a woman I profiled in my book who was a really busy executive and wanted to lose weight. She created a pound-a-thon campaign where she got her friends to pledge that for every pound she lost, they’d donate a certain amount of money to a battered women’s shelter, which was a charity that was really important to her.

“The social pressure to not to let her friends down helped to motivate the executive to stick with her fitness plan.”

*Kate Neilson is the editor of HRMOnline and HRM magazine. Previously, she has held media roles in financial services and with the NSW Government.

*This article first appeared on the ahri.com.au website.

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