A common theme in my social circle, and I’m guessing in yours too, has been getting to 2021 and putting one of the hardest years in generations behind us. No doubt, 2020 was an extraordinarily challenging and unrelenting year. I recently heard someone say that it was like arriving at a busy street, waiting for hours as you constantly look both ways, finally seeing the traffic clear up, cautiously crossing, then getting hit by an airplane.
Now it’s 2021, and unless you were one of the first few people to get a COVID-19 vaccine, your life probably hasn’t changed all that much from a few days ago. After all, time is just a concept. That said, when it comes to concepts, time is a powerful one. Consider a 2013 study published in the journal Management Science. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed a variety of lifestyle metrics, including gym visits, Google searches related to positive changes (for example, terms like “diet” and “health”), and other commitments to pursue goals. They found that all increased after “temporal landmarks,” like the beginning of a new year, quarter, month, or even week.
These temporal landmarks, the researchers wrote, “act as the start of new mental accounting periods which help us to relegate past imperfections to a previous period and to take a big picture view of our lives, thus motivating aspirational behavior.” They coined this phenomenon the fresh start effect.
Thinking of 2021 as a fresh start is great if you get a much-needed mood or motivational boost out of the deal. But it’s not so great if you think a new year is going to magically resolve your problems, let alone the world’s. COVID-19 is still raging on—worse than ever in the United States. Just because a demagogue leaves office doesn’t mean the political fractures he left in his wake will instantly heal. Social injustice has a long history—a history that will take more than the flipping of a calendar to undo.
I’ve written about the psychological science showing that happiness is a function of reality minus expectations. In short: regardless of the year, it’s best to ground your expectations in reality, lest you be perpetually underwhelmed and disappointed.
And yet, we do have effective vaccines for COVID-19. The demagogue was voted out of office. More people are waking up to racism. These are unambiguously good things! Collectively, they help make the beginning of 2021 feel like even more of a fresh start than your average new year.
To capitalize on the fresh start energy as we head into 2021, it’s worth reflecting on some of the positive practices we developed last year that we can carry into the future. For an article in Vox, writer Sigal Samuel cited eight such habits that her readers said they want to hang onto in the new year:
Buying less stuff.
Slowing down and putting less pressure on ourselves.
Prioritizing family and friends.
More ethical action and consumption.
Baking and gardening regularly,
Spending more time in nature.
Working from home, if possible.
By no means is Samuel, nor am I, suggesting that 2020 was a “good” year. But why not salvage what good we can while leaving the bad behind? For example, what bad habits did you break during these challenging times? What good habits did you begin? How has your outlook on priorities in life shifted? How can you create structures in your own world to support these changes, even as the bigger world around you slowly returns to something resembling normal?
While reflecting on Samuel’s eight lessons, I couldn’t help but think the resounding theme captures what meditation teacher and writer Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are, calls voluntary simplicity: “Going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.”
Kabat-Zinn is a realist, though, and acknowledges that most people face constraints to living this way. Having rent to pay and kids to feed is real, not a switch you can turn off. “You don’t get to control it all,” he writes. “But choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of the deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.”
The year 2020 brought about remarkable involuntary simplicity. For those of us who have the luxury, it is on us to make the good parts voluntary. The fresh start effect is only as powerful as what you do with it—and, more importantly, how you sustain the changes you make.