Is there a perfect time to set goals?

Are you delaying a significant project that you ought to begin right now, maybe waiting for the ideal opportunity?

It’s possible that you’re right.

A lot of people choose to make life adjustments around significant occasions. Mondays and the New Year are prime times to start a new, goal-oriented habit, like beginning a marathon training program, paying off debt, or aiming for a promotion.

Academics call these dates ‘temporal landmarks’ – important points on the calendar which mark the passage of time and help people organise their lives into ‘chunks’.

But experts suggest people are more likely to feel motivated if they launch goals at a time that is personally meaningful to them.

Hengchen Dai, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, is one of several researchers who have studied this phenomenon, called the ‘fresh start effect’.

Is there a perfect time to set goals?

Dai says that whatever you feel is a “psychologically significant transition point,” where you can leave behind your past, imperfect self – and your failures – is a time you’ll feel more motivated. “If it has a personal meaning or personal relevance to you, you are more likely to take on some activities to pursue your goals.”

While this might be a weekly, quarterly, or seasonal cycle, you don’t need to stick rigidly to the calendar. In fact, you might have more success in getting started if you pick a different date – perhaps when starting a new job or the start of a new semester.

Birthdays are also a popular choice, particularly if you’re approaching a milestone age. One paper by professors at New York University and UCLA found people are more self-reflective and make big life decisions as they approach a new decade.

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In fact, the study found a significant amount of people take on new challenges on birthdays ending in nine. So, you’re more are likely to, say, sign up for a marathon aged 29 or 39 than at 30 or 40.

Break points
New York-based career coach Rebecca Kiki Weingarten says her clients are always looking for fresh starts, but the timing “depends on each person’s work style and motivational needs. Some clients plan for after vacations, [while] some are athletes and use their specific sport season and work around that.”

Some people find that being laid off, or a relationship breaking-up is the best time to take on projects, careers, financial changes, or personal changes that they’d been putting off for a long time or ‘never got around to’,” says Weingarten.

Some of her clients are more motivated in the lead up to a significant birthday, an anniversary commemorating the birth or death of a loved one.

Success not guaranteed
People tend to have more long-term success with goals that require a one-off action, such as signing up for retirement savings.

But while we might be able to harness a meaningful date for a fresh start, this is no guarantee of success in the long run, says Katherine Milkman, a professor of behavioural economics at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of the study into the fresh start effect with Dai.

Dai agrees. “In terms of how long-lasting that behaviour will be and whether the persistence will vary based on temporal landmarks, that’s an open question we’re still exploring”.

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