Motivation Through Meaningful Dates

Temporal Landmarks

Do you want to get outdoors more, get more exercise, enjoy more fresh air or participate more in any of the types of activities we discuss here at EXPLORE?  It’s not that hard to do these things, but most of us lack the motivation needed to get started and then keep at it.

For many people New Year’s resolutions are a great attempt at motivation.  We carefully design our resolutions then set off to implement them.  Typically this works great for awhile, then we taper off, go back to old habits and eventually realize we still want all these things, but we aren’t doing them.

Hengchen Daia, Katherine L. Milkmana, and Jason Riisa at The Wharton School, The University of Pennsylvania, took a look at past research and did some of their own to learn about how dates, like January 1, can help us achieve our aspirations.  Their paper is titled:  Put Your Imperfections Behind You: Why and How Meaningful Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior.  Let’s see what we can learn from their work.

Getting a Fresh Start

Past research has shown that the “fresh start effect” when associated with particular dates, like January 1, can help motivate us to do those things we have been wanting to do.  Scientists call these Fresh Life“temporal landmarks” and they can be any special date.  When in school,  I always found a new semester to be a great temporal landmark where I could let the past go and get a fresh start with a clean slate and the motivation to improve my performance.  Besides that or January 1,  a temporal landmark could be a birthday, a wedding day, the day someone close to you died, a graduation, a first date, a divorce, a retirement or any number of other key dates for you.

We know intellectually that we can get outdoors more, lose weight, eat more healthy foods and so on, but typically we don’t.  The only thing preventing us from pursuing our aspirations is some sort of psychological barrier.  For some reason and to some extent these temporal landmarks help break though that psycological barrier.  In this study,  the researchers thought that if we could somehow make our particular landmark psychologically more meaningful,  it would better help us start and maintain the work needed to reach our aspirations.

“Across six studies, we show that more meaningful temporal landmarks magnify people’s intentions to improve themselves as well as people’s actual engagement in goal-directed activities to a greater degree than less meaningful temporal landmarks.”  — Daia et al.

Strengthening the Fresh Start Effect

The power of a fresh start associated with a particular date seems to be related to the psychological importance of that date to us personally.  The idea is that if we can increase the psychological importance of a date, we can use that power to further break down the psychological barriers that hold us back from our aspirations.

Hypothesis 1. More psychologically meaningful temporal landmarks (whether inherently meaningful or framed as meaningful) are more likely to motivate aspirational behaviors.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers came up with a questionnaire-based study with 103 participants.  They focused on starting a diet and found that the more meaningful a date,  the more likely participants believed they could start a diet then, even if the date wasn’t seen as having any particular effect upon the individual’s lifestyle.  These people didn’t actually start a diet, but the study provides a hint that the researchers are on the right track.

Larger study with 595 participants supported this by showing that the more meaningful a temporal landmark, the more likely people believed they would be motivated to pursue their particular aspiration.  Again,  this was about what people believed they would do rather than what they actually did.

Separating the Times of Your Life

This led them to two more hypotheses:

Hypothesis 2. More meaningful temporal landmarks induce a stronger dissociation between a person’s current self and her past imperfections.
Hypothesis 3. Psychological disassociation from past imperfections mediates the positive relationship between meaningful landmarks and a person’s motivation to pursue aspirational behaviors.

The idea here is that if you can separate your past cleanly from your future, your past will be less likely to hold you back.  An experiment to test this further involved 165 people that identified a goal and a plan to accomplish that goal.  These people were then asked what date they would like to be Graduatereminded about their goal.  Among the potential dates they were offered was “March 20 (The third Thursday in March)” for the control group and “March 20 (Thursday; The First Day of Spring).”  Far more people chose March 20 when they were reminded that it was the first day of spring – an apparently more meaningful date than just the third Thursday of March.  This and a modified follow-up experiment clearly showed that a particular date could be easily imbued with more meaning.

Two, more elaborate, studies found that people believed an individual would be more disassociated with his past self if the temporal landmark was more meaningful and more likely to pursue his goals as a result.  They also found that it doesn’t take much to make these landmarks more meaningful.

A Personal Story

Right around the time I retired from a 35-year career,  I was hospitalized for heart issues, had a heartpacemaker installed, started continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy and had time to recuperate and contemplate.  That all happened around January 1, 2008, making that date a strong temporal landmark for me.  It was a date when many aspects of my life changed giving me a strong opportunity for a fresh start and a temporal landmark that was about as meaningful as one could be.

That temporal landmark gave me the motivation to develop a business plan that led to EXPLORE! the eMagazine for Adventure and Exploration and ultimately to me writing this story.  That business plan required me to get out and explore more and as a consequence my health improved.  However,  if you don’t already have a landmark like this,  how do you use the research to help motivate yourself?

Applying the Research

You need to have your goals and a plan of action to achieve them in mind before you can begin applying this particular research.  These might be your New Year’s resolutions.  Once you know where you want to go, you can set about choosing the best time to get started.

ImplementThe research discussed here doesn’t prove much beyond how people believe the way meaningful temporal landmarks affect their possible behavior.  Lots of other studies have left no doubt that what you believe plays a big part in how you behave.  Thus,  it’s pretty likely that if you believe in the strength of a particular date, it can help motivate you to achieve your goals.

New Year’s Day has meaning to a lot of people and you can make it more meaningful to yourself and thus give it more strength as a starting date for the new you.  Start by listing all the things that make New Year’s or New Year’s eve meaningful to you.  Are there strong memories around New Year’s past?  Does just the idea of the year being new give you the sense of a new chapter in your history?  Whatever it is,  write down your list and contemplate it.  You will find that the day can become a key that will motivate you forward.

If New Years’ Day doesn’t do it for you, think about other dates that have strong meaning for you.  Dates that bring a sense of renewal, like the first day of spring, may be especially motivating to you.  Perhaps its the beginning of a new school year, or the end of one.  Maybe it’s the scheduled date of a new adventure that could become the first step in moving toward your goal.  It could be your birthday, your wedding day or the date you first met the love of your life.  Perhaps you are moving to a new job and the day you start is particularly important to you.  Whatever it is, think about why that day is important to you and start creating the new you when that day arrives.

If you have a temporal landmark that is special for you, please share something about it in the comments below.  Why is the date meaningful to you?  What is there about  the date that gives you a sense of an opportunity for renewal?  Have you had a motivational experience around a particular date that benefitted you?  Have you used techniques like this in the past to achieve your goals?

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