The Lifestyle Benefits Of Tapping Into The 'Back-To-School' Mindset Even As An Adult

By the time July rolls around, back-to-school commercials start popping up. Then, once August is in full swing, the ads go into overdrive, and everywhere you turn, you're bombarded with all things back-to-school related. While the idea of going back to school when we were young either invoked excitement ("this year I will return reinvented!") or annoyance ("how many more years of this must I be subjected to?"), the fact is that it was an inescapable part of life. It was also a fresh start, even if we didn't really see it that way at the time.

If you ever set goals and vowed to make changes at the beginning of a new year, you were practicing what's called the "fresh start effect." According to a 2014 study published in Management Science, the fresh start effect is a psychological phenomenon that emphasizes a temporal landmark that inspires enhanced motivation and pursuit of personal and life goals. As adults, we tend to choose January as our landmark, but that doesn't have to be the only time in the year for it.

Since back to school, for years, marked a new beginning, choosing that mindset now as an adult gives us another chance to take stock of our lives, set new goals, and give everything on the horizon 100%. While your back-to-school mindset may not include a Trapper Keeper covered in Lisa Frank stickers (or maybe it will), you still have other lifestyle benefits you can tap into if you let yourself see September as a temporal landmark.

Refreshing your wardrobe

It's not like anyone needs a reason to freshen up their wardrobe with new duds, especially since it makes sense when transitioning from one season to another, but for those who do need a reason, now you have it. However, keeping up with the fall fashion trends is only a fraction of why refreshing your wardrobe in September is a good idea. For starters, recycling or donating items you haven't worn in a year will make space for new clothes, and with them, new energy. Research has found that what we wear impacts how we think, so keep this in mind when you make new purchases. Ask yourself what new thoughts and behaviors you want to bring into the fold at this point in the year, then go for pieces that fit that mentality.

Also consider leaning more toward classic items that never go out style. While there's always room for color and some eclectic pieces, unless your goals call for all eclectic, all the time, stick to the classics that you'll actually wear and never regret buying. The last thing you want to do with this new beginning is start out with regrets. 

Setting goals -- realistic ones

Just as students go back to school with academic goals in mind, with summer's end, you have the opportunity to do the same. After all, the fresh start effect is going to aid in your motivation to achieve those goals, so you might as well have some in mind — realistic ones, of course. There's no sense in setting the bar too high, just so you end up disappointed by November.

A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that setting goals results in healthy behavioral change. However, turning these goals into a reality requires acknowledging what it will take to achieve them and what actions must be put into motion. It's great to have a goal in mind, but it's a whole other thing to bring it to fruition.

Whether you're hoping to be promoted, start a new career, or have your sights on something else, come up with a realistic plan. Make a list of what needs to be done in what order to achieve it. For example, if your goal is to quit finance and become a writer, you want to research, take some classes if you've never written before, network with other writers, and then pitch your ideas to media outlets. Achieving a goal is a step-by-step process. Granted, the temporal landmark you've chosen will give you the extra incentive you might need to make your goals a reality, but it still takes work.

Purchasing items to get organized

If a student gets a new computer, notebooks, fancy pens, and other items to organize their life, why shouldn't you? Chaos may be fun on a Friday night on the dance floor, but order is what people need to keep their mind and body centered.

According to a 2009 study published in Personality and Psychology Bulletin, women who live in spaces that they described as disorganized had higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and were also more likely to be depressed than those who were organized. "Having a messy or cluttered environment can leave your brain feeling that your overall life is messy or disorganized, which can increase your feelings of depression and/or anxiety," board-certified clinical psychologist Neha Khorana, Ph.D. tells Shape. "It can [also] leave you feeling overwhelmed, especially if other things in your life are already stressful or you're struggling with issues that you have minimal control over." 

An easy way to get that control back is to clean up the mess and get organized. Items and devices that make that transition smoother for you are exactly what you need. It won't be easy to reach your goals if your space is a disaster that's making your cortisol levels spike.

Investing in your mental health

If there's anything a fresh start needs, it's checking in with yourself. Ask yourself how you're doing and feeling. Is anything keeping you up at night? Do you feel stressed, anxious, or fearful but you don't know why? These are important questions that need answers so that you can transition with your mind at ease, especially if you're thinking of a new beginning.

A 2021 study published in Frontiers in Public Health found that transitional periods increase psychological distress, but the distress was generally associated with the changes resulting from the transition more so than the specific transition itself. But when we're faced with something that affects our mental health, it gives us the opportunity to re-evaluate how we manage our actions, reactions, and emotions in a more mindful way.

"Shift your thinking and focus on what you have versus what you don't have," clinical psychologist Carrie Ditzel, Ph.D. tells Real Simple. "We have a natural tendency to focus on things that confirm our negative thoughts or feelings. To combat this, I suggest taking purposeful time to reflect on what you are grateful for or putting a new perspective to things that focus on what you may have gained versus just the losses related to a change." Self-reflection can come in the form of journaling, meditation, breathing exercises, or asking yourself questions out loud. Listening to yourself and sitting with those feelings will give you the insight you need to confirm that everything is on the up and up mentally.

Allowing for personal growth

One of the major changes that students can experience going back to school is personal growth. They're presented with a clean slate, and what they do with it is up to them — they can make the upcoming year work for them or they can just throw in the towel and barely get by. You, too, with your back-to-school mentality, can do the same. No matter who we are and what we've accomplished so far, there's always room for personal growth. According to BetterUp, when we allow ourselves to develop personally, it makes us more self-aware, increases self-esteem, and reaffirms goals and directions — exactly what a new start needs.

We are all works in progress and will be so our entire lives. You can adopt healthy practices that focus on areas you need to work on, whether it's communication skills, self-awareness, adaptation, or conflict resolution. Once you identify where you can improve, create a plan and build a routine around it. For example: Do you want to practice yoga more? Set aside yoga time and place your yoga mat where you see it constantly. Even small visual reminders can be motivating. Schedule yoga into your day like you would anything that's important to you.

As much as January is a great time of year to take stock in your life and make changes, don't let it be the only time of year you do that. With the fresh start effect in your pocket, you can start over every Monday if that's what works for you.