Some of you may have read the recent study that tracked people in Pittsburgh on a weight-loss program. In this widely reported study, half the participants were randomly given a fitness tracker, while the other half were asked to record their habits on a website every night. The surprising result was that over a period of two years, the group with fitness trackers lost 8 lbs on average while the group without the monitors lost 13 lbs.
The problem in achieving difficult, long-term goals, such as saving money for retirement or losing weight, is that in order to do so most people set short-term, intermediate goals. These goals could include saving a certain amount of money each year or going to the gym every day of the week. When these people fail with their short-term objectives, they abandon their long-term objectives, much to their and society’s detriment.
Last month, I attended a recruiting seminar for a London Business School marketing faculty member whose research was on this subject. For those who are not familiar with the academic world, the process of hiring a faculty member requires the prospective candidate to present his or her research in an hour-and-a-half to two hours. The existing faculty members and PhD students try to poke holes in the research.
Through this intellectual battle, the existing faculty members determine if the candidate’s research is novel, interesting, defensible, and makes a genuine contribution in a realm that was previously unknown. Furthermore, this process also reveals whether the prospect is able to perform effectively in the classroom.
Marissa Sharif is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Since her research has been published, I can report on it. Sharif’s research demonstrated, intriguingly I thought, that people prefer goals that give them some flexibility in "cheating" to similar goals that are either easy or hard. And they are more likely to persist with such limited flexibility goals.
Sharif tested, in the laboratory and through field research, whether giving people an "emergency reserve" – a predefined slack that could be used in an emergency – led to better results. For example, a goal with an emergency reserve could be to go to the gym seven days of the week with two emergency skip days (or 500 emergency calories in a weekly diet). Such a goal does better in terms of consumer preference and persistence than the easy goal of going to the gym five days a week, or the hard goal of going to the gym all seven days of the week.
Sharif’s argument about why the emergency reserve goal does better than easy and hard goals lies in framing the goal in more ambitious terms (seven days a week) and the labelling of the slack (two skip days) as emergency. By having the emergency reserve, the goal becomes more attainable. In contrast, if one has the hard goal of seven days, then once you skip one day you give up as your goal is already unattainable.
The emergency reserve goal is also superior to the easy goal of five days as it stretches the person by benchmarking against the hard goal and effectively putting a cost on using the reserve. The "emergency reserve" labelling makes a person feel guilty about using it and, hence, he or she will resist dipping into it unless necessary.
At the gym
This brings me back to the fitness tracker study. I think we are over-monitoring our children and employees simply because technology gives us the ability to do so. Rather than being soft or tough on them through easy and hard goals, we should cut them some slack while setting ambitious goals. It also led me to wonder if one could not use this recommendation in organisational settings such as the annual budgeting process.
One reason this research struck a chord with me is that I have repeatedly tried to go to the gym each day and failed. As a result, this year I adopted the goal of being in the gym for 183 days. Using one of those many physical diaries that one is still presented in India at the beginning of the year, I just make a note against each day – with a pen and with minimal details – about whether I have been to the gym.
It takes all of 10 seconds to do this, which led to some derision by friends who told me I should buy the Apple iWatch or a Fitbit and enter the 21st century. But this straightforward method of physically making a note, combined with the slack, has meant I’m on track nine months into this year. Despite a tight travel schedule and many pressing engagements, I try to get to the 15 days for the month as early as possible during the period.
So the message this week? Give people ambitious goals – but allow them to cheat a little. Oh, and cut yourself some slack, too.
Nirmalya Kumar is Member-Group Executive Council at Tata Sons and Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School. His Twitter handle is @ProfKumar. This article is written in his personal capacity.