For most people, the New Year’s resolutions made five months ago are as dead and dusty as the turkey you ate for Christmas.
You signed up to the gym and within weeks slacked off going there.
You resolved (and failed) to stop blowing your top every time the kids re-enacted the battle of the Somme with their peas and mashed potato.
And that faded lounge room wall that needed painting? You went to the hardware store and picked up a colour scheme … and now even those colours are starting to fade.
Feeling like a loser?
Please don’t. There’s some evidence that the New Year’s resolution is born of a natural impulse to get our moral, monetary and physical selves right with the world – which is always worth fighting for – and we tend to make these resolutions throughout the year, not only at the beginning.
New Year’s Eve obviously stands out as a significant “temporal landmark” – a meaningful point in time.
According to a theory that’s been running wild in the US for about seven years, people tend to make commitments to pursue personal goals following all manner of temporal landmarks – be it the outset of a new week, month, year, or semester.
A birthday or a holiday can serve the same purpose.
So far, so what?
Well, the theory proposes that “these landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviours”.
It’s kind of a secular version of being born again: All sins are forgiven, and one can start over with a clean slate.
This is what’s called ‘the fresh start effect’ – and it has made its author Katherine L. Milkman a media star in the US.
Dr Milkman is professor of Operations, Information and Decisions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine.
Wharton Magazine in 2019 described Dr Milkman’s theory as “something like a scholarly version of the Energizer Bunny’s drum … (the) study just keeps beating its way across the country’s media outlets every January, year after year”.
How Dr Milkman and her fellow researchers came to their conclusion was simple: In three different studies, they found that Google searches for the term “diet”, gym visits and broad commitments to pursue goals all increased following those temporal landmarks.
We seem to instinctively make our personal fresh start as the world itself begins a new chapter, even if it’s just another Monday.
The moral accounting is fresh starts’ greatest gift
Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I interviewed a bunch of philosophers about the value of the personal resolution.
One of these was Alain de Botton, who was becoming an international phenomenon and a modern-day pop version of Plato.
He had the idea that those promises to lose weight or finally paint the spare room were underpinned by something more serious and valuable:
“We don’t tend to make resolutions about things we completely believe in. Few of us would ever resolve to be appalled by war or disease. It just comes naturally.
“A resolution always hovers over a grave inner conflict and constitutes a vow by one part of ourselves against the other to be kinder or more hardworking because deep down, we’re perhaps not so pure.
“Left to our own devices, we’re self-indulgent, selfish, narcissistic and lazy.
“So we need resolutions for the same reason as we need laws: To keep ourselves in check. Resolutions are minor laws that we pass against our unruly selves.
“In making resolutions, we tacitly admit that we are harmed by being free to do anything – and through our vows, signal a desire to take up the higher freedom that comes from being correctly shackled.”
Not all fresh starts make for a happy story
Implicit in ‘fresh start’ theory is that people are always better at tackling their goals when they start on these temporal landmarks – and many workplaces have incorporated this thinking when framing performance reviews.
One of Dr Milkman’s co-authors, Dr Hengchen Dai
from the Anderson School of Management, conducted a separate study that found fresh starts were indeed helpful in boosting performance in workers who were struggling or even failing.
Wiping the failures from the record boosted their motivation to do better.
But a curious thing happened with workers who were succeeding or even shining.
Once those past triumphs were erased from their record, they lost motivation and their performance dropped.
Perhaps a useful start-over message for micro-managers out there.