What are some techniques for helping individuals achieve their goals? Wharton Professor Marissa Sharif has conducting some useful research on this topic. She argues for the value of establishing an "emergency reserve" when setting objectives.
Consider one experiment that she conducted. She examined how people performed when setting goals for how steps they would walk each day. For one group of research subjects, she asked them to try to reach their step goal (either 7,000 or 10,000 steps) during all seven days of the week. For a second group, she asked them to try to achieve this objective during any five of the seven days. Finally, for a third set of research study participants, Sharif asked them to reach their steps goal each of the seven days, but she provided them an "emergency reserve" in the form of two "skip days" that they could use at their discretion. What did Sharif find in this experiment? The people provided the skip days did a better job of achieving their step goals, and in total, they walked more steps during the week!
Why is the emergency reserve so effective? Human nature seems to cause us to cling to those skip days. We don't want to use them unless it's a true emergency. People feel bad about using them simply because of a lack of willpower. That feeling causes us to walk more steps each day.
Sharif also finds that individuals enjoy having emergency reserves. It makes them feel better about setting aggressive goals, and it makes them more likely perhaps to set out to achieve an ambitious objective. She concludes,
"I found that if people have these bigger goals of trying to lose weight or trying to become fitter, they prefer goals with emergency reserves to goals without. What this means is that not only can companies help their consumers perform better by incorporating emergency reserves into their goals, but they can also attract them to sign up initially by offering emergency reserves within their program."