What’s the best time of year to set goals for self-improvement?
My answer: Right now.
January is a fresh start, an opportunity to leave our imperfect 2019 selves behind and begin anew with the hope that our 2020 selves will be better.
Hence the time-honored tradition of New Year’s resolutions, which most American adults report making.
For students, January is also often the beginning of a new marking period. It is at this equinox — midway between the first day of school and the last — when students have enough feedback to know what they need to improve and enough time to feel like effort might change their final grades.
The science of fresh starts is intuitive: Temporal landmarks like the New Year or a new semester spur us to set goals for improving our performance, no matter what it is we want to improve.
What may not be obvious is how fickle hope can be.
What happens when students return to school thinking that everything will be different now, that suddenly Snapchat will no longer lure them away from their homework, that by some miracle they’ll start tucking themselves into bed each night at a reasonable hour, and that in 2020, they’ll come early to every class when they need extra help?
Generally, what follows the intoxication of unrealistic expectations is the hangover of disappointment.
Scientists call this false hope syndrome.
We’ve all experienced it. We begin a new exercise routine convinced that we’ll soon be competing in triathlons. Then we miss a workout, and another, and suddenly we’re feeling more discouraged than when we began.
How do we keep hope aloft — in ourselves and in the young people we love?
Don’t set goals that are unreasonably high.
Do set bite-sized goals. For instance, if you resolve, like me, to exercise more in 2019, consider squeezing in just one more workout per week than your routine of yesteryear. If your son or daughter has resolved to kick their social media habit, gently ask whether going cold turkey is realistic. If not, suggest a more modest goal like staying off the phone during family dinners.
Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” When resolutions to improve are realistic, hope “never stops — at all.”
Angela Duckworth is cofounder and CEO of Character Lab and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. You can sign up to receive her Tip of the Week — actionable advice about the science of character — at characterlab.org.