Handy Life Hack: Why Your Resolutions Work Better at the Start of the Year

"New Year, new you" might be just about the most tired phrase out there. But it's not just a marketing ploy; fresh habits do seem to stick better at the start of the year.

There's a scientific term for it: the "fresh-start effect". And once you get the hang of it, you can use it any time.

The idea comes from a 2014 Management Science study, which looked at the benefits of "temporal landmarks" for people trying to turn over a new leaf. What are temporal landmarks, you ask? Any major date: birthdays, anniversaries, the start of a new month, and of course, New Year's Day.

Here's why they work.

They mark a clean break.

Because temporal landmarks help you organize your memory ("Where was I this time last month/year/Thursday?"), they also help you organize how you look at yourself—and more importantly, help you separate past and future selves.

That's right, new you.

"In these fresh-start moments, people feel more distant from their past failures," Katherine Milkman, one of the study's authors, told Strategy + Business.

"The fresh-start effect hinges on the idea that we don’t feel as perfect about our past as we'd like. We're always striving to be better. And when we can wipe out all those failures and look at a clean slate, it makes us feel more capable and drives us forward."

They make you step back and look at the big picture.

The line in the sand (/cross on the calendar/alarm on the phone/etc.) acts as a circuit-breaker.

It gives you a moment to look at the practical differences between your everyday self (the one who eats a packet of cookies in a sitting) and your dream future self (the one who can do a headstand after running five miles).

And because you brain is smarter than you give it credit for, looking at this gap kick-starts your behavioral engines into, well, doing the work.

Cue: Hillary Swank training montage.

…and you can also just make your own.

The main function of temporal landmarks, according to Milkman's study, is to give you "mental accounting periods". Once you've worked out your starting line, it feels easier to mark out the steps ahead of you.

Of course, momentum is going to fall off. But Melissa Dahl, writing for Science of Us, makes the very good point that this shouldn't send you off the rails.

"You could harness this tendency instead, knowing that it's okay, and even expected, if you lose momentum on a goal soon after you've started working toward it."

Because remember, there's a fresh start waiting for you as soon as you feel like making one. It doesn't matter whether you're five days into the new year, or 50.

Milkman does point out that, "The effect seems to vary by how big the fresh-start moment is," so something like "The First Day of 2017" is going to be more effective than "Thursday".

But what the fresh-start effect shows is that it's the psychology that counts. So you can take "Today is a new day" very literally. Starting tomorrow.