Reset: Is making a "fresh start" always the best option?

Apr 19, 2022

6 mins

Reset: Is making a "fresh start" always the best option?

Changing your life isn’t exactly as easy as changing your clothes. And yet, when you think about going abroad, moving home, or switching careers, it may seem like a great way to alter your future – for the better. Making a “fresh start” is a seductive proposition. Anything seems possible. But what does it really mean? Why do we idealize fresh starts? And can you really start from scratch? To help you find the answers, we take a fresh look.

Do big changes mean new habits?

Why are people so fond of the idea of making a fresh start? It’s amazing how we believe that one big change will lead to so many others. It’s easy to believe that if you get a new job you won’t feel overwhelmed anymore. You’ll leave work at a reasonable hour and have more time to spend with your loved ones or to work out. So the question is: are we incapable of changing unless it is part of a bigger, more dramatic transformation?

Perhaps it’s just more efficient to make a lot of changes at once? When starting out with a clean slate, it is easier to create new habits. When you start something new, you find it easier to adjust different elements in your life. Maybe a new life in the countryside will mean more time to play sports? Does a new job mean a new schedule? Since everything is being reshuffled already, you might as well go all in. Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has shown that certain anniversaries, or the start of a new year, for example, have a symbolic and psychological effect that makes it easier to create new habits. It’s called the “fresh start” effect.

“When you start something new, you find it easier to adjust different elements in your life.”

A major change, such as moving somewhere new or changing careers, can have the same kind of symbolic effect. Since it feels like you’re starting a whole new life, you might as well change a bunch of other small elements at the same time: tidy up the house, go back to the gym, take more time for yourself, and make new friends. “Fresh starts” are moments when you’re highly motivated and it seems easier to set things in motion. That first change gets you going – and then the rest follow naturally. That kick-start makes it easier to take action.

Running from something? Maybe a fresh start isn’t a good idea

Many people long to hit the reset button. It’s only human to yearn for the opportunity to start over. We hope to delete our mistakes, move on with our lives and start out afresh without the baggage of the past. But the question remains: Why are we so keen to start over? Is it simply an attempt to run away from your issues?

If escaping your problems is your goal, then starting over may not be such a good idea. If you haven’t taken the time to understand what isn’t working for you, your past will catch up with you. It’s tempting to switch companies when your relationships are strained or if you feel overwhelmed, for example. But if you don’t explore the reasons why things aren’t working, those problems are likely to keep cropping up. Moving to the other side of the world probably won’t help you overcome burnout if you haven’t figured out what caused it in the first place. Are you suffering because of a toxic manager or corporate culture? Or do you have trouble saying no? Maybe your work schedule is the problem? Even if you think that you simply want to hit the refresh button on your life, be aware that no one makes decisions in a vacuum. It’s worth thinking about what is driving your intention, both the good and the bad reasons, so that you can avoid making mistakes.

“If you don’t explore the reasons why things aren’t working, those problems are likely to keep cropping up.”

Ask yourself a few questions before making changes

Do you want to make a change, but you are wary of getting started? Maybe you’re not sure how serious your feelings about this are? It’s totally normal to wonder if starting afresh is a good idea. Major life changes need preparation and deep reflection, and that takes time. Whether your natural tendency is to be impulsive or cautious, you could benefit from giving this some deep consideration.

Here are a few points to explore before jumping into the great unknown.

Ask yourself why you are craving something new

If you want to be sure that your motivation to make this change comes from a deep desire for something new, and that it isn’t just a way of avoiding or running from something, you should ask yourself this question: what were the catalysts that led to wanting to make these changes? It could be that since you got a new manager, you have felt like switching jobs. Or perhaps a personal reason has shifted your priorities, such as wanting to start a family or taking on a home improvement project. What exactly happened to make you want to change things?

Make a list of everything you don’t want anymore

What things aren’t working for you anymore? What’s making you want to turn the page? Is it your relationships? Some bad habits you’d like to give up? Some might say “all that work stress,” or even “living in an apartment that’s too small,” “not having enough time with my kids,” or “feeling at odds with my own values.” And if you were to change your life and make a fresh start, would the concerns on your list go away?

Consider what needs this project satisfies

When you want to make a change, it’s obviously supposed to be for the better. You know what you don’t want anymore, but what needs are being satisfied by this fresh start? What are your goals? To work from home so you can live in the countryside and be able to breathe fresh air? To get some time away? Do you need a more stimulating professional project? A more tech-centric work environment? A more flexible schedule? A fresh start might be the chance to get rid of the negatives and to bring in more positives. You just need to make sure that your goals match with your new project.

Set specific goals

What exactly are you expecting from this life change, both in the short and the long term? What will give you that satisfaction in the end? Summarizing what you truly want deep down in a sentence or two might help you not to overshoot your goal and to figure out if your project is realistic and achievable.

Identify any unhelpful reasons

As mentioned before, it’s not always obvious why you want a fresh start. So it’s worth looking at all the influences that might be affecting your decision. Your loved ones and your emotions can work their way into your thoughts and create confusion. Consider who in your closest circles might benefit from – or be negatively impacted by – this change. You should also take the time to think about any fears that might be pushing you to run from things or might be keeping you from acting on your desires. What do these fears tell you?

Sometimes all it takes is a little shake-up

Maybe you have thought about it carefully, but you doubt that making a big change will help you. Are you simply frightened of taking such a big risk? That’s understandable. The good news is that making a fresh start isn’t the only way to advance your career and move forward in life. There’s a tendency to think that it takes a complete upheaval to change things. However, taking small steps requires less commitment and can still help you get on track. Switching careers and moving abroad are not the only ways to work on your personal and professional development. You can also change jobs, ask for a promotion within your company, work for a different company, try to find a fully-remote job or take a sabbatical year.

There are hundreds of ways to change your life without tossing everything aside and starting all over again. Sometimes making small, gradual changes can be more helpful than going for a big upheaval. This is the idea behind the Kaizen method: it champions the idea of achieving continuous improvement by taking smaller steps, rather than making big, dramatic changes. This may also be the secret to learning how to make little adjustments to your daily life so that you can avoid arriving at a point when a complete change feels like the only solution.

“The Kaizen method: it champions the idea of achieving continuous improvement by taking smaller steps, rather than making big, dramatic changes.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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