Before you make any New Year’s resolutions, you’ll want to hear this science-based advice from Wharton’s Marissa Sharif. She explains why goal-setting is easier when you build in some cheat days, which she calls “emergency reserves.” This episode is part of a series on getting a “Fresh Start” this new year.


Is It Okay to Have a Cheat Day? Research Says ‘Yes’

Dan Loney: As we come to the end of the year, people no doubt set goals for themselves in the New Year. Some of that may relate to health, some to professional careers. Trying to keep on that path can also be a great challenge. That’s why having an emergency reserve — or a cheat day — may be a way to work around the challenge.

We’re joined here in studio by marketing professor Marissa Sharif, who’s done research in this area. Marissa, what drew your attention to this idea in the first place?

Marissa Sharif: I study motivation. That’s kind of my life, my passion, what I think about all the time. I noticed a common problem that people are facing, that you alluded to. A lot of us have these big, long-term goals. A lot of us want to become healthier or save money. And one way we try to reach these goals is by having shorter-term goals. Maybe I decide to go to the gym for five days of the week, or save a particular amount of money each week.

But a common thing that happens is that we experience these small failures. There’s just going to be days you can’t make it to the gym. There’s going to be weeks where you’re just not going to be able to save that amount of money you wanted to. The problem is that these small failures really derail people. It’s so common for them to derail us that there’s actually a phenomenon that’s been termed to describe this called “the what the hell” effect. Basically, when we miss going to the gym one day or miss that weekly budget goal, we completely abandon the goal. The idea is, “I failed today. There’s no way I’m going to be able to reach the goal this week. What the hell, why would I continue?” Right? It’s no longer in sight. It’s not attainable.

How do we solve this problem? How do we help people persist after these small failures that are so common? That’s where we started thinking about emergency reserves, which is basically some type of slack, some type of flexibility within a goal that’s available if you need it, but at some type of psychological cost. For example, we are often encouraged to take like 10,000 steps per day. Imagine you set a goal of taking 10,000 steps every day, but you give yourself two emergency skip days, right? Two days that if something comes up, then you’ll just skip those days, and you’re still achieving your goal. What we found is basically that these goals with emergency reserves are better than those without.

Loney: Having that emergency reserve still helps people towards the larger goal and to be successful longer term?

Sharif: Yes, that’s the idea. That helps people keep going, it takes away these negative feelings about goal failure, and allows people to keep going week to week to reach these bigger goals.

Loney: Does it become part of one’s lifestyle? That if they have that philosophy, that mindset, that it can carry over to other parts of their life or to other goals they’re trying to reach?

Sharif: You can think about applying emergency reserves to a lot of domains. For example, maybe you’re trying to get more fit. But then maybe you want to go into saving money, some extra dollars. But yeah, the idea of giving yourself some slack is good in terms of persisting after failures.

But you don’t want to give yourself too much slack. You don’t want it to be something that you keep dipping into. One of the reasons why emergency reserves are effective is because it helps people keep going. But another part is, the way that you think about emergency reserves is kind of this small bucket of them. You only have two per week, for example, so you’re trying to hold on to those and you’re thinking about each day. Do I want to apply my emergency reserve? Or do I want to wait for a more emergency or more needed situation to use it. Having something that’s limiting you from taking too much advantage of that flexibility is also important. It’s a balance.

Building in Cheat Days Can Help You Reach Your Goals Faster

Loney: If you have a situation where you may think about using a reserve and you don’t use it, and then you get a few more days down the line, do you actually have the potential to succeed your goal in a quicker fashion because you haven’t dipped into the bucket?

Sharif: Totally. We find that a lot, actually. Imagine you’re trying to reach 10,000 steps. You do it seven days of the week, five days of the week, or seven days of the week with two emergency skips. The emergency skip version does better than both seven and five. And that’s because people don’t want to use their emergency skips. But it also helps them if they do have to use them, so it’s kind of combining the benefits of both worlds.

