Want to Achieve Your Goals? Start By Wiping the Slate Clean

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Aug 17, 2015

At one time or another, most of us have struggled to complete a task we know we should.

We often fall short of our goals, not because they’re unattainable, but because we failed to exert the effort required.

Katherine Milkman is determined to help us do better next time.

The Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School researched what she calls the “fresh-start effect” – the energy and determination we feel when we’re able to wipe the slate clean. The same momentum that drives us to join the gym in January can be harnessed to help us focus on the pursuit of our goals at other times throughout the year.

In these moments when we can begin anew, we have a natural motivation to work harder. An ordinary Monday takes on a new identity when it’s framed as an opportunity to correct the shortfalls of the previous week.

Powerful leadership implications

Understanding what drags employees down, and what can lift them back up with renewed vigor, has the potential to create a more committed and engaged workforce.

Workers often feel conflicted when choosing between “wants” and “shoulds,” and these conflicts are ever present – catching up with colleagues around the water cooler versus focusing our efforts on meeting deadlines.

When leaders wonder why employees aren’t succeeding and accomplishing more, one option is that they lack ability. But another very real possibility is that they may just struggle with self-control.

The impact of a fresh start

People tend to make resolutions and pursue their goals with enhanced vigor at the start of every new year. But the same result can be achieved at the start of any cycle — the beginning of a new week, the start of a new month, or after a holiday.

In these fresh-start moments, employees feel more distant from their past failures.

The fresh-start effect hinges on the idea that we don’t feel as perfect about our past as we’d like. We’re always striving to be better. And when we can wipe out those failures and look at a clean slate, it makes us feel more capable, drives us forward, and we redouble our efforts to achieve our goals.

For leaders, the best time to encourage your staff to take new steps toward their goals—and to provide the tools they need to achieve them — will be these fresh-start moments, because that’s when employees have a natural inclination to put in the extra effort.

However, you’re not done after finding one fresh-start moment to motivate your troops. You need to understand that motivation tapers off, and you must keep motivating people and keep looking for opportunities to give them the sense of empowerment they need to succeed.

Don’t manipulate – help employees stay the course

One of the nice things about motivation and goals is that, most of the time, what you’re trying to encourage employees to do is aligned with what they already want to do, so it doesn’t engender a sense of coercion.

Remember: You’re on target as long as you’re using these strategies to encourage behaviors people want to engage in, but are struggling to follow through on.

That’s when fresh starts work — when people really want to accomplish things but they need that extra motivation to keep going.