Fresh starts often come with stale ends

A fresh start in Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images
A fresh start in Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images
One month ago, I packed my life up in Oxford and drove seven hours up to Edinburgh, Scotland.

Well, I didn’t actually drive — my best friend and her boyfriend did, while I sat safely ensconced in the back seat, squished between numerous bags, parcels and boxes of books.

I was feverish with the first flush of tonsillitis and the journey felt like a dream.

But as hot, flustered and ill as I was, reaching Edinburgh felt like a tonic to me.

As our little car wound its way through the dark cobblestoned streets of the Old Town, I felt something of my old joie de vivre return to me.

You see, I had for some time felt depressed and stagnant in Oxford. I felt stuck in the same routines, the same bad habits, the same self-loathing.

I had lost my love for writing, creating and painting. I was going nowhere, and for a particularly bad patch midyear, I was struggling to keep myself alive.

It took hitting rock-bottom to force myself to make a drastic change. I quit my job, packed up my little life in duct-taped cardboard boxes and bade farewell to my friends.

I was moving back to Scotland, back to the country where I always felt at peace.

There’s nothing like a fresh start to make oneself feel more motivated, inspired and optimistic about life. It’s a promise from one’s future self, a reassurance that things will get better, that the woes of the present will dissolve in time, like chalk wiped clean off the proverbial slate.

The first day of a new week; the start of a new season; January 1, are all opportunities to start afresh.

There’s something called the "fresh-start phenomenon" wherein people are more likely to strive towards a goal after temporal landmarks or big life changes that represent new beginnings.

There are certain red letter days — one’s birthday, or the new year — that cause people to reminisce on the past year, and reflect on their lives in a big-picture, holistic way.

Consequently, they are more likely to turn to the future and set goals for better behaviour, feeling that they have left their mistakes in the past.

The fresh-start phenomenon doesn’t always follow a certain date; sometimes it occurs in anticipation of a new beginning.

Researchers have actually shown that people approaching a new decade in age (eg 29, 39, 49) are much more likely to reflect on the meaning of their lives and their goals for the future.

Having just turned 29, I can attest to a fresh sense of urgency and desire to improve myself and get my life sorted before I turn the big 3-0.

The fresh-start phenomenon might be explained by self-regulation theory, which states that people generally have limited willpower and self-control. Setting clear, specific and achievable goals therefore can motivate people and help them overcome procrastination.

Fresh starts are also beloved because they enable us to divorce our current selves from our past selves.

To quote social psychologists Johanna Peetz and Anne E. Wilson: "Individuals can selectively and spontaneously highlight temporal landmarks to regulate connections between temporal selves, typically to create distance with an undesirable version of themselves".

Like a school child desperately endeavouring to keep up his neat cursive script in the first pages of a fresh textbook, the fresh-start phenomenon encourages us to stay on track in order to avoid disrupting and undoing our good progress.

There are downsides to the fresh-start phenomenon, however.

For me, I experience something I like to call the "Last Supper" effect.

Essentially, the night before starting a new diet or health kick, I find myself over-indulging in food and drink, guzzling down a whole carton of ice cream or polishing off a few bottles of wine because it’s my last chance to do so.

It’s shameful and abhorrent behaviour, and invariably when the diet fails or I forget to take my vitamins, the vicious cycle begins again.

The fresh-start effect is often accompanied by an "all-or-nothing" mentality which can be damaging when the desired goal or behavioural changes are too large, sudden and unrealistic.

It is far better to implement small and incremental changes — to break down large goals into smaller, bite-sized tasks.

I used to draw myself up an exhausting list of new habits I wanted to form — in one fell swoop, I believed I could stop binge-drinking, biting my nails, pulling my hair out, falling asleep with my makeup on and mindlessly scrolling on social media for hours at a time.

I believed I could wake up one morning and have the motivation, the time, the energy to write a chapter of a novel each day, while also finding the time to go for a run, read for an hour and cook healthy meals.

Needless to say, I couldn’t.

The disappointment was profound and repetitive with each failed "fresh start".

These days, I know the importance of setting specific and realistic goals alongside a proper plan of action. I have set myself a reasonable writing timetable, and I am kinder to myself when I encounter setbacks. One failed day does not undo the progress I have made thus far. I know to keep track of my improvement, and I celebrate the small, cumulative achievements.

I can’t say for sure what the future will bring, but I’m hopeful for the first time in many years. I want to be a writer, a novelist, a woman respected for her craft. I have a little desk to write at in a room of my own. I have set up my new bedroom so that my bed is surrounded by shelves packed with books and trinkets from friends and loved ones.

I have stopped binge drinking. I have started eating breakfast each morning. I have even begun classes at a gym nearby.

I feel fresh, new and ready to tackle the future. Bring it on.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, has finished her studies at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.