What is the “Fresh Start Effect” and how can we use it to our Advantage?


You’ve cut your hair. Maybe dyed it too. You’re wearing that new shirt that makes you feel confident. You’ve started meditating, or going to the gym. You’ve just turned 30, 40, 50. Or maybe it’s just Monday.

Restarts come in all shapes and sizes, each of which have a major impact on our behaviour. Studies show that people are more likely to commit to their goals at the beginning of a new week (by 62.9%), month (by 23.6%), or year (by 145.3%), and following official holiday periods (by 55.1%), as well as following their birthdays (by 2.6%) [1].

It’s not surprising. We tend to use temporal landmarks to assess our progress – new year’s and its tumult of follow-up resolutions being the most obvious example. But we ascribe ourselves new epochs individually too, demarcating time through personal milestones. Think of your approach to tracing a memory. “I’d just finished my second year at University” or “I’d just started working at the cafe” or “my son had just turned five” is a far more common approach to take than “it was March of 2006” or “it was the autumn of 2011”.

We compartmentalise time according to personal experiences, and each new personal experience in turn opens up a new mental accounting period. Studies show that it is at the start of these newly formed mental accounting periods that we are most likely to pursue our aspirations – and most likely to have success doing so.

The fresh start effect

Writing in Management Science [2] on what they term the “fresh start effect”, Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis have two core suggestions for why these personal and collective landmarks open us up to change.

First, they suggest that naturally-arising time markers such as a new year, new month, or new week, “create discontinuities in time perceptions that make people feel disconnected from their past imperfections.”

Second, they “disrupt people’s focus on day-to-day minutiae, thereby promoting a big-picture view of life…these processes triggered by fresh start moments encourage people to pursue their aspirations.”

Let’s look at those sequentially.

Breaking from the past

Dai, Milkman and Riis write that, “Individuals think of their past, current, and future selves as interconnected but separable components of their identity and often compare these selves to one another.”

Feeling disassociated from our past selves can be the result of big changes – for example, studies show that people who receive a cancer diagnosis or recover from addiction tend to create clear boundaries between the self that came before and after – or smaller ones – a change of job, haircut, breakup, new clothes.

Dai, Milkman and Riis posit that these disassociations have a use when it comes to achieving our goals. The reason being that people tend to attribute their past failures to their former selves, the ones from whom they’ve distanced themselves, rather than their current iteration. This allows them to move forward without the burden of those failures on their back.

How people see themselves is important. Self-image and self perception are not just crucial for self-esteem, but actually shape our actions too. People who perceive themselves as moral are more likely to pursue moral actions than people who consider themselves immoral or somewhere in between. We act in accordance with the labels we ascribe ourselves – chicken and egg.

If someone considers him or herself to be a failure, they will then be more likely to fail as a result. But if they are able to break with the past, start a new mental accounting period, and leave that old negative deadweight behind, all of a sudden their future is a blank slate. The fresh start is underway.

The big picture

Dai, Milkman and Riis’ argument around “the big picture” is that these fresh start moments allow us to break out of the minutiae of day to day thinking – simply ticking off today’s tasks in order to make it to tomorrow’s. By stepping back for a moment, we can take a broader view.

Big picture thinking has a positive impact on goal motivation. “When induced to take a high-level view of a situation,” the researchers write, “people are more likely to evaluate their actions based on the desirability of the end state (or goal) they hope to achieve rather than the time and effort required to achieve it.”

Does everyone benefit from a fresh start?

Following on from her research with Milkman and Riis, Dai expanded the field of her research to ask not just when do we benefit from fresh starts, but who benefits the most.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Dai says that she “found that a fresh start on people’s performance records — what I call a “performance reset” — affected their motivation and future performance differently, depending on their past performance. Those with lower performance became more motivated and improved after their performance was reset, while stronger performers found resets demotivating” [3].

Resets are commonplace in every business. There are annual resets, quarterly resets, project-by-project resets, whatever it may be, as well as the aforementioned more personal milestones that people in the team may impose upon themselves. That’s not to mention the reset that comes with every change of job, change of role or change of personnel around you. Each one represents a shift.