Loney: Do we know whether or not using the emergency reserve then ends up helping people exceed their goals down the road?

Sharif: It definitely helps them reach the short-term goals more often, so that will speed up the process of reaching these bigger long-term goals like getting fit faster or saving money quicker. So yes, in that way.

Loney: You’ve also talked about self-control being important in this process as well. How so?

Sharif: Goal-setting in general is helpful for self-control problems. When we’re thinking about reaching these bigger long-term goals, one of the reasons we struggle with them is because we want to have these immediate pleasures rather than delayed pleasures. Because of that, we procrastinate on doing these actions that delay pleasures but help us reach these long-term goals.

So, setting these short-term goals in general, like planning to take 10,000 steps for five days of the week, helps with those self-control problems. Because there’s a plan each week, right? I’m not having to come up with it day to day. And emergency reserves on top of that can help. Because if you do fail, there’s kind of this plan in action to tell you what to do the next day. Keep going. Compared to relying on your self-control to be like, “I failed, maybe I’ll give up.”

Loney: I’m wondering if there is also a component that could be transferable to a friend or a family member. So many businesses these days are focused on this goal around health care, because they’re obviously concerned about the rise of health care costs. Is there are a component that can help friends or family if another person in their life is successful?

Sharif: Yeah, totally. One of the big reasons that people are motivated to start pursuing a goal, or even persist, is how achievable or how attainable that goal feels. If you see people around you achieving these goals with emergency reserves, or with any tool, honestly, that’s going to motivate you to also get going. You see people you know that are potentially similar to you reaching it, so you think, “I can reach it too.” And so that definitely motivates people.

When Do Cheat Days Hurt Goal-setting?

Loney: How does stress factor into this entire process?

Sharif: I think the emergency reserve does a couple of things. It’s definitely reducing that stress or that negative feeling after you fail. I also think knowing ahead of time you have it is a nice, de-stressful thing. I know that because we’ve also tested what type of goals people like and what programs people would want to sign up for. And people definitely prefer these programs that have emergency reserves or have flexibility, probably because they like the idea of having it just in case something happens. That also reduces that stress level right at the start.

Loney: Right. We’ve talked about health care, health, and money. But how broad do you think the use of emergency reserves can be in terms of goal-setting?

Sharif: I think it’s really common right now for people to try to use companies to help them reach their goals. Think about the number of fitness apps that are available, or even just YouTube channels that are helping you become more fit. Or think about the number of apps that are trying to help people budget or learn a new language. There’s so many of those.

Emergency reserves could be implemented in these apps or these programs to help people. Beyond that, from the consumer or personal level, people can think about using these in most domains. Domains that have some type of addictive components, like stopping smoking, it might not work to have the emergency reserve because if you do dip into it, it might really be hard to go back to where you were before. But beyond that, in a lot of domains it should work well.

Loney: That’s interesting you say that, because obviously in our lives there are habits that are so addictive that using that cheat day can end up having a longer negative impact than a positive?

Sharif: Totally. I’ve only studied this so far in goals that are trying to start a beneficial behavior, like take more steps or do more work tasks. I haven’t looked at the side of reducing a negative behavior like stopping smoking or stopping the number of desserts you eat. It’s possible in those domains if you get a little bit of a taste of it, maybe it’s a negative component. I haven’t searched that side yet so far.

Loney: Is that the next natural step in your research?

Sharif: That’s something I’m definitely interested in looking at. Are there boundary conditions? Are there are domains where maybe it doesn’t work as well, or backfires? So far, I haven’t found them, but I haven’t looked at addictions. I honestly don’t think I could study those, because it might be potentially harmful. But that is an area I’m interested in.

Loney: What is the message from this research to the public?

Sharif: I would say, think about a challenging goal for yourself, something that’s difficult to achieve. Have that, and then give yourself a couple of emergency days. You should be more effective at reaching your goals that way.