Does Having a Plan B Sabotage Your Plan A?
Surprising new research on why we succeed, and how we blow it.
Posted July 29, 2016
A recent research study (Shin and Milkman, 2016) revealed the dangers and risks of having a “Plan B" when you truly want your “Plan A” to succeed. The researchers found that once you begin thinking about a fallback plan, your desire to achieve your ultimate goal decreases.
The researchers conducted a series of three experiments in which people were asked to think about an alternate plan in the event that their original effort were to fail. They found that those who were encouraged to develop a Plan B were less likely to achieve their goal than those who did not receive these instructions. Not only were the Plan B participants less successful, their interest in reaching their original goal decreased.
We wonder about the practical applications of this type of finding, especially since it seems to contradict the advice many self-help gurus offer. Here are a few examples of how this research finding might play out in life:
Plan B and Bad Dates
People often prepare for a potentially disappointing first face-to-face meeting with someone they met online by making a Plan B. This could be an emergency call or text from good friends who have their back—or they might alert their date that they have an appointment that they just can’t break.
Sometimes a Plan B can protect someone’s feelings, but knowing that you’ve got an immediate "out" might make you less likely to give someone a fair chance on a first date. Setting up an escape route early on also makes you focus on the likelihood that you’ll find your date less than adequate before you even meet. If you like someone well enough to plan a date, why sabotage the potential relationship, assume that your judgment was off, or that his or her self-representation was false before you even lay eyes on each other? Assuming the worst could happen can increase the likelihood that it actually will.
Plan B and Career Success
You’re looking for a new job and have just been asked to interview for the most ideal position you can imagine. Or maybe you’re desperately in need of any job and you’ve gotten your first response to the many applications you’ve submitted. Friends remind you not to put all of your eggs in one basket, so you tell yourself, “It’s OK if this job doesn’t come through. Just going to an interview is good practice for the next one.” You might also think, “This would be an amazing opportunity, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s proof that my application is able to get me in the door. There are openings coming up at other places every day.” But you’ve just told yourself that failure is OK—and this prepares you for a negative outcome, because you've given yourself permission to fail.
Some people say that being too cocky or sure of yourself can jinx things. But being too blasé about a achieving a goal or having well-developed alternative plans can also potentially jinx your chances of success.
Plan B and Life in General
There are a couple of sayings that resonate with the findings of Shin and Milkman. "Life isn’t a dress rehearsal," for example, suggests that we need to focus on getting things right at the first moment we step on the stage. If you walk into any situation doubting that the scene about to unfold will be a cause for applause, you’ve already begun to sabotage the outcome.
Franklin Roosevelt told us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but creating a backup plan is evidence that fear of failure is present. When we allow fear to creep in, we give away our sense of control, autonomy, and self-confidence. Once you become afraid of failure or success, your resolve is compromised. Engaging fully and with commitment in every new interaction or pursuit leaves you with nothing to regret. Truly doing your best—even if it’s not enough—is one of the most gratifying experiences possible.
And there’s another phrase that can become a part of your self-talk: Planning for failure gives you permission to fail. We believe what we tell ourselves about the world and our potential, so remind yourself that you can succeed and that you have the tools necessary to do so; don’t build an arsenal of self-sabotaging beliefs and self-talk. A successful outcome occurs when you plan for success, so focus your energy on achieving Plan A.
Shin, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2016). How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for the future. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 135, 1-9.