Undoubtedly, the New Year’s holiday is the most popular time to make resolutions — but this isn’t the only time of year when people redouble their self-improvement efforts. Experts at Wharton found that “fresh starts” throughout the year demarcated by temporal landmarks — such as a birthday, the beginning of a school semester, or even next Monday — cause people to be more effective at setting goals and increasing their chances of achieving them. Wharton operations and information management doctoral candidate Hengchen Dai, operations and information management professor Katherine Milkman and visiting professor Jason Riis call it the “fresh start effect,” and they studied the way temporal landmarks can motivate aspirational behavior.

The researchers found that these fresh starts aren’t actually limited to January, and that they take place throughout the year. “Fresh starts” help us separate our old “inferior” selves from our new “improved” selves, notes Dai, who led the study, “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior.” Fresh starts also encourage people to evaluate their lives in a wider context, she says.

Milkman got the inspiration for the study, which is forthcoming in the journal Management Science, after being invited to a Google People & Innovation Lab (PiLab) Research Summit, where academics and Google executives brainstormed and exchanged ideas. Someone posed the question to her: When is the best time to try to change employees’ unhealthy behaviors? “My immediate reaction was, ‘I think we should do it when [employees are] feeling fresh,'” recalls Milkman. “I’ve done some research on forming and breaking habits, but I thought this idea was broader than that. Fresh starts can create a sense of separation from our past selves and past failures.”

Adds Dai: “We all want to become better people, but often we have self-control problems. We might say to ourselves, ‘Today is not a good time; tomorrow is better.’ But there are only so many opportunities to tackle our goals. We’ve got to seize opportunities” to instigate important changes to improve our lives.

“There may be too much attention given to the New Year,” she points out. “Our research found there are repeated chances to achieve goals.” Mondays, as well as holidays and school breaks, were among the most popular times where the researchers observed spikes in aspirational behaviors.

Temporal landmarks can be personally meaningful moments, like birthdays or anniversaries, or socially shared ones, like the start of a school semester or the beginning of the month. “We may be able to create them for ourselves. For example, United Nations Day might be tomorrow, and I might decide to view it as a ‘fresh start,'” notes Milkman. “There might be a big landmark we notice, and we can just decide to start fresh from that day. [It’s a demarcation] that my past failures are behind me. I can tackle new things.”

“We all want to become better people, but often we have self-control problems. We might say to ourselves, ‘Today is not a good time; tomorrow is better.'” –Hengchen Dai

How we view these landmarks is also up to us, the researchers say. It doesn’t need to be an earth-shattering milestone, like someone’s 50th birthday. It can be as simple as looking forward to next Monday that helps a person decide to quit smoking forever. “[Temporal landmarks] can be big or small,” explains Milkman. These landmarks allow people to disrupt the narrow-minded thinking that can often come from being mired in the daily grind. In essence, these moments force people to look at the big picture.

If you want to finally sign up for that retirement savings account or run that marathon you always said you wanted to complete, temporal landmarks may help you achieve these goals, the researchers note. “If we get people to think of the right goals, some of their actions will last” if, for example, they permanently enroll in a 401(k), says Dai. “They’re unlikely to opt out later. Even though temporal landmarks may only increase motivation for a short amount of time, that can be enough” to achieve many objectives.

Diet, Exercise and Ponytails

Dai, Milkman and Riis’s research incorporated three studies. The first study analyzed Google searches for the word “diet.” In 2013, two-thirds of Americans were classified as overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the goal of losing weight is widespread. The researchers found that searches for the word “diet” were most frequent at the beginning of a week, month or year; indeed, the search volume for the term actually decreases over the course of each week, month and year. To put these effects in perspective, the researchers noted that the daily search volume for “diet” associated with the start of the week was about three times as large as the uptick in search volume caused by The New York Times publishing an article about the successful clinical trial of an experimental diet pill.

Google searches for weight loss tips are one thing, but actually getting to the gym is quite another challenge for people trying to launch fresh starts. The next study analyzed the gym attendance of undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to evaluating temporal landmarks on shared calendars, the researchers were also able to look at how gym attendance responded to personal milestones, like birthdays. Visits to the gym increased drastically at the start of a new semester, as well as the beginning of a new week, month, year and after a student celebrated a birthday (with the notable exception of 21st birthdays — you can speculate about why that might be the case).

Finally, to rule out the possibility that the “fresh start effect” is driven by a desire to compensate for holiday gluttony, the researchers completed a third study to examine what happened when people set goals that had nothing to do with health. They analyzed data from more than 40,000 users of www.stickK.com, a website designed to help people set and achieve goals. An entrepreneurial idea that grew out of research from Yale economists, stickK.com allows a person to sign up on the website to achieve a goal, whether it’s to write a book, stop biting fingernails or grow a ponytail. They can put money on the line for forfeiture if they fail to achieve their goals.

