Is Your Backup Plan Holding You Back?

Author: Kate Baggaley


If you're about to sit an exam, have a spare pencil in case the first one breaks. If you're going to ride the subway, know which lines you could transfer to if there are delays or construction on your first choice. If you're going to start a business, have some savings you can fall back on in case monogrammed cat sweaters aren't as popular as you thought.

It seems like good sense to always have a backup plan. We use them for small goals, like getting from one neighborhood to another, and big ones like figuring out our careers.

But if you've got a backup plan for every move you make, you might not be doing yourself any favors. Sometimes, having a plan B might just complicate what we're trying to do.

"People may often make a mistake when it comes to backup plans," said Christopher Napolitano, a psychologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. "When backup plans fail it's often because people don't think about…how a backup plan might distract them when they're in the middle of working towards their goal."

In his research, Napolitano is seeing that, in some cases, our backup plans can actually make us less successful. Fortunately, there are a few steps we can take to avoid investing in a backup plan that will only slow us down.

Flop or ace in the hole?

Simply having a backup plan changes how you pursue your goal, as well as how likely you are to meet it, Napolitano and his colleague Alexandra Freund argued in a recent paper in the January volume of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Depending on the situation, this can help or hinder us. "We're not saying that backup plans are always bad," Napolitano said. "We've all had experiences where it's been great having this backup plan in your back pocket."

Backup plans give us a safety net if our intended course of action fails; if you drive over a nail, having another tire ready to go clearly gives you a better shot at reaching your destination. Backup plans can also make our ambitions seem a little more attainable. "A lot of people say that making a backup plan gives them the courage or the support that they need to start pursuing a difficult goal," Napolitano said.

But sometimes, just having a backup plan in the wings takes work; Imagine a photographer who packs so many extra lenses that he's slowed down by his heavy bag.

And then there are times where having a plan B can sap your motivation to stick with plan A. Napolitano and his colleagues are interested in how contingency plans can backfire. "What happens when you have a backup plan available and your plan A starts to falter?" he said. "Do you start looking at your plan B, does it distract you, do you disengage from plan A earlier than you would have if you didn't have a backup plan?"

The researchers are conducting a few experiments to find out. In one, people must lob balls into a trashcan after a few practice tosses. They have to start by using ping pong balls, but can switch over to tennis balls at any time, which require a slightly modified throwing approach.

If people rely too heavily on the backup plan and switch at early signs of failure, they likely end up doing worse with either type of ball. "The more a person practices their backup plan throwing…the more distracting it is, and the more likely they are to switch to the backup plan ball and the worse they do," Napolitano said. "You have to kind of recalibrate how you throw so you miss the first few throws, but you also have this distraction where you do poorly before you switch."

Backup plans can even distract us to the point of sabotaging our interests. Napolitano and his team have also been tracking freshmen at the University of Zurich, who must sit a difficult exam if they wish to continue studying psychology. The undergrads reported what their backup plan was if they failed the psychology exam, and how much it preoccupied them.

The more the students thought about their backup plan, the worse they did on the test. And those people thought a lot about switching to a less taxing major did particularly poorly, compared with those whose backup plans would be harder to execute.

"They perhaps did more poorly than they would have without a backup plan," Napolitano said. But it's important to stress that all of these findings are very dependent on the individual, the context and the goal, he added.

How tough your goal is, how predictable the outcome might be, how much time or money or strength you have to go after it and your own personality will all factor into whether your backup plan helps or harms you.

Building a better backup plan

So when is it actually helpful to have a backup plan? It might depend on the kind of auxiliary scheme you choose, Napolitano said.

One type, called contingent backup plan, is less likely to distract you. To make one, you decide ahead of time what conditions would get you to abandon plan A. You might set a contingent backup plan by deciding that if you haven't gotten any stronger by the end of the month, you'll up the number of your daily pushups.

"In these backup plans, people set really clear deadlines," Napolitano said. "You're not really thinking about the backup plan until you reach or near that deadline."

Other backup plans are fuzzier around the edges, and involve switching from plan A at some nebulous, undecided point. "You might get into more trouble when you make backup plans that we call redundant backup plans," Napolitano said. "You don't really have a clear marker about when to switch, you're always comparing."

A redundant backup plan might take the form, "I'll go see the professor whenever this class starts to feel too difficult," rather than, "If I score below a B on the next test, I'll ask my professor for help."

This doesn't mean you should never use redundant backup plans. When you're in situation where you have zero experience and aren't sure what will work, you might not be able to judge a good point to say that plan A is failing.

"If you don't have that marker, it's almost foolish to make contingent backup plans. You almost have to make these redundant backup plans," Napolitano said. "You have to start somewhere."

His advice: do research before you take the plunge to suss out what a reasonable deadline is for achieving your goal.

And sometimes, wing it.

"For some goals you may be better off going in…with no backup plan, and if you fail, well you learned new information and you can develop a new way based on that new information that you gathered," Napolitano said.

It all depends on what the stakes are. When you're going camping, you'll want to bring plenty of water. If you crack one water bottle, get lost or have to hike farther than you expected, that extra canteen could save you from dehydration or worse.

"Regardless of how crappy it is to carry all your water into the woods, it's a pretty good idea to have an extra bottle," Napolitano said. "So thinking about what the costs of true failure are is a nice way to measure whether a backup plan is useful or not."