Commentary: Your back-up plan is sabotaging your goals at work

Commentary: Your back-up plan is sabotaging your goals at work

Having a back-up plan is a prudent move isn't it? But it has other huge drawbacks including lowering your motivation and weakening your confidence, says one executive coach.

office computer work life
Working on a laptop. (Photo: lukasbieri on Pixabay)

SINGAPORE: Despite our best-laid plans, sometimes things just don't turn out the way they should – which is why it is conventional wisdom to have a back-up plan to "luck-proof" our goals.

In Singapore, where we are known for world-class efficiency and preparedness, it is not uncommon to even have a back-up plan for the back-up plan. This is not quite "kiasuism" at work; many simply see it as a sign of readiness, responsibility, even foresight.

We could almost sum up our obsession with back-up plans like this: If Plan A is for attaining dreams, Plan B is for avoiding nightmares.

Research suggests otherwise. Your back-up plan may well be the culprit that is making you fail on your goals. 

Psychologists at the University of Zurich have found that back-up plans change the way we pursue a goal, and affect our probability of achieving it,  even if we never use the back-up plan. They believe that a back-up plan can constitute as an additional cost in terms of time and resources, which can undermine our motivation to persist with our first-choice plan.

In another study, scientists at Wisconsin and Pennsylvania gave 160 university students a sentence-unscrambling challenge, with the promise of a energy bar if they performed well. Half of the students were told to think of ways to get free food in the campus should they fail to earn the energy bar. 

At the end of the challenge, the students who were prompted to think of back-up plans fared significantly worse than those who did not think of a back-up plan.

In my work as an executive coach, I found that executives who prepared back-up plans fell short on their goals more frequently, compared to those who went all-in. There are three reasons why your back-up plan can hurt your chances of success.


The very nature of a back-up plan is to anticipate and prepare for failure. That is a pessimistic way to get started on any goal.

Having a back-up plan can be a signal that you are planning for failure, which affects your confidence and the confidence others have in you. 

In a survey reported by The Harvard Gazette, 62 percent of respondents thought that requesting a prenuptial agreement sends a negative signal about the future of the marriage. “It’s like you’re planning for divorce. It signals that you think there’s a positive probability for divorce,” said researcher Heather Mahar of Harvard Law School.

Many studies have proven the power of visualisation to help individuals perform better. World-class athletes such as gold-medalist swimmer Missy Franklin mentally picture their success to draw themselves closer to their desired outcome. The converse also applies  – if you’re picturing and preparing for failure, you’re more likely to fail.

USA's Missy Franklin won four-gold medals at the 2012 London Games
Missy Franklin won four-gold medals at the 2012 London Games. (Photo: AFP/Tom Pennington)

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The path to success is almost never smooth. If you’re pursuing something worthwhile, it is unlikely to be easy. 

You may know the saying: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” But when the going gets tough  –  and you have a Plan B  –  you’re more likely to give up than to tough it out. 

This is probably why many in history have gone to great lengths to avoid a back-up plan. Ancient military commanders like Julius Caesar and Hernan Cortes would burn their ships the moment they reach the battlegrounds to banish any thought of a retreat. 

The Japanese samurai warriors took this concept to a whole new level – failing a mission meant performing seppuku or honour suicide, first performed by the ancient samurai Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180.

Your back-up plan can make it too convenient to give up when you hit a temporary setback , one that is entirely possible to overcome. If you have a Plan B, your motivation may never be where it needs to be.

Young entrepreneurs would know. The founders of HungryGoWhere, one of Singapore’s most successful startups, had no back-up plan when they started out – it was all-or-nothing. Co-founder Wong Hoong An has said in an interview:

When we first started … we did not have startup grants, or MDA, there was nothing. So you had to have a business that works, and if it didn’t, there was no back-up plan.

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After you have a back-up plan, you might think you can stop thinking about it so it does not distract you. But it is still there, humming away quietly in the background of your mind. Its mere presence can affect your focus when you’re trying to make Plan A work.

There is a real possibility that the back-up plan takes on a life of its own. It may spawn new ideas in your mind, evolving to become a viable, even more attractive alternative. 

When I was a C-level executive of a large multinational company, I led teams of extremely talented individuals on time-sensitive, high-pressure projects. I noticed that the teams that were single-minded in their plans from the outset tend to deliver their best work in time, while others got mired in a number of red-herring alternatives that diluted their focus.

A team of people working in an office over a table with open laptops.
A team of people working in an office over a table with open laptops. (Photo: Pixabay)

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A senior executive that I coach loves back-up plans. He takes a lot of pride in coming up with solid Plan Bs. The problem is, they are so good, they compete with his original plan. Because of that, he would regularly fall short of achieving his targets.

It was only when he let go of all his back-up plans, other than a basic safety net, did he finally succeed in following through on his Plan A.

If the singular objective is to succeed on your goal, you might want to start thinking about Plan C instead of Plan B.

Plan C is the option that protects you from the worst-case scenario, yet is in no way desirable enough to make failure acceptable.

Plan C does not distract you from Plan A, because it is simply not good enough to be considered as an alternative. Yet it also disaster-proofs the outcome.

That is what a safety net is for anyway  –  saving your life if you fall; it’s not meant to be a hammock.

For this strategy to work, be sure that your Plan A is indeed the right one. Consider all alternatives objectively, some of our Plan Bs could have been Plan As had we evaluated them with more care.

Here’s one way to approach the decision: Think about your Plan A almost as if you’re getting married to it. Move beyond the passion and excitement. Settle down and consider carefully. Do you really want to go through with this? How are you going to handle the rough patches? What do you need to do to make this work?

Nothing less than a resounding "yes"’ would do.

Because Plan B is like the college sweetheart who is still carrying a torch for you. And will be “here for you” when you run into problems with Plan A.

Plan C is being single and having lonely nights watching reruns on TV

If you want Plan A to work out, you have to forget Plan B. Occasionally remind yourself of Plan C, shudder, and make Plan A work.

Victor Ng is a certified executive coach at Sherpa Leadership. He helps executives and entrepreneurs become more resilient leaders in today’s increasingly challenging workplace.  

Source: CNA/sl