The problem with long-term goals is usually short-term failure.
Say you want to lose a significant amount of weight or save a substantial amount of money. Doing so will probably take years, but the first step is to break down that audacious goal into more short-term aims. You might vow to exercise a certain amount each week or set aside a certain percentage of each paycheck.
So far, so sensible, but what happens when you miss a few of those intermediary goals -- you let your gym-going slide over the holidays, for example, or emergencies get in the way and you miss your saving target?
The short answer is, you get discouraged and, if you're a like a lot of people, you give up even though you've made significant strides towards the big life change you've been dreaming of. Is there any way around this tendency of short-term slip-ups to sabotage long-term goals?
Yup, suggests recent research. The answer, apparently, is to cheat more.
The magical power of a little wiggle room
The new study from Marissa Sharif, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues compared two approaches to truly big goals. In one, participants were given a strict plan to reach their desired outcome. In the other, they were given an even more ambitious plan but told they had a little wiggle room.
For instance, those looking to lose weight might be assigned seven gym sessions and a certain healthy diet, but were also given an allowance of two "skip days" where they could miss their allotted exercise when life got out of hand, and 500 "emergency calories" to occasionally indulge past the limits of their diet plan.
Who did better? Not the folks with the more modest initial aims. Instead, those who aimed the highest but cheated a little were the best off in the end.
"Setting more ambitious goals (seven days a week) yet letting people off the hook (two skip days) in an emergency provides the best of both worlds. The goal remains attainable while still stretching people and effectively putting a cost on using the reserve," explains an INSEAD Knowledge writeup of the results. Plus, "the 'emergency reserve' labelling makes a person feel guilty about using it and, hence, he or she will resist dipping into it unless necessary."
The takeaway here is useful for aiming to make big, bold life changes. Rather than compromise on the scale of your goals, science suggests you aim as high as possible, but build a little room to cheat into your plans.
Humans, after all, are fired up by big projects, but demoralized by little failures. This approach lets you tap into the former without being derailed by the latter.
Could you think bigger about any of your goals if you gave yourself a little more wiggle room on the road to actually achieving them?