Let’s just be honest—for most people the year 2020 was terrible. Caught in a global pandemic of unprecedented dimensions, we grappled with existential fears, financial uncertainties, extended periods of lockdown, social isolation, empty supermarket shelves, and more Zoom meetings than could ever be considered healthy.
At the same time, there was little entertainment to distract us from our hardship. We missed out on parties, festivals, weddings, foreign holidays, stage performances, and many live sporting events.
Popular TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing were reduced to odd affairs of pre-recorded performances, virtual commentaries and interactions between Perspex screens.
(Mercifully, at least the cast of “Bake Off” had the decency to form a “bubble,” thereby allowing for Hollywood Handshakes to continue!)
Yet, just as every cloud has a silver lining, the challenging year of 2020 might come with unexpected benefits. By coming to an end, it could offer a much-needed “fresh start.”
This new beginning could boost people’s morale and provide a powerful impetus for positive behaviour change.
The Fresh Start Effect
Known as the Fresh Start Effect, “temporal landmarks” such as a house move, job change, romantic breakup or salient dates in the calendar can signal new beginnings and inspire big shifts in mindset. In many cases, they offer a motivational push for making life changes previously thought impossible.
Research has shown that when trying to make behaviour changes such as starting a healthier diet or embarking on a new exercise regimen, the majority of people choose salient dates such as the first day of a new month or a religious holiday to motivate themselves.
The salient date in question serves as a marker of time and signals a new chapter of their lives. This signal helps to back up commitment, and can have surprising effects on people’s behaviour.
Psychological theory suggests three main reasons for the power of the Fresh Start Effect.
1. New Identity
Just as a geographical landmark such as a tower or a wall might separate different areas of land, a temporal landmark such as the New Year separates the “old you” from the “new you.” It introduces psychological distance, which makes it easier to view previous errors or imperfections as an issue of the past.
Believing in a “new you” can inspire people to change their perceptions of themselves and create a new identity. People have a tendency to behave consistently with their self-perceptions. Hence, when creating a new identity as part of a fresh start, they will avoid behaving out of character and strive to follow new aspirations.
2. Confidence Boost
Due to psychological separation from the past self, people embarking on fresh starts are less likely to feel tarnished by their previous failures. This means they won’t be held back by past insecurities.
Instead, their new, positive self-perception affords them with a fresh sense of self-efficacy and confidence. Consequently, they are likely to feel more able to pursue ambitious goals even if presented with unforeseen challenges and difficulties.
3. Clean Slate
When starting a new chapter of their life, many individuals envision a clean slate or blank canvas, untouched and unspoiled by previous mistakes. In an attempt not to ruin this unique chance at a new and improved life, they are particularly keen to avoid failure.
An initial deviation from their new goals is felt particularly strongly, because rather than representing a small slip-up in a series of mistakes, it stands out as a singular event, which ruins the new efforts. Hence, to preserve their precious clean slate, most people will go the extra mile to stick to their resolutions.
Unique Opportunities of the New Year
Temporal landmarks may help people to create a new, positive identity, provide a confidence boost and deter behavioural deviations, which could spoil the clean slate. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of temporal landmark people choose, but more significant landmarks are likely to have bigger effects.
With 2020 coming to a long-awaited end, one might argue that the dawn of the New Year provides a particularly meaningful temporal landmark. Indeed, the year 2020 has been like no other, and with new vaccines on the horizon and research emerging on how to treat the virus, the beginning of 2021 promises a unique opportunity for a fresh start.
Given last year’s hardship, which may have triggered uncharacteristic coping behaviours such as drinking and comfort eating, separating the “old you” from the “new you” and creating a new identity could be particularly easy this New Year.
Also, with legal restrictions slowly being lifted, people’s self-efficacy and confidence may get an extra boost. For example, with gyms opening up again in some locations, people may perceive their exercise goals as more achievable.
Similarly, with increased communal support through re-instated social gatherings in some places, many coping mechanisms may become obsolete. This means that the clean slate of 2021 may be particularly powerful and present a unique chance to make significant changes.
How to Make the Most of 2021
Does this mean that following New Year’s Resolutions will be a piece of cake next year? While the Fresh Start Effect does suggest it could be easier than usual, we have to stay realistic. From experience, we know that despite our best intentions, the majority of New Year’s Resolutions are abandoned within weeks.
So what can we do to increase our chances of success? Studies show that the Fresh Start Effect can be enhanced by reflecting on the salience of the temporal landmark. In one experiment, participants completed a writing task, requiring them to list three to five reasons why the fresh start felt meaningful to them.
This short exercise of reflection and mindfulness had surprising effects: People spent more time perusing goal-directed websites and planning how to pursue their New Year’s resolutions.
We can learn from these findings and engage in similar activities before the beginning of the New Year. Active reflection, journaling, mindfulness and meditation are all excellent exercises for making this fresh start more meaningful and increasing your motivation to stick to New Year’s resolutions.
Why don’t you start by trying this short meditation for inner peace and mindfulness? It is time to move past the hardship of 2020 and channel the uplifting energy only a fresh start can bring.
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