Reaching goals with the science of the “fresh start effect”

  • reaching goals by starting anew

The journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes recently published an article looking at the effects of fresh starts on task performance. In the paper, a ‘fresh start’ or ‘performance reset’ is defined by any time your past performance metric is disassociated with your current performance metric. The typical version of it is using dates and times as a way to hit the restart button. The beginning of a New Year, for example, is a great way to help with reaching goals.

But we’re now learning that fresh starts don’t always work. The researchers found  a fresh start seemed to hinder future performance if individuals were successful at reaching their performance goals prior to the reset. The good news is, you can learn how to appropriately implement performance metric resets so that they work to your benefit.


The good and the bad of fresh starts

We’re all familiar with feeling of a fresh start. Whether it’s the first day on the new job, the beginning of a new month of sales, or simply the start of the week on a Monday morning. “Firsts” have a way of decoupling your past performances from what is to come next.

Researchers have dubbed this term the fresh start effect. It says that people are better at tackling their goals when they start on so-called temporal landmarks (i.e. start of the new year, the first of the month, beginning/end of the week).

Fresh starts are often accompanied by some instance of failure or sub-par past performance. As a type of psychological resetting, it’s a strategy that can be helpful in bouncing back from a previous failure.

However, performance resets and fresh starts don’t always work in your favor, especially when past performances are successes rather than failures. A good week at the gym, for instance, is always followed by a low motivation Monday morning.

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The vast majority of work looking at fresh start effects is limited to performance resets that come after a failure. What impact, the researchers wondered, do fresh starts have for individuals who have already been performing well? This new research finds support for their hypothesis: Fresh starts actually hinder a person’s performance if they are coming out of a period of success.

So next time you decide to set a new goal or build a new habit, take a look at the following tactics to help ensure you use fresh starts to your advantage.


1. Track goal performance to know where you stand

Before you can utilize (or avoid) performance resets to improve your performance, you must first make sure you’re actually tracking goal performance. If you fail to do so, you won’t have a clear understanding of where you sit currently and the direction you’re heading. Relying on gut feelings here won’t work. Unlike your intuition or feelings, performance metrics can’t lie.

This is the part of goal-setting that many of us overlook and often despise. One reason you’re likely failing to keep up with your own progress reports is that they can be tedious, and they give you a level of brutal honesty that might make you feel uncomfortable. But they are well worth it.

Here are few simple, time-saving tactics to promote successful tracking of personal progress:

Give yourself a limit: To avoid becoming overly preoccupied with your personal progress, give yourself a daily or weekly time slot for when you make note of or check your progress reports. An easy way to do this is to physically place your progress report somewhere you don’t have 24/7 access to it. That way, you won’t be tempted to obsess over it. Set a reminder on your phone that will prompt you to check on it during your allotted time.

Keep it simple: When tracking performance, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible. By limiting the amount of work required to actually input your personal data, you increase the likelihood of actually doing it consistently. Try this: use a binary system to help track whether or not you completed your goal. A simple yes/no answer makes it a whole lot easier than having to write a whole paragraph or input multiple variables every time you track.

Ask a friend: Accountability can be an issue when it comes to tracking personal progress. If you find it difficult to consistently keep track of your own performance metrics, reach out to someone you trust to keep track for you. Not only has this proven to be a useful method to consistently track progress, but it might also improve the likelihood that you perform well.


track goal progress during successes



2. “Think big” to keep your successes rolling

You’ve been tracking your personal progress and things are looking great. We’ll assume you’re coming out of a period of success and not failure. So how can you keep up the momentum? Now is the time to avoid any sort of ‘reset’. To do so, you want to ensure that you are mentally viewing your progress in a smooth and continuous manner.

By framing your performance progress as part of an ongoing sequence of events, you can avoid the feelings of a fresh start. Remember, you want to stay away from the restarts in times when things are going well. Do the following:

Make a visual: Now that you’re proficient at tracking your progress, you no longer need to fear the intimidation that comes with checking it everyday. In fact, since you’re doing well, you want to overemphasize your exposure to your past progress. Research tells us that exposing yourself to your own achievements can serve as motivation to keep up the good work moving forward. Try this: buy a large calendar that you can hang in you room and use it to track and visualize your progress. This will ensure that you will always be reminded of how well you’re doing and in turn get you to maintain the pace.

