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Imagining How Your Resolutions Will Fail Might Help You Keep Them

This is the ultimate week to consign your mounting failures to the past and start fresh.

Grant  Stoddard

Grant Stoddard

Cate Gillon/Getty Images

The first week of January is always treated as if it’s imbued with magical powers that can be unlocked by anybody who wants to lose a few pounds, make a little more scratch, or simply be less of an asshole in the year ahead. You just think about how you want to change your life and write it down, or say it three times while looking in a mirror, or drunkenly slur into the ear hole of a comely stranger and the chances of that thing happening improve. Fact.

This is how people got rich, slim, and laid before The Secret came out, but it still works and you should try it, according Dan Pink, the New York Times bestselling author of Drive and To Sell Is Human. Pink’s written a new book, When (out next week), about the impact of when things happen, arguing that we’re so concerned with the what, why, and how that we’re prone to overlook the significance of timing of things that happen in our lives.

January 1, Pink says, is the ultimate day to consign your mounting failures to the past and start afresh. If you happen to be reading this after New Year’s Day, however, the year is not a write off, according to Pink’s research. Another scientifically supported do-over opportunity is right around the corner.

It's New Year’s Day. The day that people use as a starting point for changing behaviors. We have a sense that it's an effective strategy, but is it, given that a third of people ditch their resolutions by the end of January?
It's not a perfect strategy. As you say, about a third of people abandon their resolutions by February. On the other hand, my sophisticated understanding of math tells me that that means two-thirds of people are still sticking with it and I think that's pretty good. What it shows, though, is something really interesting about how we keep track of time in our heads, and how that becomes a big part of how we behave.

Three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have identified what they call the “fresh start effect.” And what it means is that there are certain dates in the year that operate as what they call temporal landmarks. And so, sort of like when we navigate physical space we use landmarks to help us along the way, when we navigate time we use landmarks to help ourselves find our way through time. And so there are certain dates that serve as those landmarks, and what these landmarks do is they allow us essentially to start again.

We have also in our heads kind of a mental ledger, like a business would have a ledger. If a business has a terrible first quarter, okay we're going to turn the page on that ledger, and open up a fresh ledger for the second quarter. Individuals do that too on certain kinds of dates. This is why New Year's is so powerful, it’s the first among equals of fresh state dates. Other fresh start dates would be things like the day after your birthday, the day after a federal holiday, if you're in university, the first day of a semester. But there are certain dates that are better for us to change behavior than other dates.


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In your book you suggest no less than 85 other days in the year in which to start fresh.
I want to give people some hope.

But as you say, the gravitas and blank slateyness of January 1st is by far the most powerful.
Yeah, I think that January 1st is the ultimate fresh start date, I don't think there's any question about that. When you think about it in terms of a ledger, I was using a ledger purely metaphorically before, but I mean businesses, governments start anew on January 1. People who are still using physical paper calendars, they toss aside the last year’s calendar and break open this brand sparkling new fresh care calendar on January 1 full of all of those empty squares and infinite promise.

A lot of people are going to be reading this after January 1st, so have they missed an opportunity to unlock the power of a fresh start?
No, as I said and as we were talking about before, there are plenty of other dates that people can do it. I think there's a way to look at it and think about it in terms of probabilities. It's very hard for us to change behavior. If I'm doing something a certain way today, the odds are very, very strong that I'm going to do it the same way tomorrow. However, we can do certain things to improve our odds, and one of them is a fresh start date.

Let's say you want to start exercising more, you want to change the way you exercise, or you want to exercise more robustly. New Year's is a pretty good time to start doing that. Not everybody appears to, but it's a pretty good time to make that fresh start. But if you blow it—that is, if you're sitting on your couch again in February—you have other possibilities. You're more likely to make that kind of change if you do it on a Monday rather than a Thursday, if you do it on a first of a month rather than the 13th of a month. If you do it, as I said before, on the day after your birthday rather than the day before your birthday. We have other bites of the apple, but January 1 might be the juiciest bite.

Could a negative effect of pegging behavioral change to one day in 365 be that you give yourself an excuse to put off making changes until that day rolls around? For instance, I might need to start making some changes in mid-November, but I'm thinking ‘well, we're only six weeks until January 1st.' I’ve just given myself a six-week grace period to eat pizza, drink beer, and avoid the gym like the plague.
I think that's a fair point. To me if you want to make a serious change in your behavior, if you have a very low probability middle of November, and then just waiting merely six weeks gives you a much higher probability, then given the choice between the two I think you can argue either way. If it's April 13th and you're saying, "Oh man I'm a big, fat slob, I don't exercise, I don't eat right. I'll tell you what, I'm going to wait until January nine months later," it's a little bit more troubling.

A little later on in the book, you describe how starting a career in a recession is likely to have negative effects for as much as 20 years afterwards. By that same logic, if we have a shitty early January, is that a bad sign for the rest of the year?
Well, I was only measuring only one dimension there: earnings. We're not talking about people—are they happy, did they get married, are they healthy, do they have a sense of purpose in their life—or anything like that. It's possible that you could have a similar kind of effect if you narrowed a dimension. I don't know the research, but the fact that I don't know something doesn't mean I'm not willing speculate.

You talk about the usefulness of conducting a "pre-mortem" prior to embarking on a project. Can imagining failure in advance be a useful tool when thinking about the year ahead?
Yeah, I think it's a great idea to do a pre-mortem at the start of a new year. A lot of people figure out what their goals are in the year ahead. A pre-mortem would entail a few extra steps: imagining that those goals weren't realized, imagining why they weren't realized, and taking care not to do those things.

It's actually an especially powerful exercise because it allows you to time travel. You move forward through time a year from now and you say: “Oh my gosh, I've gained x number of pounds.’ And then you say, “How did that happen?” and you start figuring [it out]. Well, what happened is that I didn't schedule my exercise, what happened is that I didn't have an exercise partner to hold me accountable, or what happened is that I didn't regularly go to the grocery store. And then that gives you some guidance on what to do.

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