How to Make a Fresh Start (And Why It’s So Hard)

Everyone decides, some time or another, to make a fresh start. Maybe it’s time to move on from a toxic relationship. Maybe you want to break a bad habit. Maybe you need to address an addiction, improve your health or find a new job. Whatever your reason for starting over, you’re going to face some challenges. Making a fresh start isn’t always a smooth and easy process. But if you understand the reasons why it’s hard, you can overcome the obstacles more easily.

The most common problem with starting over is putting it off. Humans are hardwired to value symbols and significant moments. More diets and gym memberships begin at the start of each year than at any other time. From a practical point of view, January is a terrible time to make lifestyle changes. In half the world it’s cold and dark, and for many people, it’s a time when they’re exhausted and financially stretched. Yet there’s a collective belief that because the number of the year has changed, so should you. This thought process doesn’t only happen at New Year: people resolve to make changes next month or next week or tomorrow morning or when they get home.

In fact, fixing a future time when you’ll start to change is setting you up for failure. Either the time will arrive and you won’t be prepared (if you’re not ready to make massive changes to your lifestyle today, you’re unlikely to make them tomorrow morning) or you’ll put off changing until so far in the future that it might as well not happen at all. Forget the date or the time or the day of the week. Work out the changes you want to make, prepare for them as much as you reasonably can, and then do them. It doesn’t matter if it’s 11:17 am on Tuesday 23rd; if you’re ready, get on with it.

Being ready doesn’t mean you’ve got every eventuality covered. You need to think through the impacts and consequences of your fresh start. Will you need to talk to other people who will be affected or involved? Have you considered financial implications? Are there commitments that you’ll no longer be able to meet? But you can’t possibly plan for every outcome; if you try, you’ll spend your life preparing for changes that you never make. Think through the consequences, address the main foreseeable problems, and then get on with it.

Every moment of your life, including this one, is a fresh start. - Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber

At the other extreme, lack of planning causes many fresh starts to founder and fail almost immediately. If you’re at the supermarket and you decide then and there to go vegan, you’re likely to end up a week later throwing away ingredients you’ve no idea how to use. Tonight you might set your alarm an hour earlier so that you can get up and exercise, but having an hour less sleep for more than a few nights a week without making other changes too will leave you feeling tired and discouraged.

Remember that setbacks are not the same as failures. If you’ve thought ahead, changed your daily schedule, made sure that you have enough sleep, and started exercising first thing in the morning, you’ll feel great – until the day when you turn off the alarm and go straight back to sleep. The temptation at this point is to think, “Oh well, at least I tried. I guess I’m just not cut out for this lifestyle. I’ll go back to the way things used to be.” If your new start falters, that doesn’t mean it’s doomed. It means that it’s hard work. It means that you need to take it seriously and work at it. It means it’s going to take commitment. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

This example of starting an exercise routine sounds trivial, but it’s easy to think the same way about jobs or relationships. If you give up searching for a job that fulfills you and uses your talents as soon as things get hard, you’ll settle for spending most of your adult life feeling bored and frustrated. If you find a new romance, you’ll miss out on the chance of intimacy and a lasting relationship if you walk away as soon as things become difficult. Of course, knowing when to quit is an important skill, and nobody should keep trying to mend a relationship that’s one-sided or abusive, but mistaking a setback for a failure is why many fresh starts don’t last long.

I am 67, but I'm not too old to make a fresh start. - Thomas A. Edison

Finally, don’t make your fresh start in isolation. Part of planning the changes you’re going to make involves thinking about how other people will be affected. Why not use some of those other people for help and support? Instead of simply telling your family that you’ll be home late one night a week because you’re going to a language class, share what you’ve learned. You’re much more likely to stick to something if you regularly update others on your progress. Maybe you’re planning a surprise, and you want to unveil your fresh start once it’s happened. You should still tell someone; that way when you feel discouraged, you’ve got a person to give you support. Even if you live alone, and you think that the changes you’re making won’t affect anyone else, tell a friend or a colleague. Changes that nobody else knows about are much easier to abandon.

Moving on and making a fresh start is an important part of life. It helps you to reach your potential, to be fulfilled, and to develop healthy relationships. But lots of new starts fail due to lack of preparation, or because you’re trying to avoid everything that could possibly go wrong. Don’t make your life more difficult by setting an arbitrary date when you’ll start: be realistic about what you can prepare, then make changes as soon as you’re ready. Remember that setbacks aren’t failures, and that part of preparation is telling other people what you’re planning to do.

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