The Unexpected Science of Fresh Starts and Failures

A new study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes looked at the effects of “fresh starts” on performance. The fresh start effect , as it’s come to be known, is the idea that a person can disassociate their past performance outcomes from current ones. Temporal landmarks act as a kind of mental reset button to help get us back on track and get us focused on our most cherished goals.

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The most common fresh start: January 1st, the start of every New Year. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that gyms see upwards of a 20% boost in memberships at this time.

The evidence has generally pointed to the benefits of fresh starts. They motivate a person to do better in achieving a goal . But now this current research tells us that they don’t always work. They can actually backfire and make us perform worse, not better. The researchers say it has to do with what comes before the performance reset.

Fresh starts are most effective, they suggest, when a person experiences failure before the restart, like how a failed diet plan in the month of December prompts the need for a kale-only food plan starting Jan 1. But the evidence of this paper is showing that fresh starts should be avoided if a person’s past performance was successful. If a restart is used incorrectly in such instances, it will only hinder future goal-directed behavior.

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The pros and cons of fresh starts: The study

There were four studies. In the first, participants took part in 10 one-minute word games where they were paid for every word they generated correctly. Halfway through, they received feedback. To manipulate the fresh start, the testing group had a reset applied with the last 5 rounds scored from zero (offering a new starting point). The control group received the same continuous scoring throughout all 10 rounds.

The second study had participants use a performance tracking app. They were asked to focus on a habit they wanted to improve and to imagine using the app to get them there. Resets were applied to all participants. But half of them assigned to a “weak performance group” were led to believe they were performing poorly, while the other half assigned to a “strong performance group” were led to believe they were performing well.

In both these first two studies, a questionnaire measured participants’ motivation and self-efficacy, in addition to performance metrics. In both instances, the only people who benefited from the performance resets were the ones who had (or led to believe they had) been performing less well. And the resets actually hindered the performance of those who been doing well previously.

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The third follow-up study used a similar word game. Except this time, participants were given the opportunity to complete a further round of word games that could potentially earn them extra pay. When resets were applied, the strong performers in particular were less motivated to continue on with the additional rounds.

In a final study looking at archival data, the researchers went to a high-performance domain --professional baseball. They were curious to see whether resetting a baseball player’s batting average would depend on their past performance.

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They could do this because in baseball, a player’s batting average gets reset to zero when they get traded (a natural fresh start). The findings showed that when players’ batting averages were lower than that of their league average (i.e. failed past performance), a trade led to a 3.8% increase in a player’s batting average. Opposite, players performing above average (i.e. successful past performance) led to a 5% decrease.

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What to do about it

The takeaway: Fresh starts should be used with care. A person should be more selective in their performance resets, and recognize in themselves the difference between their good and bad past performance. If a person has been succeeding and hitting their goals, it’d be wise for them to avoid starting tasks on temporal landmarks.

For instance, this can be achieved by exaggerating the nature of a continued goal process and drawing attention to the previous periods’ reporting and metrics. A person who’s doing well thus far on a particular project could, let’s say, see Monday not as a new start to the week, but as a regular day that continues from the day previous. Not to condone working over-time on weekends, but it might even help to do a little bit of work on the Sunday.

And for those of us lagging behind in our personal and professional goals, no need to worry – January 1st is right around the corner.

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