How cheating can help you reach your goals

BY: Alison Birrane, BBC

By February, many New Year’s resolutions have already fizzled out – anywhere from a third to half of us have already given up by the second month of the year.

Several small studies underline that while more than 40% of us set these kinds of goals, less than half stick with them over the course of the year. One survey found just 8% of respondents achieved their aspirations over any time period at all.

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Although these resolutions are notoriously tough to reach, this doesn’t stop people trying. So here’s a fresh tactic for setting – and sticking with – your goals.

‘Low-cost cheating’ could help people reach their goals. That’s according to Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

How it’s meant to work: An all-or-nothing approach to goals is all wrong, Sharif’s research suggests. She says we should instead be building ‘emergency reserves’ into our goal-setting process.


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That is, a specific type of structured flexibility, such as cheat days, may help us stay motivated.

Of course, those of us who follow fitness and savings programmes might already be familiar with the strategy of building in release valves to ease pressure on ourselves.

Yet many people are far too rigid when goalsetting. By being too strict, we’re making our goals less attainable, Sharif says.

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For example, in one field study, 273 people used a smartphone  app to count their steps for a month. The first group were asked to reach an individualised specific step goal, for example 7,000 or 10,000 steps per day, seven days a week. A second group needed to hit their goal on five days or more. A third group targeted their steps over seven days, but with two ‘emergency skip days’ per week (that didn’t roll over). A fourth group’s skip days were spread across the month.

The people who were allowed cheat days reached their step goal more days per week on average than those without them. They also took more steps on average.

Sharif says this type of cheating works in two ways. First, people resist using up their reserves, in case they’re needed later. They also feel bad about wasting them in a non-emergency scenario. Second, if you do need to use your ‘cheat,’ you feel less guilty about falling off the wagon in the first place and are thus less likely to give up on the overall goal, she adds.

This ‘cheating’ mindset helps people to keep sight of their longer-term vision, says Leena Rinne, productivity expert at US consultancy FranklinCovey. “While goals are initiated by making a choice to achieve something, it’s the choices in the moment that get you there. And, one of those choices is to allow yourself some ‘emergency reserves’.”

But there are limitations to using ‘emergency reserves’ techniques. If people have too many options to cheat (for example, a goal of going to the gym seven days of the week with four emergency skip days), they may take advantage of them, which could hit performance, says Sharif. Or, people may feel equally demotivated if they go beyond the number of emergency reserves they’d planned on.

And, says Rinne, people have different motivations for reaching their goals. Structured flexibility might work for some, but it might prove demotivating for others who prefer not to have a safety switch.