Temporal Landmarks & Fresh Starts

Sam Ngooi Life with Money

Recently, I asked other Park Piedmont team members whether they had resolutions for 2024. Since our last new year’s article on intentions for life and money, I’ve been curious about the various ways people ring in each new year, and why – despite our differences – so many of us decide that January 1 is the perfect day to plan how we hope to live out the year.

In 2013, behavioral scientists Katy Milkman, Hengchen Dai, and Jason Riis analyzed the frequency with which Americans searched the term “diet” on Google over the span of eight and a half years. They found that “diet” searches soared on January 1 – by about 80% more than the typical day. “Diet” searches also spiked at the start of calendar cycles (i.e., the start of a new month or week) and after national holidays.
temporal landmarks
Essentially, New Year’s Day is known as a “temporal landmark.” Just as landmarks help orient us on a map, temporal landmarks indicate where we are along the timeline of life (especially when it feels monotonous). Most people recognize the social landmarks we share: holidays, the start of the year, the first day of Spring. We also have personal ones that are unique: anniversaries, new jobs, birthdays.

Whether social or personal, temporal landmarks can serve as transition points as we move from one chapter or season of life to the next. Turning to a crisp, blank calendar page can make us feel refreshed and excited about future possibilities. Behavioral scientists refer to this as the “fresh start effect,” where the perception of a clean slate can increase a person’s likelihood to pursue ambitious goals with increased motivation and vigor.

A fresh start might prompt us to start and maintain new routines. The researchers mentioned above also examined attendance at a university gym over the course of a year. They found that gym visits increased at the start of each new week, month, and year, but also at the start of a new semester or right after a student’s birthday (with the glaring exception of turning 21, which decreased attendance).

Why does the perception of a fresh start work? For one, they offer an opportunity to disassociate the “old you” from the “new you.” The old me spent a fortune on takeout, but starting Monday the new me is focused on saving for a new car. By avoiding dwelling on past failures and optimistically focusing on future successes, a fresh start gives us the confidence to “behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations.”

A temporal landmark can also help us to see the forest through the trees. By distinguishing a specific moment in time, such as the job anniversary or the start of a season, we’re able to separate it from the day-to-day minutiae and reflect on long-term goals. Daniel Pink writes in his book When, “Temporal landmarks slow our thinking, allowing us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.”
In our work, it’s also a reason life transitions and milestones can nudge people to review their financial lives and goals. As a matter of fact, studies have found that framing savings against an upcoming birthday can prompt individuals to reflect on getting older and encourage higher retirement savings rates.

It’s worth noting that, while fresh starts can nudge us to start on a goal, we also require tools and strategies to stay committed as our enthusiasm wanes (case in point: New Year’s resolutions). One way to do this is by using dates with personal significance as opportunities throughout the year to check-in and recommit to previously set goals. Even the anticipation of a big life milestone (like turning 30, 40, or 50) can help sustain motivation. As Pink explains, this is one reason why the most common age of first-time marathoners is twenty-nine.

As it turns out, the Park Piedmont team leans lukewarm on the idea of New Year’s resolutions, but we’re looking forward to plenty of landmarks in 2024: growing families, weddings, “firsts” in a new city, other new year celebrations, bucket-list vacations. Money, of course, will factor into all these milestones.

Whatever meaningful moments and fresh starts lie ahead for you (and whenever they may be), we’re excited to hear more and are grateful to be a part of some of them.

Happy new year!