Backup Plans Can Prevent You From Reaching Your Goals, Study Shows, No Matter How Good Your Intentions Are

You might think that having a backup plan is the most sensible thing in the world — even our best-laid of personal and professional plans tend to fall through, after all, and you don't want to be left scrambling to pick up the pieces. But psychologists studying the mental models behind backup plans now argue that backup plans sabotage your real goals, so you might want to refrain from putting too much effort into your second option. If backup plans do more to distract and demotivate than they help you to cover your butt in the case of emergency, then you might be better off without any at all.

The psychology researchers, from the University of Zurich, are about to publish their findings on backup plans in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. As the lead researcher Dr. Christopher Napolitano explains, the team is interested in backup plans because "Our model is based on a straightforward idea: backup plans change the way you pursue your goal, even if you aren't using them, and even if you never use them."

These effects of having a backup plan might vary from person to person and situation to situation. If a backup plan gives you confidence, then you might become more effective in pursuing your primary goal. But the researchers also warn that having well-formed backup plans can just as easily sap your motivation for your primary goal, or help you to rationalize working less hard at it. In these cases, the backup plan becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Oops.

Hopefully these psychologists are able to do more research later to confirm that their model is accurate in experimental participants, and to begin to understand the ins and outs of backup plans. But there's one domain where we can see the negative effects of backup plans readily: marriage and divorce. Couples who don't share a bank account are much more likely to divorce, suggesting that withholding from the relationship in this way in anticipation of a possible split could actually contribute to it.

From a personal perspective, this model resonates with me. I've made a number of fairly drastic decisions over the course of my 20s, and I can't say I had a very good backup plan at most (or any) of those junctures, but basically everything has turned out OK. I think that we can draw a distinction between different types of "backup plans," some of which probably do more harm than good, and some of which are fine to have.

Doing things like staying on good terms with family, investing in your own skill set, developing your professional network, making friends, and expanding your earning potential basically serve as all the "backup plan" you need if some major destabilizing thing were to happen to you in life. But planning that breakup or job loss down to the letter — where you'll live next, where you'll apply for your next job, and so on — just takes your mind off the situation still at hand.

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