The fresh start effect
I spent nearly five years working at the nutrition startup Lifesum in Stockholm, where we built a mobile app for tracking your diet and exercise.
Every December was a real push for the team. We scrambled to get new features out the door, and to make sure that the app was ready for all the new users that would arrive at the start of the new year.
Were we just cynically capitalising on people's New Year's resolutions, all of which are bound to fail? Or was there something more to it?
Doing hard things
The reality is that if you are going to do something that's really difficult, like changing your whole approach to eating, you are likely to either fail, or to accumulate the kind of micro-failures over time that erode your motivation, death by a thousand cuts.
This is certainly true for me, whether it's trying to eat better, or to exercise more, to write more, to keep a healthy mindset with my kids, or to keep in touch with people I love across the world. I've tried and failed many times, and I'm sure I'll fail again.
More important than avoiding failure is to make sure that what we're trying to do is worthwhile, and to build up the muscle to dust ourselves off and try again.
There seem to be moments in time that are particularly good for this. The start of a new year is one of them.
The fresh start effect
People have been doing New Years Resolutions forever. You're more likely to run a marathon at a milestone age like 30, 35 or 40. A study in 2014 dubbed it the "fresh start effect" and found that people were more likely to search for terms like "diet" and "gym" at the start of a new year, and that they were more likely to actually go to the gym in the first week of a new year.1
The study describes how people take on difficult things after "temporal landmarks" like the start of a new year, a new month, or even a new week.
Despite the replication crisis in social science and behavioural economics, this was an effect that we immediately verified in our own user data at Lifesum. People began diets at the start of a new year, around their birthdays, and at the start of a new month. Even within a week, there was a micro-effect: people used us more on Mondays, and then usage would taper off over the week.
Our own goals
Some people are cynical about New Year's resolutions, prefer not to make them, or look down on others who do.
I have a different perspective. Overall, I admire people who try to make change in their lives for the better. Any resource they can marshall to help them do that is a good thing, and the New Year is a moment in time that can help.
When you make a fresh start, and remind yourself about why you want to make a change, you're at a moment of peak motivation. But effort alone is not enough to make a big change, you should also reflect on the strategy you're going to use to make it happen, and how you can develop habits that sustain your efforts over time.
I'm a massive fan of Clearer Thinking, a non-profit that evaluates research and runs experiments to see what really works for people. I recommend their article What's the best way to build a habit? as an entry point to help yourself get the most out of your fresh start.