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Slipping on Your 2016 Resolutions? Research Backs the Value of Hitting the Reset Button

At our New Year’s party, a seriously fit friend went on disparagingly about the annual January influx of exercise wannabes at her gym. Those annoying novices monopolizing equipment, oblivious to workout etiquette. Yet she knew she would only have to endure this for a few weeks. She’s seen this before; most lose momentum at this point in January. By the end of the month, she and the hard core members could reclaim the gym for themselves.

Is that how your January has started, and how it will end? You started with ambitious goals on one of the big three – your business, your fitness or your personal finances. Followed by a burst of action? Then a slow grind back to your 2015 habits? Maybe you’ve already applied the ubiquitous January advice on resolutions: aim low; enlist supporters; set specific goals; and use an app or wearable gizmo to track and nudge you. Yet you’re still flagging?

You still have a chance to be the one that keeps going to the gym (and annoying my friend). In fact, you have many chances to renew that burst of motivation that comes with a new year.

Let’s go back to the transition from 2015 to 2016. This is a major temporal landmark - a point, Professor Katherine Milkman of University of Pennsylvania explains, at which we tend to see a division between ourselves as we were in the previous period and who we hope to be in the next period. When we make this transition, we create a new behavioral account for ourselves, dumping our past bad behavior in a private “before” column. Setting up a new account - the clean slate – energizes us to do better by acting in ways that are consistent with the new, positive self we envision. And by wiping the slate clean, we’re more likely to take stock of the bigger issues in our lives. This also generates efforts to make the changes that count.

We don’t need hand signals from a sports referee or umpire to declare a new start. Instead, we trigger our own “ fresh starts ”. Like our passwords for our devices and accounts, we need triggers for our fresh starts that are personally memorable and strong. Milkman’s work on the “fresh start effect” shows how we can select the timing of our reset to improve our chances of succeeding with the changes we want to make.

Mondays, for example, show a more powerful fresh start effect than days later in the week. Like the start of a new year, significant public transitions, such as the first day of spring, also have more impact on our success with new actions than random dates.

Since events such as the start of spring only occur once a year, we need to create our own starting points. You can tap a deep supply of fresh starts in repeat personal events such as birthdays, anniversaries of anything that stands out for you (e.g., your first account over $XMM), or cultural or religious days of significance to you. We can also put the less frequent events such as moving to a different firm to good use to create new accounts and prompt new behaviors.

You already use this reframing - giving new meaning to a situation - nearly every day.

If you work in sales, you’re an expert at turning prospects’ objections into reasons to buy your services. Instead of framing their objections as a barrier, you engage with their concerns and guide them to the upside. In financial services, you have many fresh starts to put to work on your behalf such as: the start of a new financial quarter or the first day you’re really, really finished with income tax season.

For example, a client chose the global offsite of her senior leadership team as her personal fresh start. She and her team had been preparing for weeks for this gathering. Already a strong temporal landmark for the business, she made it even more meaningful for herself. This became her fresh start on more disciplined financial planning. Other clients have used turning points such as rearranging office space, the September return from summer holidays, and medical appointments to declare their fresh starts.

Looking ahead in 2016, where do you see your strongest candidates for your fresh starts?

Your calendar already contains many opportunities to establish your personal temporal landmarks that will energize you to set up a new account for better behavior.

While you have this supply of possibilities on hand already, be prepared for some surprises in your year and ready to take advantage of them. Remember the impossible-to-pronounce volcano in 2010 (Eyjafjallajökull)?

Travelers were stranded for days on holidays and business trips. Of a dozen executives I interviewed , nearly all were desperate to recreate their pre-volcano work schedules as quickly as possible. BAU, business as usual, suddenly became sexy.

Only one leader reframed his unexpected open time and declared a fresh start. While it “would have been so easy to reload the schedule with lots of meetings and calls”, he instead took up longer term issues that he had been putting off. An executive in financial services, he put his windfall of time into looking at the talent on his leadership team and accelerating a new product launch. His fresh start affirmed “it’s a much better use of me and my time to be thinking about an innovative way to achieve a leap in growth, versus plod along at annual increments”.

You don’t need another volcano to regenerate that energy you had at the start of 2016. Your fresh starts – for your business or for you personally - are already there in the year ahead. Prove my friend wrong about the January wannabes, and declare another fresh start in your 2016.