You and a friend are taking part in a survey to learn more about how to effectively tackle your goals.
You’re both given the opportunity to receive reminder emails in late March that will describe your goal, your plan for accomplishing it and a motivating message you can customize.
The researcher offers you and your friend a list of days in the coming month and asks you both to choose when you want to be reminded of your goals.
The days range from March 18, 2014, to March 24, 2014, with the day of the week indicated in parentheses following the date.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
The researcher, unbeknownst to either of you or your friend, frames the days in two different ways.
In your friend’s description, March 20, 2014, is framed as “March 20, 2014 (Thursday; The Third Thursday in March 2014).”
Your description, on the other hand, reads: “March 20, 2014 (Thursday; The First Day of Spring 2014).”
An insignificant manipulation, right?
This experiment actually took place, only it didn’t involve you and a friend (obviously)—it involved 165 participants.
The results were remarkable.
When Katherine Milkman and her coauthors relabeled March 2o, 2014 as the first day of spring, signups in the new-beginning-landmark condition group (the non-control group) increased by 354%. 
Put another way, days that stood out and demarcated the passage of time (“The First Day of Spring 2014”) spurred goal initiation more than ordinary days (“The Third Thursday in March 2014”).
We’re more likely to take action towards our goals after days that mark the start of a new time period and represent new beginnings.
This, according to Milkman, is known as the “fresh start effect”.
But what is the fresh start effect? And more important, how can we leverage it to enhance our motivation in the long-term and attain our goals?
To answer that question, we first need to look at…
Temporal Landmarks: The Power of Transition Points
According to American computer scientist Harry Shum, “Temporal landmarks are days that stand in marked contrast to the seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences.” 
Simply put, temporal landmarks are days that stand out as being more meaningful than other days and generate a “fresh start” feeling that motivate us to achieve our goals.
These might be personally-relevant life events (e.g. birthdays) or time dividers on the calendar (e.g. the start of a new week) that stand out from other ordinary days and demarcate the passage of time.
When it comes to attaining meaningful goals, temporal landmarks are particularly effective because they make us feel more distant from our past failures.
Think about it:
Every day, we face a choice between immediate gratification (watching TV, overspending, surfing online) and delayed gratification (exercising, losing weight, meeting an important deadline).
We know, from multiple studies, that we tend to favor the former over the latter—even when we have aspirations to achieve more. And why not? After all, it is the easier path to forge, right?
Problems arise, though, when we respond unfavorably to our past behaviors. If for instance, you waste your day off—say, watching TV instead of working on an important memo—you may be inclined to punish yourself for choosing the easier thing over the right thing.
Do it often enough…
…and you risk falling into a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity (read: cognitive distortions).
This is why temporal landmarks are so effective:
They provide us with an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and improve ourselves in the future.
As Milkman writes:
How to Boost Your Commitment to Your Goals
While there are multiple ways to get motivated after experiencing an obstacle, the following are three ways to get back on track by leveraging the fresh start effect:
- Be strategic about when to start changing your behavior. While it’s easy to believe temporal landmarks need to be significant in order to inspire change (like New Year’s Day), it’s simply not the case. In fact, Milkman and her colleagues found that we are more likely to follow through on our goals if we begin working on our commitments on a Monday rather than a Thursday. When choosing a day to trigger the fresh start effect, think carefully about what that day means to you. The beginning of the month, for instance, may carry a greater significance that the beginning of the week.
- If you drift off target, focus on a new “fresh start” date. While important, motivation carries with it a minor problem: it’s unreliable. It ebbs and flows, and often fails us without a moment’s notice. With that in mind, it’s important to be attentive to future fresh start opportunities. A Monday. A birthday. Anything you can frame as a new beginning. If you fall off the wagon, draw a line under it by choosing a new fresh start date and committing to it.
- Connect with your future self. As mentioned above, we tend to favor immediate gratification over delayed gratification because of a disconnect between our present self and future self. But what if we could bridge the gap? In one 2013 study, participants who were shown images of their future self (through a computer-generated image), were likely direct more money into a retirement account than those who didn’t. Bottom line: with every decision you make in the present, consider how it will affect your future self. 
We all experience setbacks at one time or another.
But as you’ve seen, by reframing certain days as temporal landmarks and creating fresh starts, we can trigger that familiar feeling or motivation and move closer toward your goals once again.
How do you get back on track after experiencing a setback? Leave a comment below.
 Dai, Hengchen and Milkman, Katherine L. and Riis, Jason, Put Your Imperfections Behind You: Temporal Landmarks Spur Goal Initiation When They Signal New Beginnings (Aug 15, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2420476 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2420476
 Shum, M. S. (1998). The role of temporal landmarks in autobiographical memory processes. Psychological Bulletin, 124(3), 423-442. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9849113
 Hershfield, H. E., Goldstein, D. G., Sharpe, W. F., Fox, J., Yeykelis, L., Carstensen, L. L., & Bailenson, J. N. (2011). Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self. JMR, Journal of Marketing Research, 48, S23–S37. http://doi.org/10.1509/jmkr.48.SPL.S23
Katherine Milkman also coined the term, “temptation bundling”: the idea of bundling activities we “should” do (e.g. exercising) with activities we have a strong desire to do (e.g. listening to audiobooks). To learn more about temptation bundling, read James Clear’s thorough article on the subject.