Last week was a fantastic week for you. You were doing so well. You played a game of soccer with friends, went on a walk with your partner every single day, and spent all weekend gardening. Then a sudden freeze came over the earth and there was nothing that could get you out of bed, much less put on your gym shorts and brave the outdoors. So you snuggled up and snoozed the alarm, telling yourself you’ll be back on track as soon as it warms up.
The problem with this situation is that it’s probably not going to warm up soon enough. And by the time it does, it will be too late; you’ll have gotten out of the habit of being active. It’s not uncommon for small lapses like this to lead to much bigger lapses. Just a few days out of a good habit can readily morph into a goal discarded. Indeed, research shows that failing to achieve short-term goals (like making it to the gym three times a week) can quickly derail long-term goals (like getting fit). Aptly termed the “what the hell effect,” this reaction to short-term failures causes us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, research in behavioral science offers solutions that can help us drain the bathtub and gently return the baby to its crib.
As it turns out, the mere framing of goals can go a long way to overcome the disproportionate impact of short-term lapses on long-term goal attainment. Framing a goal with what researchers call an emergency reserve is one way to do just this. An emergency reserve is intentional slack around a goal that can be used if necessary; it’s that extra 200 calories that you give yourself on a particularly rough day, or the occasional “skip day” where you allow yourself to sleep in instead of making it to the gym. (Of course, it is critical that these are truly limited and that their use is designated in advance; otherwise, every day can turn into a skip day.)
It’s much more motivating (1) to have an emergency reserve goal (for example, deciding you’ll make it to the gym four times a week, with an emergency “skip day” to use if necessary) than it is to either have a hard goal (making it to the gym at least four times a week, without any flexibility) or an easy goal (making it to the gym just three times a week). The easy goal is technically the same as the emergency reserve goal (both require three days at the gym to meet the goal), but lacks the motivational power of the emergency reserve, which carries with it a psychological cost of dipping into the reserve. People try to protect their reserve (Sharif & Shu, 2017), only using it when they truly must. And by making their reference point the same as the hard goal (even though they can technically get credit for doing as little as the easy goal), they are more likely to go beyond the easy goal to reach the hard goal. According to researcher Marissa Sharif, “emergency reserves have the best of both worlds: the high anchor of the hard goal, and the manageable minimum of the easy goal.”
People are more likely to aim higher with emergency goals, but what is particularly special about emergency reserves is what happens after a lapse. Research finds that people are more likely to persist after using their emergency reserve compared to those without a reserve because the reserve increases the perceived sense of progress after failure (Sharif & Shu, 2019). Emergency reserves are like a “forgiveness” button that allows you to continue on your path as if you never left it, motivationally erasing your deviation from existence. Indeed, the level of success experienced by someone after dipping into their emergency reserve is exactly the same as if they had never lapsed in the first place.
Emergency reserves help people aim high, but forgive their slips so that they can move on. So the next time the earth temporarily freezes over, do yourself a favor and forgive your lapse: it will help you get back into your active lifestyle rather than slipping into a funk.
Sharif, M. A., & Shu, S. B. (2017). The benefits of emergency reserves: Greater preference and persistence for goals that have slack with a cost. Journal of Marketing Research, 54(3), 495-509.
Sharif, M. A., & Shu, S. B. (2019). Nudging persistence after failure through emergency reserves. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, forthcoming.
Footnote 1: In Sharif & Shu’s field study with step goals, Reserve Goal conditions reached step goals up to 40% more days on average per week than Hard Goal and Easy Goal conditions.