Keep your archives: One way of painting a broad picture of your progress is by keeping your old data handy. An easy way to do this is by creating your progress report so that you can see both this month’s and last month’s report. Viewing your reports in a continuous manner will prevent that ‘fresh start’ feeling when a new month begins.


3. Know when it’s time to rely on the fresh start (AKA: You’re failing, now what?)

You’re one month in and are reviewing your progress. A slew of red dots litter the page of your progress visual and you’re overcome by feelings of self-doubt. The current research urges us to latch on to fresh starts when we’re faced with failure or poor performance. In other words, now is the time to narrow your focus and discard the big picture perspective.

Here are a few ways you can elicit a “fresh start” feeling:

Delete your history:  Once you’ve received the feedback you need to improve, your old ‘failures’ are virtually useless to you. One easy way to avoid getting caught up in past mistakes is by getting rid of the evidence. However before you do that, take some time to analyze the trends in your past performance then hit ‘Delete’.

Tunnel your vision: How we’ve performed in the past can strongly influence our motivation to perform in the future. Much like how your past accomplishments can motivate your future endeavors, past failures can blunt self-efficacy, motivation and performance. To avoid this from happening, make sure your progress report is visually narrow by only allowing yourself to view the current week’s progress.

Capitalize on beginnings: Here’s where the fresh start comes in. The current research tells us that it’s best to approach “fresh starts” when our performance isn’t up to par. An easy way to do this is by using the closest temporal landmark to start anew. However, you don’t need to wait for the beginning of a new year, or even a new month, to invoke the feeling of a fresh start.  Research tells us that we are 62.9% more likely to commit to a goal when we begin at the start of the week.

reaching goals by knowing when to reset



The study: Evidence for the use of fresh starts on reaching goals

In the first of three laboratory studies, participants took part in 10 one-minute word games where they were paid for every word they generated correctly. After the first five games, participants received feedback on their performance. In order to induce a fresh start, the researcher created a reset group whose last 5 rounds would be scored from zero, a new starting point with respect to their first five trials.  In addition, they had a control group who were continuously scored throughout the whole 10 rounds with no change or interruption.

The second laboratory study used a performance tracking smartphone app and participants were asked to choose a habit they personally wanted to develop and imagine that they were using the app to do so. A “weak performance group” was led to believe that they hadn’t been doing well at reaching their goal whereas the “strong performers” were convinced they’d been successful.

In both the first and second studies, motivation and self-efficacy were measured via a questionnaire administered after the tasks. Both studies found that fresh starts only increased motivation and self-efficacy in the weak performers. It didn’t do so for the strong performers. In fact, they found that the resets hindered the performance of those who had been doing well previously.

The follow-up laboratory study also used short word tasks with monetary incentives. Except this time, motivation was behaviorally measured by giving participants the option to complete a further round of word games that could potentially earn them more money. Once again, the researcher found that previously strong performers were less likely to continue with the task when they experienced a reset.

Lastly, the research team conducted an archival study to investigate fresh starts in a real world high-performance setting. They looked at the resetting of a professional baseball player’s batting average as a function of past performance.

In professional baseball, a player’s batting average is reset to zero when they get traded (i.e., a proxy for a fresh start). The researchers found that when players’ batting averages were lower than that of their league average, a trade resulted in a 3.8% increase in a player’s batting average. On the flip-side, players performing above average experienced a 5% decrease in their batting average after a trade.


Recap on the nature of fresh starts and reaching goals

The series of studies show us how fresh starts should be utilized with precaution. More specifically, you should be selective in the times when you decide to employ a performance reset.

If you find you’re doing well, you might want to avoid any sort of performance reset. You can avoid doing so by over exaggerating the visualization of continuous goal progress and by drawing attention to the previous periods’ reportings and metrics.

If however you’re having trouble staying on track, this is where you want to lean into that fresh start effect. To induce a feeling of reset, delete your progress history and ensure that you can only see the current week’s report. In addition, make use of temporal landmarks such as the first of the year, month, or even Monday morning.