TIB #8: Use the ‘Fresh Start Effect’ to leverage moments with high potential for change

Written by Arno Jansen

In early 2013, I saw a TedX presentation called “The art of being yourself” by Caroline McHugh. Struggling to figure out what to do with the “square peg in a round hole” feeling I experienced, her words caught my attention. 

At about 16 minutes into her talk, she says:

You know those times in your life when you come to a bifurcation on the path, and you sense that the potential for change is heightened.

— Caroline McHugh

Those words hit me so hard, it left me with blunt force trauma. I am since using the term “Heightened Potential for Change” both for myself and in coaching as a mnemonic device to point out those moments that feel like they can push you through a change in your life.

The Fresh Start Effect

Behavioural scientist Katy Milkman, uses the term “Fresh Start Effect” as a way to indicate those moments with heightened potential for change. 

Explained (perhaps too) simply, the Fresh Start Effect is what you experience when you get the feeling that you can “start over”. January 1st, is one of the most obvious moments we experience as a “Fresh Start” day. The potential for change is heightened that day. And you feel that potential rising in the days leading up to January 1st.

But there are many more moments like that: Your birthday, a new job, first day of spring, etc. Even next Monday, gives us a little bit of that feeling. A fresh new week, leave the past behind, let’s start fresh.

Getting personal: my 42nd birthday

On my 42nd birthday I was recovering from burn-out and still struggling with the “square hole” feeling. I somewhat jokingly told my wife that I felt “this year would be the year my life would change direction”. 

In The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the number 42 is the answer to “The question of life, the Universe and Everything.” 

That year turned out to be the year I became an independent entrepreneur after more than 20 years in the corporate world. I had not turned into a future teller, but my “readiness for change” was high and I knew it.

For years, I had tried to increase my autonomy and find ways to start a side-hustle. Unfortunately, I could never make it work well enough, until a reorganisation of the company I worked for at the time, made me realise that the opportunity to take the leap, had presented itself.

“Yeah, but 91% of people do not stick to their New Years resolutions”

According to research, 41% of Americans make New Years resolutions. Only 9% of them manage to keep those resolutions. So much for the Fresh Start Effect?

Strava has analysed millions of activities logged by users, and concluded that most people’s resolutions fall by the wayside on the second Friday in January. Hence, they call it “Quitters Day” now.

Does that mean the Fresh Start Effect is nonsense? 

I don’t think so.

The are 330 million Americans. 41% make New Years resolutions, and 9% of those are able to keep them. That is still 12 million people making a lasting change. Something that would not have happened on any regular day, according to Milkman.

Keep in mind that the Fresh Start Effect helps you get started. You still have to keep going, batte procrastination, laziness, self-doubt. In other words, you still have to have self-efficacy to keep the process of change going.

You already knew there is no quick hack to make changes stick. But there are many ways to stack the odds in your favour. The Fresh Start Effect may be one of the most powerful ones, because not starting means no change. 

How do you experience the Fresh Start Effect? Has it helped you get started with change? Please share your experience in the comments!

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