Having a backup plan might be the very reason you failed

By Chris Napolitano edited by Pam Weintraub

Image Credit: Pete via Flickr

My optometrist once told me that a research job can be tough on the eyes. When you aren’t reading articles, you’re staring at data or puzzling your way though code on some blinking monitor. I wear contacts. She told me to bring my glasses to work, as a backup in case my eyes tired out. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern. On the days when I did remember to bring my glasses, I invariably needed them. By lunchtime, my eyes felt strained. When my glasses stayed on the nightstand, I never felt the urge to remove my contacts. Connecting those dots felt like a small eureka moment. Backup plans, like my glasses, can have strange and unexpected influences on our motivation and behaviour.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with Alexandra Freund, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, to unpack how a backup plan (or Plan B) affects the way we pursue our goals. Our core thesis is that backup plans change the way people pursue their goals, even if they never use the backup plan at all. In other words, backup plans are not inert: as they sit in your ‘back pocket’, they influence the way you use your Plan A. This effect can be positive. A backup plan can boost confidence to tackle challenging goals. But backup plans can also subvert pursuit of your goals. Developing them costs resources that could have been spent perfecting Plan A. Choosing when and if to use a backup plan can distract you. It can provide an easy, but perhaps untimely ‘out’ during tough times. A backup plan could, perversely, cause you to fail.

But how can a backup plan, your buffer against failure, cause failure? Imagine being on the job market. Cash is tight: your goal is a new job this month. Plan A is to work for a tech firm. You know getting hired there is a challenge, so you’ve made a backup plan: a banking position. Does your banking backup plan help or harm your chances of getting a job this month?

To understand the impact, it’s important to realise that not all backup plans are the same. ‘Contingent’ backup plans are based around a possible contingency – if plan A does not work, then I will use Plan B. So our jobseeker, above, might focus entirely on securing the tech job, and only seek the bank job if the tech job falls through. This kind of contingency backup plan mitigates potential costs.

‘Redundant’ backup plans, the other type, are different. People develop them to maximise potential benefits. With a redundant backup plan, a person works towards the goal using Plan A, while actively comparing whether Plan A or Plan B is currently providing the best possibility for success. For our jobseeker, that would mean preparing materials and practising presentations in parallel, unsure of which job will be the best fit. If there are setbacks during the tech job interview, the temptation to shift to Plan B increases. The jobseeker might think: ‘I might have a better shot with the bank. Maybe I’d better focus there, and tell the tech firm that I’ve withdrawn my application.’

The key drawback to a contingent plan is also its key strength – it isn’t invoked until the main plan seems likely to fail. This is beneficial in some ways. A person isn’t distracted by actively comparing whether Plan A or B will be better. They simply substitute Plan B if Plan A fails. However, a contingent backup plan can backfire if that deadline comes too late, or never comes at all. Using contingent backup plans well requires knowing when to cut your losses with Plan A. In the case of the jobseeker, a backup plan is useless if you don’t have enough time to ‘change gears’ after bad news from the tech firm.

Redundant backup plans introduce different challenges. These backup plans are costlier to use. One must actively compare Plans A and B throughout the entire exercise, discerning the ideal time to make the switch or to stick to one’s guns. Redundant backup plans have a ‘boom or bust’ quality. In the best-case scenario, you have a well-elaborated alternative option ready to use at the exact moment that it might boost your chances for success. In the worst-case scenario, you could get caught in a morass of indecision, or change plans too early or too late – or put so much work into the backup plan that you compromise you chance for securing the primary goal. For the jobseeker, actively comparing the tech and bank options might result in under-preparing for both interviews and being forced to seek out some Plan C.   

So what makes a good backup plan, and what is the best way to use it? Our research suggests that backup plans change the way goals are pursued, sometimes for the worse. As you think about your own Plan B, consider how it is affecting Plan A. Are your backup plans supportive safety nets? Or are they subversive investments that threaten your goal? For what it’s worth, I am sitting in my office, while my glasses are safely at home. Risky? Perhaps. But my eyes feel fresh.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


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