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How to Change

The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

By Katy Milkman
  • Read in 12 minutes
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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How to Change by Katy Milkman

How to Change (2021) is a simple guide to overcoming the obstacles that prevent you from achieving your goals. It diagnoses our most persistent problems, from laziness to impulsivity, and presents a number of research-backed solutions to each one.

Key idea 1 of 7

A fresh start can make it easier to change.

Are you the type of person who makes New Year’s resolutions? Lots of us do. 

No matter how heavy the previous night’s celebrations were, January 1 is almost always a hopeful day. There’s something about ringing in a fresh twelve months, and ringing out the old, that makes daunting plans seem feasible and past mistakes seem far away. 

But some people are skeptical about New Year’s resolutions. After all, why would a diet succeed in January when it failed in December? Isn’t it silly to think that starting a new year will suddenly make your goals easier to achieve?

Well, there’s an answer to that question.

The key message here is: A fresh start can make it easier to change.

It’s not superstitious to think that it’s easier to pursue our goals in the new year – it’s true. In fact, this rule doesn’t just apply in early January, but after any kind of milestone or fresh start – like a birthday, the start of a new semester, or the Monday of any run-of-the-mill week.

That’s what the author and her colleagues discovered when they looked at data from campus fitness centers. But why? Why do certain dates motivate us so effectively?

In a word, a fresh start changes our perspective. It puts distance between our previous, failed attempts at change and the new one we’re about to make. It wipes the slate clean.

That’s why some dates are more effective than others for motivating change – the bigger the milestone, the more encouraged we feel. But it’s not all good news. A fresh start can certainly trigger change – but not all change is for the better.

Two separate studies that focused on gym-going among undergraduate students noticed that holiday breaks can cause problems. The break certainly provided a fresh start, but the only change it triggered was a disruption in the students’ new, healthy routines.

So what’s the lesson? It’s simple. Watch out for fresh starts like birthdays, new semesters, and anniversaries, and make sure to capitalize on them by undertaking something new – but be careful you don’t backslide on your old, established routines.

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