Searches for the word “diet” were most frequent at the beginning of a week, month or year; indeed, the search volume for the term actually decreases over the course of each month and each year.

The data from sticKK showed that goal contracts were created more frequently at the beginning of a week, month or year following birthdays and federal holidays. The researchers found the same basic patterns for users pursuing both health-related and non-health-related goals, and for the five standardized goal contracts offered by stickK (exercise regularly, lose weight, maintain weight, quit smoking and run a race).

In order to up the ante, stickK.com incorporates a couple of different incentives to help people achieve their goals. “You can have a friend who roots you on and/or [receive] cold hard cash — neither of which is obligatory,” says Sam Espinosa, director of marketing at stickK.com. “Our philosophy is that you’re more likely to succeed by adding layers to your goals.

“Putting money on the line is optional, but if you [have] money at stake, you’re more likely to succeed,” Espinosa adds. When someone signs up for a commitment contract, he or she can provide credit card information. If a user doesn’t fulfill a task, the money can go to another friend who uses the site or a charity that stickK.com chooses. Or a user can choose a tactic to make failure really hurt by donating money to an “anti-charity,” i.e., an organization that supports a cause the user despises, like a rival football team or a nonprofit that represents the antithesis of his or her values.

Based on the “loss aversion” principle from behavioral economics, “money is a strong motivator, and it’s human nature to be motivated to avoid the loss of something rather than gain something,” says Espinosa. According to stickK.com statistics, 78% of users who put money down achieve their goals, compared to 35% of those who don’t. So far, stickK.com users have wagered more than $15 million that they can meet over 216,000 commitments.

Making a commitment in a public forum can be enough to encourage a fresh start, Espinosa says. “For some people, their reputation is more important than losing $500, so sometimes the referee is enough,” he notes. Wharton management professor Samir Nurmohamed adds that “if you’re making a public commitment, you’re less likely to stray from it. If a group of people undertake a ‘fresh start’ together, they may be more likely to persist since it [involves] the principle of social proof.”

“One reliable way to boost motivation is to conjure a very vivid, real-life vision of a day in the future that will be made possible by achieving your goal.” –Andrew Carton

Changing a group membership — for example, ceasing to meet friends for fattening desserts once a week, or getting closer to a co-worker who takes yoga several times a week — can also be an impetus for a fresh start, according to Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “It’s good to change the group dynamics if you need a ‘fresh start.’ We tend to think of them as static, but groups are constantly reforming. Membership changes and tasks can alter how you interact with one another.”

To the Finish Line

In other research, Wharton management professor Andrew Carton has found that goals “promote the strongest gains if they are very difficult and very specific…. The most satisfying part of goal pursuit is in the beginning … and at the end …,” Carton says. “When people are closer to reaching their goals, they’re often more motivated. For example, when you see people go up an escalator, they may start walking when they get closer to the top.”

The middle of a task often feels like a grind, Carton notes, because “our fresh start doesn’t feel so fresh anymore, and the end is not near.” His research has indicated that one way to plow through is to imagine the end result. “One reliable way to boost motivation is to conjure a very vivid, real-life vision of a day in the future that will be made possible by achieving your goal. Rather than focusing on ‘losing weight,’ you can think about the exhilaration you will feel when you slip on a pair of pants that you haven’t fit into for a long time,” Carton says.

Having self-set goals can feel like creating “a clean slate,” notes Nurmohamed. His research has also found that autonomous motivation is crucial to people performing effectively when they undertake an initiative.

Furthermore, embarking on a fresh start when in a happy mood may actually translate into a better shot at achieving your goals, Rothbard says. If an employee starts the day feeling up and positive, this results in higher-quality performance. “Where you start is a very strong anchor, and it can be difficult to change from that point,” she notes.

On the other hand, when an employee shuffles into work tired and cranky, Rothbard says that their productivity and performance goes down because they take more breaks — generating mini fresh starts throughout the day in order to cope.

Fresh starts certainly can be useful in the workplace to motivate employees to tackle new challenges. StickK.com has branched out to companies by offering white-label solutions. “We’ve created separate platforms for corporations. They’re privately branded portals where we create a point system instead of using personal money to redeem prizes and tokens. We work with them to create very specific goals, like going to the corporate gym, going green, meeting sales performance goals or getting involved in the community,” says Espinosa.

Now that Dai, Milkman and Riis have demonstrated the existence of the fresh start effect, “the next step is to determine how we can induce fresh starts in the workplace,” Dai notes. “When we highlight a ‘fresh start’ moment at work, we hope that people will be willing to take on more challenging activities. We also hope to extend our research to determine how it can best be used to help managers and policy makers encourage healthier decisions at ‘fresh start’ moments.”