September has a back-to-school vibe that’s hard to shake. This tends to be true even if it’s been many years since you were a student, and even if you currently have no school-age children at home. The writer Gretchen Rubin has observed that September is like the “other January,” in that many people come up with resolution-type goals for their post–Labor Day selves. “Even if you’re a big grown-up adult,” she said in a recent Facebook chat, the traditional start of the American school year “kind of has that sense of new beginning.” Your actual 2016 resolutions are likely long-forgotten, but that’s okay. September is your second chance.
This notion of new beginnings, incidentally, was the subject of an insightful 2014 paper by a trio of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In it, they found evidence of something they called the “fresh start effect” — that is, that people are much more likely to think of the bigger picture of their lives, and set goals accordingly, just after beginning some new era. These could be, and often were, big milestones: a new job, a new marriage, a new school year. But, just as often, they were much smaller than that: the start of a new month (or even of a new week or day), or the first day back at work after a vacation.
The researchers called these “temporal landmarks,” a term they borrowed from the scientific literature on memory. These were markers in time, something that made one epoch stand apart from another; such landmarks help people divide the timeline of their lives in their heads, which helps them categorize — and thus, retrieve — memories. (My family, for instance, moved around a lot when I was a kid, and we tend to order our shared memories geographically. “Was that in Nashville?” “No, you know, I’m pretty sure we were in Chicago by then.”)
But people don’t just use these landmarks to organize the memories of their lives; we use them to organize memories of ourselves, too, something they call “temporal self-appraisal.” It’s a way of distancing your current, much more on-top-of-things self from past versions of you, who were maybe not so on-top-of-things. Sure, maybe you did not make a ton of progress over the summer on the book you’re writing (or whatever), but that was summer you. This is September you! A whole new you. Indeed, the researchers also note that counselors who work with people who’ve gone through very serious changes in their lives, like a cancer diagnosis or an addiction recovery, have found that after that turning point, those people will often “describe their pre-change self as a distinct person,” the Wharton researchers write. It’s perhaps a form of self-protection, as many people tend to evaluate their past selves in a way that flatters their current selves for the obvious reason: An inferior past self implies improvement over time. Feel as smug as you like about present you as compared to past you; it’s (probably) psychologically healthy.
Another theory that may explain the fresh start effect: Interruptions to a routine shake people out of autopilot. More specifically, research has suggested that interruptions to decision-making can change the way people process information, shifting them from a bottom-up to a top-down mode of thinking. Put in plainer English: A disruption causes you to consider the bigger picture instead of the minutiae.
This can be a problem, though, as it means you’re thinking more of how nice it will be once you eventually achieve your goal, and less about how much work you will actually have to put in in order to achieve it. This is no doubt why the Wharton researchers found that after a flurry of excitement just after a temporal landmark, signs of commitment faded rapidly. For example, one way they measured this was by tracking attendance at the student gym. Just after a student’s birthday, or right after a school break — or at the beginning of the year, month, or even day — people were more likely to work out. But that initial enthusiasm fizzled quickly thereafter.
Maybe, though, this fresh start effect is another one of those things about human nature you don’t necessarily need to fight. 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. As I write this, it is August 31, which means I still have (a little) time to put my own fresh start into action. But you could wait until the day after Labor Day, or October, or Columbus Day — even next Monday or tomorrow morning will do just fine. September is a great time for a fresh start, but it’s nice to remember that you can always conjure one right out of thin air, too.