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New Year Resolutions: The science behind and how to make the best out of it

  Jan 11, 2019

At some point in your life, you probably made a new year resolution. You resolved to quit smoking, call your mother every week, get a promotion, exercise more often or enroll for a course. Like many you get off to a good start, rectify your health and family relations, but by February you relapse to your old self. Regardless of your resolutions fate, the date you chose to motivate yourself reveals another dimension of the power of beginnings.

The first day of the year is what social scientists call a temporal landmark. Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate direction e.g to get to my office, turn left at the roundabout we also use landmarks to navigate time. Certain dates function like the roundabout. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days and their prominence helps us find our way.

For instance, searches of the word ‘diet’ always soared by late December and any avid user of social media will notice the abundant mentions of diets on social media timelines around this time of the year. At my local gym I always notice a surge of gym members in the first 2 months of the year. In essence, People are using the new year to demarcate the passage of time and what we scientifically refer to as ‘the fresh start effect’.

New Year’s Day has long held a special power to our behavior. We turn a page in the calendar, glimpse at the empty squares and open a new book account on our lives. But we do that unwittingly, blind to the psychological mechanisms we’re relying on. ‘The fresh start effect’ allows us to use the same technique but with awareness and intention, on multiple days. After all, New Year’s resolutions are hardly foolproof. Research shows that a month into a new year only 64 percent resolutions continue to be pursued. Constructing own temporal landmarks, especially those that are personally meaningful, gives us many more opportunities to recover from rough beginnings and start again.

That’s why when we tackle challenges in our lives, whether losing weight or learning a new skill we need to increase our repertoire of responses. Armed with the science, we can do a much better job of starting right.  Knowing how our minds reckon with time can help us use temporal landmarks to recover from false starts and make fresh ones.

To establish a fresh start effect, people use two types of temporal landmarks- social and personal. The social landmarks are those that everyone shares, New year, National Holiday, beginning of a new month. Personal ones are unique to the individual birthdays, anniversaries, job changes. But whether social or personal they served two purposes.

First, they allowed people to open new mental accounts in the same way businesses close books and open new ledgers at the end of a fiscal year. The new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past. Fortified by that confidence we behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our inspirations.

The second purpose of these time markers is to shake us out of our comfort zones so that we can see the bigger picture.  In so doing they bring attention to day to day intricacies, causing people to see the bigger picture of their lives thus focus on achieving their goals.

Nobel Peace Prize winner behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman drew a distinction between thinking fast (making decisions based on instinct and distorted by cognitive biases) and thinking slow (making decisions anchored in reason and careful deliberations). Temporal landmarks slow our thinking allowing us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.

Don’t worry if you don’t make a New Year resolution or if you have, it fizzles out soon. Identifying one’s own personally meaningful days can erase a false start “new year resolution” and help us begin anew. Some of those days include first day of the month, Mondays, country’s Independence Day, religious holidays, one’s birthday first day on new job or the day you read this article.   Organizations too can enlist this technique e.g product launch date, budget dates, midyear reviews or quarterly sales review dates.

Most of us have harbored a sense that beginnings are significant. The science of timing has shown that they are even more powerful than we suspected. The beginnings stay with us far longer than we know; their effects linger to the end.

Happy New Year!

Timothy Oriedo Executive Coach and Data Scientist Strathmore Business School

More about this is covered under the topic Decision Science in my upcoming book- Big Data and Predictive Analytics: Raise your Data Quotient

By Timothy Oriedo: Author and Data Scientist at Predictive Analytics Lab

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