New year, new beginnings… right? Although the world doesn’t change immediately as the clock strikes twelve, the year does. So yes, the new year might truly mean a new beginning for some of us. New hopes, new aspirations and new resolutions. Starting a new year is like pressing the reset button. A fresh start. Which brings me to the question, why do we love fresh starts so much? And why do we use it as an influence for many of our behaviors?
Probably the most notable research that explores this question is a study done by Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis on what they called “the fresh start effect.” Briefly, they noted the significance of “temporal landmarks” (notable points in time like the new year) and its influence on us. Temporal landmarks can constitute anything, from the new year, to the start of the season, and even a new week. Research explains that these landmarks can be utilized by us for our goal-achieving endeavors. For example, you might plan to start a new project this year.
One of the main reasons why fresh starts are so appealing in our minds is because viewing a point in time as a landmark can serve as an act of distancing our current selves from our past imperfections.
In this illustration, because we are a different person than we were before the landmark (e.g. the year before), it feels as if we are given a chance to restart. The slate becomes clean, suitable for this brand new version of ourselves to flourish. It also might drive us to think in bigger pictures and visualize our future more.
That being said, the fresh start effect should not be relied upon completely. It’s hardly a guaranteed motivator for your goals, but merely a tool to help nudge you to take action. Dai, Milkman and Riis even question how long the fresh start effect will persist through time.
As an answer to that question, Marie Hennecke and Benjamin A. Converse’s study posited that even though temporal landmarks might “exert a strong influence on planning and commitment,” there is a possibility that—if we are not careful— many of our efforts at the beginning will fall through as time passes. You might say, if we take it at face value without considering our own actions, the fresh start seems fresh only at the start.
That’s not the end of it, though. If you’re like me, you might have an inkling that the circumstances caused by the pandemic might play a part in this. There is a high chance we might be right.
A discourse that has been in the air in this time of quarantine is time perception. To illustrate, you might notice that some of us think that the past year moved by too quickly; one blink and it’s December already. On the contrary, others might perceive it to be passing by at a dreadfully slow pace. Other than that, there’s also nothing stopping us to switch between those two perceptions.
This might explain how humanity’s experience of perceiving time varies from one person to another. Time is subjective, and it’s inseparable from our own experiences.
Time’s subjectivity is hardly a novel idea, especially in pop culture. Take Christopher Nolan’s filmography, for example. In both Inception and Interstellar, the dimension or astral plane a person is in dictates how fast or slow time moves for them. If two people from the same dimension become separated, one will move through time faster (or slower) than the other.
In these films, time is a separate, individual character. It’s its own entity, bending and shifting the characters as they move through the plot. It binds itself to them. Similarly, our individual perceptions of time might also influence our behavior. Especially now, as we are currently experiencing a collective change in perceiving time, we might start to think differently about certain things.
For example, quarantine time could interfere with our prospective thinking. The uncertainty humanity is facing might hinder us in planning for the future. This is essential to point out because, as written by Sharon Stirone in Vox, “we are a future-facing species.” Humans love the future because we think as futurists. Several of our cognitive functions—like storing knowledge and memories—work to guide our behaviors in the future. And with the pandemic, this nature of thinking about the future becomes disturbed.
Besides that, a recent study by Simon Grondin, Esteban Mendoza-Duran and Pier-Alexandre Rioux indicates that spending time in quarantine might make temporal cues unavailable. For most of us, a pandemic of this magnitude has never happened in our lifetime, so we don’t have any previous experience to fall back on as a reference. We don’t know what we should do because we’ve never been in this situation before.
Considering these explanations, what does this situation make of us? Are we ultimately just figures shaped by time, similar to Nolan’s characters in different dimensions?
The answer to that is: we don’t have to be. Maybe, this lesson on time might teach us the opposite.
Instead, maybe the way our sense of time is being messed up by the pandemic is a sign for us to take a beat. It’s teaching us to divert away from the traditional forms of fresh starts, and take things under our own control. Maybe it’s a sign to make our own fresh start. A temporal landmark might be any time you decide it to be. Tomorrow could be one, or even the next hour.
It’s true that humans and time are inseparable; we move through time, but we also have power in how we experience it. If time is subjective, then you’re on no one else’s clock but your own. If you have resolutions, go ahead and start. Or take your time. It’s yours anyway.