Originally published in Forbes by Aline Holzwarth
Feeling glum as you trudge through the COVID-19 quarantine haze? That’s okay. You’ve probably fallen into a funk like everyone else, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you had any sort of exercise or healthy diet routine before the pandemic, it has likely fizzled out by now, disrupted by the stay-at-home orders and general sense of doom. Speaking only for myself, certain allowances have been made in recent weeks (let’s just say that Swiss chocolate and shortbread are involved) — allowances that would normally be entirely off-limits or saved for very special occasions.
You know that you could start exercising again, getting back into good habits. You could eliminate lunch dessert. But what’s going to make you? Now that my gym is closed and my running club is indefinitely paused, who will force me to exercise? You (and I) might need what researchers call a fresh start: wipe the slate clean and start over as the new and improved you.
You might need a fresh start
If you feel ready, here’s permission for your very own fresh start. The “fresh start effect” has been studied by researchers observing that new beginnings can provide a much-needed boost in motivation. The trick to achieving this new beginning is to mentally distance your past from your future self. Think of the “new quarantine you” as separate and superior to the “old quarantine you.” While the early-pandemic-you was allowed to eat all the chocolate, the fresh-start-you is beyond that. Accept that the global pandemic threw everything off track, but leave the past behind you to move forward.
Three simple steps will help you leave your quarantine slump behind and kickstart your quarantine comeback: Precommit now to act later, pick a specific new beginning, and forgive your slips.
1. Precommit now, and act later (but not too much later)
Starting over right now likely feels insurmountable, with all the work right in front of you, but the same effort pushed to the future feels not just possible but probable. Because everything is easier in the future, one way of helping ourselves stick to our future goals is to commit to them in advance. By precommitting, you can add just the slightest delay and make it that much easier to start over. Say, for example, the new me is going to start doing online workouts three days a week.
2. Pick a specific beginning
Research on the fresh start effect by Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis shows that temporal landmarks are a signature component of successful fresh starts; by choosing a specific start date, landmark or trigger to commit to, you can use your brain’s tendency to account for time differently depending on how it categorizes that time. Picking a meaningful landmark that inherently signifies a new beginning will stack the odds in your favor toward reaching your goal. We tend to naturally gravitate toward meaningful start days; behavioral science research shows that we are more likely to commit to our goals when the day of commitment falls on the start of a new week (by 63%), month (24%), year (145%) and after a holiday (55%). Just think of the commitments you make each January 1st in the form of New Year’s resolutions!
There are other naturally occurring temporal landmarks beyond the first of the week, month or year: the start of spring, the end of a vacation, the start of a new job or school year, and even a change of scenery (such as a move to a new apartment). Given that there won’t be a single moment when the world opens its post-pandemic doors and resumes to normalcy — and since the perfect moment generally never comes — you can use what behavioral science has shown about fresh starts to create your own. Here are some ideas to help you pick a specific beginning for the new you:
How much time has elapsed since you began sheltering in place? (You could forgive yourself for 6 weeks of slump, but get back on track on Day 1 of Week 7)
What’s the next holiday? Pick one that feels achievable to mark your fresh start. Cinco de Mayo (May 5), Mother’s Day (May 10), Memorial Day (May 25)
Is your birthday coming up? Someone else’s birthday?
How about next Monday, or May 1st?
Following with our example, you could decide to start your three online workouts a week starting on Cinco de Mayo. Take it a step further and set your inaugural workout to the sounds of the Mexican Hat Dance.
3. Forgive your slips
Finally, be forgiving of the “new you.” Even this improved version of yourself will not be perfect. It’s simply not realistic that you’ll turn a new leaf with 100% success. So consider using “emergency reserves,” or slack with a psychological cost, to prevent a small lapse from turning into a big one. (Here’s a how-to guide for aiming high but forgiving your slips.) For your online workouts, for example, aim for those three days a week but give yourself a pass if you only accomplish two.
You are in charge of your quarantine fresh start
Things naturally got shaken up when lockdown began and you moved inside. Now is your chance to shake them up intentionally, with you in the driver’s seat. Using these three science-based strategies, you can design your quarantine fresh start: pre-commit now, pick a specific start, and forgive your slips. With these three steps, you can plan your diet and fitness rebirth with intentionality and self-compassion.