When Working Toward Goals, We’re Drawn to ‘Firsts’

Why do we set New Year’s resolutions and not, say, Feb. 17 resolutions? It’s because we like to start working toward goals on days that represent “firsts” in the calendar—the first of the year, the first of the month, the first day of the week.

Thinking about the progression of time in this compartmentalized way is more attractive to us than deciding we’ll start working toward the goal as soon as possible, even right this instant, researchers have found.

The researchers, Benjamin A. Converse of the University of Virginia and Marie Hennecke of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, studied a group of people who wanted to start dieting. They conducted the study on Friday, July 31, the last day of the month. They asked some of the subjects to think about beginning their diet Saturday, not pointing out that Saturday was Aug. 1. They asked the other group to think about starting their diets Aug. 1. Both groups were asked to write down outcomes of dieting and obstacles to dieting.

FirstsThe subjects who were asked to think about starting their diets on Saturday wrote down three constraints—such as “I’m busy tomorrow” or “I have a lot of junk food at home right now and I don’t want it to go to waste” —for every two positive outcomes they wrote down. In other words, the obstacles they saw to dieting outnumbered the positive effects of eating healthy.

Those who thought about starting their diets on Aug. 1—the exact same day the other group was asked about—were much more positive about their goals. They wrote down only 1.2 constraints for every two positive outcomes. Thinking about starting to eat better in tandem with a fresh, new month made this group approach with a more positive mindset. It made them feel the goal was more attainable.

People are almost always more optimistic about the future, but these ‘firsts’ seem to amplify that effect,” Converse said to Rewire. “When you think about eating healthy this week or this month, it’s easier to recognize the challenges. You recognize that you’ll have to get to the grocery store and you’ll have to make time to cook. But when you think about eating healthy next week or next month, those challenges don’t come to mind so easily. The result is a much rosier picture of your likelihood of getting started on a new goal.”

That happened in another experiment, when the researchers asked two groups to look at calendars and pick what day they’d like to start eating healthy. One group was given a six-day calendar labeled only with the days of the week, Thursday through Tuesday. The other group was given a calendar labeled only with dates, Feb. 27 through March 4.

Those in the days-of-the-week group overwhelmingly chose Monday to start. Those in the calendar dates group chose March 1.

FirstsWaiting to get started on a goal as important as healthy eating might seem incredibly silly, but the researchers found that humans are willing to take it even a step further. They studied the behavior of a group of people who were signing up to begin a dieting program and found that most people would rather waste a week of valuable diet coaching and start the program on Sept. 1 than start right away on Aug. 25 when asked about these specific dates.

What does this mean for goal-setting? On one hand, you might decide to start working toward a goal on the first of the month or the year or the first day of the week—we just learned that it’s human nature to be more excited about achieving a goal that way.

But you could also choose to resist the urge to push your goal off into the future, even if the future is just a few days or a week away.

Make commitments,” Converse said. “Take the optimism you have about starting a new goal next week or next month and commit to it now. If you want to start exercising more, make a plan with a friend who wants to do the same. Get a shared calendar and plot out your days. Make a bet about what happens to whoever misses a workout.

“The thing to remember is that ‘firsts’ lead us to neglect the constraints. But when that day comes, the constraints will still be there. So you have to use the optimism, but plan for the constraints.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.