by Lauren Lin
Do you ever wonder why you seem to start the school year with the best intentions but find yourself losing motivation soon after? Now that the second of week of school is coming to an end, some of us may be feeling less motivated to follow through with the goals we set for ourselves, like not getting behind on readings or going to that Monday 8:30 lecture every week.
The phenomenon that people are more likely to work towards their goals right after a temporal boundary, like the end of a week or year, is called the fresh start effect. In 2014, Dai and colleagues investigated the fresh start effect in three studies. In the first study, they found that the general public searched for the term “diet” on Google more frequently at the beginning of the week and after federal holidays. In the second study, Dai et al. analyzed data documenting the daily gym attendance of undergraduate students to see how temporal boundaries affected the engagement of behaviours that are related to goals. The students were more likely to exercise following the beginning of a new week, month, year, semester, as well as after school breaks and their own birthdays. However, the beginning of a semester and week resulted in the greatest increases in gym visits.
Since the data Dai et al. used for the first two studies were health related, they realized that an alternative explanation for these results could be that people usually consume larger amounts of food on some holidays and weekends, and so they go to the gym more after these periods of time. Therefore, they removed a few holidays that often involve large meals, such as Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, from their analyses and found that the students still exercised more after federal holidays or school breaks than they do on typical days. However, they conducted a third study that included goals that weren’t health-related to better separate the effects of overeating during holidays from the fresh start effect. In their third study, the researchers used data from stickK, a website that allows customers to choose a personal goal and to decide on how much money they will need to pay a person or a charity if they don’t achieve their goals. Even with the wide range of goals, Dai et al. still found that people were more likely to adhere to their targets immediately after temporal boundaries, with the increase in commitment most noticeable at the start of the year, week, and after federal holidays.
To explain the fresh start effect, Dai et al. hypothesized that a temporal boundary can help us psychologically distance our current self from “past imperfections,” allowing us to behave in a way that better reflects our new self-image that is more positive. Another reason behind the fresh start effect could be that temporal boundaries redirect your focus from details in day-to-day life to a broader view of your life. As a result, you end up being able to think about achieving your long-term goals. However, Dai et al.’s studies did not provide evidence for these mechanisms.
Hennecke and Converse also conducted four studies to look at how the perception of temporal boundaries can influence expectations. In their first study, participants answered a series of questions about their expectations for improving their diet in the next 6 days, which covered Thursday, February 27th to Tuesday, March 4th. The participants either saw calendar dates (i.e. February 27th to March 4th) or weekdays (i.e. Thursday to next Tuesday). As a result, the expectations of the participants who saw calendar dates increased more for March 1st compared to the participants who saw the weekdays. However, both groups had jumps in expectations for Monday, March 3rd, with the participants who saw weekdays having a slightly higher jump than the group that saw calendar dates. In study 2, Hennecke and Converse looked at self-reported constraints and means to eat more healthily on the next day (Saturday, August 1st) and presented the next day either as a Saturday or August 1st. In study 3, they asked for the circumstances, constraints, obstacles, as well as expectations for adapting a healthier diet for the next 4 days (presented as weekdays or calendar dates), which included the start of a new week. In study 2 and 3, participants still preferred to initiate a change in their behaviour after a temporal boundary if they were presented the dates in a way that clearly indicated a temporal boundary. Additionally, the information collected in these studies allowed the researchers to determine that the desire to start after a temporal boundary could be due to how the goal is represented before and after a temporal boundary. It seems that people think less about the constraints and inconvenience of eating healthily for the day after a temporal boundary, and hence prefer to start working on their goals after a temporal boundary. This difference in representation could be caused by people thinking that it will be easier to start with a clean record after a temporal boundary or that they will have renewed resources in a new period. To demonstrate the effect of perceived temporal boundaries in a real-life setting, Hennecke and Converse analyzed data from prospective dieters who were interested in an expensive dieting program in a fourth study and found that people were willing to sacrifice an entire week of access to the expensive program in order to start their plan after a perceived temporal boundary.
These studies show that we tend to feel motivated and want to start making changes at the beginning of a new time period, which explains why we have such high expectations at the start of a new school year. However, can the fresh start effect help us to actually achieve our academic goals? Although more research is needed to determine whether thinking in terms of new beginnings does more good by motivating you or does more harm by giving you a reason to push back working on goals, perceiving temporal boundaries does seem to increase the likelihood that you will stick to your goals. Therefore, rather than thinking “new school year, new me,” you might want to try thinking “new day, new me” instead.
*If you are feeling too overwhelmed in the new school year or would like to learn some strategies that will help with managing school, there are many resources on campus that you can use.
Queen's Counselling Services
AMS Peer Support Centre
Student Academic Success Services