The Fresh Start Effect: Why Goal Setting Fails

Rohit Chitkara
Jan 26 2024 | Einblicke
Two women sat at a table, working together on some documents.

With the best intentions of the “New Year New Me” motif slowly fading away, there’s no better time than right now to pause, take a quick stock check and reinvigorate yourself with some of that energy you gained from that Fresh Start a new year brings.

What’s the fresh start effect?

An arbitrarily but well-defined time in the calendar comes around and we’re naturally imbued with an urge to complete that task you’ve been putting off or set off to become the best version of ourselves. It could be the start of a new month, a birthday, moving house, or most commonly, the start of the new year.

And how’s that going?

Pursuing a fresh start usually involves some sort of goal setting. The oft-maligned new year’s resolution is seemingly on the decline (according to Google Trends) but with today’s prevalence of “Hustle Culture”, goal setting is trendier than ever. There are a plethora of techniques out there that promise to radicalise the way you set goals and ultimately your ability to achieve them. Some even come with metaphysical powers that only a punchy acronym can imbue – from ‘SMART’, to ‘WOOP’, ‘HARD’ and ‘OKRs’.

And look, they all have their merits and pit falls. They all work for some and not for others. But is there a gold standard – one technique to rule them all? Probably not.

It’s one thing to have a considered approach to setting goals, it’s an entirely different thing to sustain the motivation to turn those goals into a reality.

And this is true for both the individual and organisations.

What can go wrong?

Literature highlights just some of the reasons why goal setting fails:

Setting too many ‘priority’ goals

If you’re inundated with objectives and goals, both organisational and personal, that are all a priority, the mostly likely outcome is stagnation, or a feeling of failure as you fail to achieve everything you set out to achieve.

Goals are too specific or rigid

Some of the more popular goal-setting frameworks out there emphasize the importance of specificity. But this can narrow focus and blind people to really important issues that at first glance feel unrelated to their goal.

It’s also important to allow your goals to be flexible. If goals can’t flex or be dropped in response to a changing environment, people’s risk appetite increases as they become desperate to achieve them in these difficult circumstances.

Goals that don’t invoke passion

Too often our incentives don’t match the goal. When it comes to people’s careers, people tend to get more satisfaction chasing goals and experiences that link to their purpose and internal values, rather than external factors.

The fresh start effect may be a useful catalyst for many of us, but its rarely sufficient to motivate us through to completion of the goal.

Goals with an inappropriate timeline

Goals that emphasize immediate performance will always result in short-term behaviour that harms both the individual and eventually the organisation in the long run. This intuitively makes sense, yet it is surprising how many organisations stay rooted to this practice.

Short timelines can promote a “Race & Rest” culture where individuals expend so much physical and emotional energy in achieving these goals over a short period of time. This cycling between high and low energy and emotional states is draining and is of course, a prime path to burn out.

So, what can we do?

Wondering how to stop your goals from failing? Here’s some tips to help you and your organisation create growth and continue the momentum you had at the beginning of the new year.

  • Firstly, revisit the goals you set in January year. Do any of them fall into the traps outlined above? Don’t be afraid to cull them and enjoy the feeling of relief and refocus once you have.

  • Secondly, think about how you can modify the ones that are left – to be more flexible, to be more motivating and ultimately, more achievable.

  • Thirdly, how do you keep yourself or your people motivated throughout the year? Think about long-term investment in you or your people – like with training or professional coaching. Personal development creates a sense of progress and continual achievement which can help tap into that sustained motivation.

This allows an organisation to assess and enhance capabilities and effectively nudge people into action. Coaching in particular is effective because of its personalised nature and ability to hold individuals accountable in a supportive manner. It is a proactive approach that encourages a dynamic and evolving mindset, emphasizing that personal and professional growth is a journey that extends beyond momentary bursts of inspiration.

By being more judicious with the volume and how often we set goals, paying deeper consideration to negative consequences, and reframing them to be tied to personal development, we can positively change our relationship with both setting and achieving goals.

Find out how EZRA’s Focus Moments can help.

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