"Cheat Days" Can Help You Achieve Your Goals

by Lily Feinn

Some may say that the most important part of achieving a long-term goal is commitment and sticktuitiveness, but if the terms are too rigid you may actually be setting yourself up for failure. According to new research, "cheat days" can help you achieve your goals by motivating you to continue to self-regulate. The paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that cheat days or "hedonic deviations," as the authors call them, where one can give into cravings and desires completely, are essential to success — as long as they are planned.

While the important part of the study is that its findings are applicable beyond dieting, the research behind the first study involved simulations of diets. (Thankfully just a simulation, because in general, actual diets are pretty bogus and often motivated by problematic external factors.) But back to the study: in the first, 59 students were put on a virtual simulated diet. One group role-played being restricted to slightly more food in a day, while the other group’s was reduced with the addition of a hypothetical cheat day on Sundays. The participants picked hypothetical meals and after doing so had to rate their residual self-control (my remaining self control after reading these parameters = zero). They also had to picture themselves shopping in the snack aisle at the end of the week and list strategies for how to avoid temptations (my current chip avoiding strategies also = zero).

After the pretend dieting week was over, those with the planned cheat day came up with more snack attack avoidance game plans, and reported feeling more self-control at the end of the week than the group on the set diet. Similar results were noted in the second study, when students replicated the original experiment in real life.

The takeaway from this isn't dieting, of course — it's that the rule of planned indulgence can be applied to actually worthy pursuits of long term goals requiring self-regulation. Whether you are looking to budget more carefully, meet exercise goals for a race, or cut back on the TV marathons, taking a little pressure off yourself now and again is a good thing.

In a third test, 64 participants who were currently struggling to meet personal goals were presented with two plans of action. One method allowed no slip-ups, the other gave set parameters for when participants could indulge. Those who read the less strict option believed that it would be helpful and reported feeling more motivated and inspired to go for their goal. So no matter what you're trying to achieve remember to schedule some time to treat yo' self!

If you are looking to meet a long term goal, there are a few other tips that may help you stick to your plan. Stay motivated by following these guidelines backed up by science:

1. Stay Positive

According to Time, we are most likely to procrastinate when we are in a rotten mood. We attempt to distract ourselves with things that we think will improve our outlook such as surfing the web, eating a snack, really anything but the task at hand. Negativity hurts productivity, and can hamper your progress. A 2015 study by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy found that people were 12 to 20 percent more productive when they were happy. If you want to stay motivated, maintain a positive outlook on your progress and stay optimistic about reaching your goal. If you get down on yourself, you may lose your goal-reaching mojo, and will be more likely to stray.

2. Make A List Of Reasons Why The Goal Is Important To You

Organizing thoughts on pen and paper can help you further commit and examine your goal. Writing down this list of reasons will help you connect both emotionally and mentally with the ultimate aim. Self-regulation is tough, especially in a world full of distractions, so to stay focussed it is good to keep your eye on the prize. Rereading the list to remind yourself why you are going through the difficult process can re-energize you whenever motivation flags.

3. Become Part Of A Group

It seems that people really are stronger together.

According to research, it seems we are influenced by the habits of those around us far more than we might realize. The Longevity Project found that "The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change." However, this peer pressure works both ways — it can hamper you as much as it helps. If you are struggling to meet a goal, take a look around and make sure that those you hang with are not holding you back.

Happy goal setting!

Images: Unplash (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)