Our world is re-opening, and our change anxiety is escalating. It reminds me of a new school year. Some of us can’t wait. Sales of clothing, salon services, and cosmetics are booming. And some of us are dreading all of it— the commute, the wardrobe, the grooming. Here is what I know for sure. It is a fresh start. And in the science of behavior, there is nothing like a clean slate to reenergize your wellbeing. Katy Milkman, PhD, an award-winning behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of How to Change, The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, maintains there is no better time to create positive change. A fresh start increases our motivation because it relegates our failures more cleanly to the past and boosts our optimism about the future. A fresh start can be a date on a calendar— a Monday, the first of the month, the first of the year, a birthday or it can be triggered by a meaningful event. Events could include a health scare, a move to a new home or city, or any reset like the return to the workplace after 15 months of a pandemic. Although a fresh start can interrupt you if you are on a roll, mindset is everything. To ensure the proper mindset there are some general tendencies that we will need to overcome. The first is impulsivity. We tend to prefer immediate gratification over long term rewards. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book, Nudge, call this sinning versus investing. Sinning is doing something today and hoping you get away with it. Investing is doing something today and hoping it will pay off in the future. We all coped as best we could these past 15 months. And by all counts there has been a lot more sinning than investing. This is the ideal time to dash those coping behaviors and start building your wellbeing portfolio. Unfortunately, we tend to invest in our wellbeing portfolios all at once. If I asked you to save $5 today versus $1,825 over the next year, the $5 goal would be easier to achieve and would build on itself. Particularly if you created a feedback mechanism like a sticker chart. When you create that visual cue and track your progress, you don’t want to break the streak. And before you know it, 365 days later you would have saved $1,825 dollars. Jerry Seinfeld uses a sticker chart to ensure that he writes a joke every day. He has been doing this for years and still hasn’t broken his streak. We’ve started using it at my rowing gym for our various challenges. Sticker charts work as well for adults as they do for children. A sticker chart is an example of a soft commitment. Soft commitments build intrinsic motivation which is more sustainable and affirmative than hard commitments. Hard commitments rely on extrinsic motivators such as penalties or rewards. Once the carrot or the stick is removed, the desired behavior stops. Aiming for a streak is the gold standard of building a habit, but there is some nuance here. Too much rigidity can halt you in your tracks. It is important to build in a mulligan. For those non-golfers out there, a mulligan is a do-over. I allow myself two mulligans a week— not necessarily on the weekends. All or none thinking can turn a slight accommodation into a serious setback. Allow yourself some flexibility, then it is back to business. The silver lining here: we are all experiencing this fresh start at the same time. It won’t take too much effort to find a buddy and start your winning streak together. Behavior change is “stickier” when shared.
PHD Director, Wellness Engineering
Patricia M. Fuller has dedicated the last 20+ years to designing and delivering wellness programs. Her events earn consistently excellent ratings for her holistic approach and her real-world application. Prior to concentrating in wellness, Pat taught accounting and auditing as an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa. She earned her CPA designation in 1992 as a senior associate for Coopers & Lybrand. She has a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Utah. Pat has a PhD in holistic nutrition. In 2010, she was board certified by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board. Her areas of research include stress management and eating habits. She is a Certified Wellcoach and a member of the Institute of Coaching. She is an annual attendee to The Harvard Medical School Conference, Coaching in Leadership & Healthcare.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. For further information, please consult a medical professional.