Planning Cheat Days Can Help You Stick to Your Goals, Study Suggests

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Whether you’re trying to resist the call of office doughnuts or cut out binge-watching television, breaking habits can be hard. It takes a lot of psychological willpower to say no over and over again. But when it comes to pursuing goals that require self-regulation, it may actually be beneficial to cheat occasionally, new research finds. 

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that planning “hedonic deviations,” a.k.a. giving in to your impulse to eat that doughnut or waste five hours on Netflix, can actually help you stay motivated and stick to your long-term goals. 

In one test, almost 60 college students ran through a virtual diet simulation. Some were told they could eat 1500 calories a day for a week, while others were told they could eat 1300 calories a day, except for the seventh day, on which they could eat up to 2700 calories. After planning out all their meals for a week, they were asked to envision scenarios like grocery shopping after a long day and come up with strategies to resist the temptation of chocolatey snacks. During the task, an open box of various chocolates was left on their desks. The researchers assessed the participants’ self-control before and after each task, finding that the students who had been told they could binge one day had higher capacities to self-regulate and came up with more strategies to help them overcome temptation.

A second experiment recreated the test with actual dieters. More than 30 volunteers followed a two-week diet while keeping a food diary, then came back in for a follow-up assessment a month later. Again, some people were told they could eat 1500 calories a day, and others were told they could eat less on most days, but have whatever they liked on Sundays. The latter group showed more motivation at the end of the diet compared to the continuous goal-striving control group. The straight goal-striving group showed decreases in their ability to self-regulate by the end of the diet, while the intermittent break dieters felt more positive about the diet at the end of the study than the control volunteers. 

But it’s not just about dieting. Your goal could be anything that requires a certain amount of dedication and self-restriction, like saving money or watching less television. A third experiment in the study asked 64 university employees with goals related to self-inhibition to talk about their plans and strategies. People who were primed to think about taking a break from saving money, dieting, or exercising showed greater motivation to pursue their goals. 

By planning for a not-so-far-off day when you’ll let your impulses run wild, it’s easier to resist giving into temptation in the short run. And when you plan to let yourself off the hook at some point, it’s easier to keep going when you have momentary lapses. Just because you bought an expensive meal when you meant to eat a peanut butter sandwich doesn’t make your entire experiment a failure, but if you’re too rigid in your goals, it can feel like any slip negates the whole endeavor. If you’ve already set aside a time to slip up, it doesn’t seem like as big of a deal if it happens by mistake. 

In other words, it might be good to be bad. As long as it’s occasional, and you’ve planned for it. 

[h/t BPS Research Digest]