The Fresh Start Effect

by | Dec 12, 2022 | Success

The Fresh Start Effect

by | Dec 12, 2022 | Success

Google had a problem.

It was 2012, and the then 50 billion dollar company had implemented several workplace initiatives to improve its employees’ lives, including feeling more productive and saving for retirement. But for reasons beyond Prasad Setty, Google’s then-vice president, the programs were largely ignored.  

His hypothesis, which he explained to Katy Milkman, the economist visiting Google’s headquarters to attend a retreat for its senior human resources directors, was that timing might have been the reason. Was facilitating a change a matter of knowing when to help its employees?

Milkman’s hunch, based on a rich background of behavioral economic experience, was that people might be more open to change if they felt they had a fresh start. And so she returned to her research team in Philadelphia to test her hypothesis.

The Chapters of Our Lives

Timing can be a critical factor when making a change. This idea is not new. We gravitate toward what we perceive as big moments—the New Year, a milestone birthday—because they feel like new beginnings and, more specifically, fresh starts

In her research into why we place significance on landmark events, Milkman and her colleagues found that we tend to think of our lives not as the passage of time but as chapters we start and end. We refer to the time we left home for college as “the college years” or describe moving abroad as “turning over a new leaf” and “the opportunity of a lifetime.” 

We tend to update how we label ourselves, too. We identify as a “student” or a “nomad” and might change our behaviors to reflect those new labels. We go from “student” to “professional” and, thus, become more responsible. We go from being child-free to being first-time parents and replace old behaviors that might compromise our new identity.

Milkman and her colleagues hypothesized that the start of a new chapter, no matter how small, could give people the impression of a clean slate. And if people felt like they were new and improved, it could, in some cases, Milkman posited, be enough to help them overcome a meaningful obstacle to making a change.

In her book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, Milkman writes,

We’re more likely to pursue change on dates that feel like new beginnings because these moments help us overcome a common obstacle to goal initiation: the sense that we’ve failed before and will, thus, fail again.

Indeed, new beginnings can lead us to pause, reflect, and think about the bigger picture, which makes us more likely to consider trying to make and stick to a change.

The Fresh Start Effect (Or Why Timing Matters)

Back to Google’s problem. Past research reveals that, while most non-savers want to save for retirement, few struggle to make time for it. 

Curious about whether the timing was a factor, Milkman and her colleagues partnered with two experts in saving and ran a research study. In it, participants received a letter in the mail inviting them to set aside a portion of each paycheck for the future. 

The letters—doubling as forms people could send back in a pre-addressed, stamped envelope to simplify the change further—were mailed to two groups. Group one was invited to start saving at a later fresh start day, like their next birthday or at the start of spring. Group two, by contrast, pointed to an arbitrary, unlabeled date in the future without fresh start connotations, like an upcoming holiday.

Milkman and her colleagues found that the postcards sent to employees to begin saving after their next birthday or at the start of spring were 20 to 30 percent more effective than the “ordinary” mailings that allowed people to begin saving at a more arbitrary future date.

After making her discovery and sharing her findings with Setty, Google programmers built a “moment’s engine” that identifies when the company’s employees are likely to be open to change (say, after a promotion or a move to a new office.) 

The good news is that we don’t have to wait for our employer to nudge us to change. We can choose our own. By focusing on fresh starts—anniversaries, birthdays, even the beginning of the week—we can relegate our failures to the past and boost our optimism about what we can achieve in the future. 


[1] I have my own experience with the fresh start effect. When I started this newsletter in 2020, I sent it out every Thursday. Now, however, I send it out every Monday. One of the reasons is that it’s easier for me to start writing the next newsletter at the start of the week. Once the newsletter goes out on Monday, I start planning the next issue. A tiny change, indeed, but a remarkable difference in my output.

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