To measure the effect of resets on performance, Dai conducted a research experiment using a word-search game. Participants were told they would be paid based on the total number of correct words they submitted across 10 trials of the game. Their performance was tracked and after each round they were able to see how well they had performed on a graph. After five rounds, the graph was wiped clean for half of the participants, meaning they could no longer see how they had performed on the first five games, while the other half of participants could still see everything.

Dai found that, “Participants with weak performance in the first five trials did better if they experienced a reset than if they did not, whereas those with strong early performance did worse if they experienced a reset than if they did not.”

In a separate experiment, Dai tracked the impact of resets on motivation. Participants were made to complete 24 trials of a task that involved unscrambling letters to form English words. Like in the previous experiment, they could see a graph, this time one that indicated whether or not they met “researchers’ expectations”. During the first 12 trials, half of the participants were told they met expectations in ten trials, the other half in four.

After 12 trials, Dai introduced a reset. Some participants were told they would continue with the graph while others would have it wiped. Importantly, participants were also given the opportunity to switch to a different task.

Dai found that, “When participants were led to view their early performance as weak, the reset treatment increased their self-efficacy and boosted their motivation to continue the word task; but when participants were led to view their past performance as strong, the reset treatment decreased their self-efficacy and decreased their motivation to continue.”

It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that fresh starts are not beneficial to everyone. For those whose current work is flailing, resets can be useful tools for boosting motivation and performance. For those thriving, however, the reverse is true. They can be demotivating and costly – and all it takes is a small reset such as a change in desk or project to bring such a negative impact about.

Managing fresh starts

Given the clear effect fresh starts have on our performance, it only makes sense that we use them to our advantage. For managers, a simple way to do so is to coincide any in-office/project changes with naturally arising temporal landmarks such as the start of the week or the hiring of a new employee. People are more inclined to go along with a reset at these junctures so it’s advisable to take advantage of their natural disposition.

Equally, if looking to make a broader change, something like making a shift to office seating plans or regular meeting schedules are methods of strategically engineering turning points, rather than waiting for the new week to do it for you.

If hoping to promote aspirational behaviours amongst a specific employee, a manager would be well advised to deliver that message at the start of a week or month, when they will be more receptive and more likely to make a change. Managers should also recognise that fresh starts won’t affect all employees equally. Try to limit resets only to those who will benefit. If a worker is flying, the last thing you want is to tamper with their momentum.

If trying to take advantage of fresh starts in your personal life, tracking progress is a good way to start. Especially useful can be making that progress visual, for example with a calendar that you can tick off every day once you’ve taken a step to achieving your goal. Exposing yourself to your own achievements has been shown to positively affect motivation.

If working on a long-term goal, try the 30/30 rule, in which you set aside 30 minutes every day to work on something that’s benefits won’t be felt for 30 days or more [4]. It can be all too easy to slip into the habit of just getting through the day’s tasks, the 30/30 rule can help you step back and start thinking more long-term.

Dai, Milkman and Riis note that even if one is unable to maintain the momentum from their fresh start, the good thing about temporal landmarks is that they are so regular that they offer repeated chances for people to invoke change – if you fail this Monday, you can try again the next one. They’re also particularly useful for one-off goals. Perhaps you have to sign up for something, or make a payment or a call, but have been putting it off. Taking advantage of a fresh start reset can help push you over the line.

Fresh starts

Studies show that our performance and motivation are impacted by resets, or the “fresh start effect”. It only makes sense, then, that we use those resets to our advantage. Whether it’s through a new job, new clothes, new week or new year, we can leave the past behind, put our aspirations front and centre, and ride a wave of newfound energy to achieve our goals.

More on Motivation

Organisational Psychology and Motivation

Rekindling Lost Passion: A Remedy for Low Motivation at Work

The Workplace Motivation Theory That Works

The Progress Principle: or How to Stop Worrying and Celebrate the Small Wins


[1] Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, Jason Riis (2014) The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Management Science

[2] Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, Jason Riis (2014) The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Management Science

[3] https://hbr.org/2019/02/research-explores-how-fresh-starts-affect-our-motivation-at-work?ab=HP-hero-for-you-text-2

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/melodywilding/2016/09/21/day-in-the-life-using-the-fresh-start-effect-to-achieve-any-goal/?sh=206bd152dc41