Aim High, But Plan For Slips

Emergency reserve goals help people aim high, but forgive their slips. PHOTO BY SKITTERPHOTO FROM PEXELS

Aim for the stars, they say. Set realistic goals, they say. But which is it? Actually, this is a trick question — according to research in behavioral science, the answer is “both.” Researchers Marissa Sharif and Suzanne Shu find that a different kind of goal, emergency reserve goals, can be more motivating and more likely to lead to success than either hard goals or easy goals. Emergency reserves are the goldilocks of goals, with the high anchor of a hard goal but the slack of an easy goal.

Say that, for example, you want to write more at work. You could commit to writing for an hour every day, likely something that most would consider a hard, inflexible goal. Or you could commit to writing only three days of the week, a relatively easy goal. But if you were to employ an emergency reserve goal, you might commit to writing every day but allow yourself two “emergency skip days” where you can choose not to write on those days. This goal feels as ambitious as the hard goal, and has all of its aspirational power, but in reality is only as strict as the easy goal. “By framing the goal as an emergency reserve, you’ve psychologically set yourself up for success,” says researcher Marissa Sharif.

Why? When you fail at a hard goal, you tend to suffer from the “what-the-hell” effect and are more likely to give up altogether. Suddenly one week of missing the mark turns into two, and you give up trying to write at all. But if you can forgive your week of shame, you can continue as if you’d never lapsed in the first place. This is the magic behind emergency reserve goals.

The research suggests that you can and should both aim for the stars and set realistic goals. And with emergency reserves, you can do just that. How, then, can you use emergency reserves in your work and life? How can you leverage them to promote greater productivity at work and boost your well-being?

First, decide what you want to achieve. Do you want to write more? Get to work earlier? Start bringing lunch from home? Practice yoga during your lunch hour? (This one might be harder than you think.) Meditate? Sell more widgets?

Whatever your goal, once you’ve decided on it, you will need to set a high benchmark (the equivalent of the “hard” goal). Do you want to write for an hour every day? Get to work by 7am every day? Make and bring a salad for lunch Monday through Friday? Go to a yoga class on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Meditate every morning before work? Sell three widgets a day?

Finally, set your slack. This is essentially the equivalent of your easy goal. Will your emergency reserve give you one or two cheat days a week, for example?

And when you’re ready with your emergency reserve goal fully formed, put a stamp of finality on it and sign your name to precommit. By committing to your goal, you will be more likely to follow suit. And if you are brave enough, you can even share that commitment with your peers so that they can hold you accountable to your goal.

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Originally published at

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design.

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