Have you ever wondered why so many of us make New Year’s resolutions? I mean, there are 365-ish days per year and any one of them is just as good as another for making a meaningful life change. So why are Google searches for the word “diet” 82% higher on January 1 than on a typical day? Dan Pink, in his recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing reveals the answer: temporal landmarks. We love them. And it turns out they’re really helpful, too. Just as you might use an actual landmark to help you remember how to get from one place to another, temporal landmarks, or landmarks in time, help us remember those major changes we hoped to make.
And January 1 isn’t the only temporal landmark on offer. A recent study of college students found gym attendance increased during all sorts of times: the start of a new semester (47% increase), the start of a new month (14%), and the start of a new week (33%).
So what are the best temporal landmarks? Beginnings. It seems that we’ve become accustomed to marking all sorts of beginnings in our lives. With that in mind, here are 3 ways that we can leverage this effect with our students.
Wait until the next “beginning” to make a change
Do you need to launch a new project or unit of study? Adjust classroom norms? Change the seating chart? It might be better to wait until a Monday, or a new month, or a new term. All of these beginnings are natural temporal landmarks and you might find your students more malleable and adaptable on these days than others. For individual students, their birthdays are great times to ask them to change their habits.
Create a new beginning arbitrarily
Is a project, long-term assignment, or multi-day lab going off the rails? Try creating a new beginning with your students. “Okay class, I know this hasn’t been going well. Tomorrow, we start phase 2 of this project! Let’s forget about phase 1 and get after phase 2 to the best of our abilities.” You might find this allows students to release some of the pressure and continue with a fresh mindset.
Try a “premortem”
We’ve all heard about the postmortem, when we look back at something that’s gone wrong and try to learn from it. The premortem asks us to anticipate what could go wrong. By imagining our mistakes in advance, we can make adjustments or plan out what we’ll do if things don’t go well. WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) is a nice framework to use with students for this kind of thing.
Here’s a bonus idea aimed at policymakers:
Push back the start of the school day for older students
A study of teenage students found that, when controlling for other factors, students that start school earlier tend to be at higher risk for obesity, depression, low academic achievement, smoking, and drug use. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both recommend starting the school day no earlier than 8:30 am for older students.
Leveraging the power of new beginnings is as low-cost, high-impact an intervention as you’ll find. The beginning of the school year is a great time to implement this way of thinking. But don’t worry, if you’re having a hard time adjusting your mind to think in this way, you can always begin again tomorrow morning.