Why the day after Labour Day is the perfect time to start a new work habit

A clean break in the calendar helps us stick to our goals, say Wharton researchers

Illustration of a man getting off the couch and starting to jog across a calendar starting September 1

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

If you’re thinking of tackling a new goal—like running 5K into the office every day—you may consider starting after a birthday or Labour Day, or even on a regular Monday to ensure you follow through. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found such “intertemporal markers” help motivate us in two ways: offering an opportunity to separate ourselves from past “misbehaviour” and disrupting our attention from day-to-day details to focus on the big picture.

Researchers performed three studies. The first looked at Google search volumes for terms like “diet” and found that people were more likely to Google it on the first day of the week or month, in January or on the first weekday after a holiday. The second study tracked undergraduate students’ visits at their school’s gym and found that they were more likely to work out early in months, days or years that immediately followed school breaks and after a birthday (except for their 21st birthday, which appeared to make them less likely to exercise). The third study looked at results from online commitment contract service StickK to see when aspirational behaviour spiked. The site offers agreements where people agree to lose a certain amount of money if they don’t accomplish a certain goal by a certain date. The researchers noticed that people were more likely to make these commitment contracts immediately after a significant event.

So if you have a work habit you’ve been meaning to start with the best of intentions—getting in earlier, whipping your inbox into shape, getting up from your desk for an hourly stretch—the day after Labour Day is a better time to start than most. Missed it and don’t have a momentous occasion scheduled? September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. There’s always another red-letter day coming along.