Should you have a backup goal?

People set goals for all sorts of reasons. Some people want to get a higher score in a game or complete it in a different way. Others try to eat healthier or save more. People also seek new professional achievements or educational progress.

Goals — particularly goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely — can help people achieve their aspirations. However, as people work towards theirs goals, sometimes that goal becomes unattainable. For example, someone might set a goal to walk 10,000 steps a day, and, one a particular day, it becomes unachievable because of bad weather or a busy schedule. They may give up on exercising entirely that day, even if they could still have gotten a fair amount of steps and be active. This is called the lost day problem.

One explanation for this problem is that people stop striving toward the target behavior once the threshold in their goal no longer becomes attainable. Previous exploratory research suggested that having two goals, e.g., a primary goal and a backup goal, might motivate people to keep trying even when their primary goal becomes unachievable.

We conducted two studies to determine the effects of backup goals in online games . Full details can be found in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.

The three online casual games used in the studies: Snake game (left), Whack-A-Mole game (middle), Boggle game (right). (Code repositories: Snake and Whack-A-Mole, Boggle)

We randomly assigned participants to three groups: no goals, one goal, and two goals. People in the one goal condition were asked to set a goal before they played the game; people in the two-goal condition were asked to set a primary goal and a backup goal. All participants could play as long (or as many times) as they wanted.

We found that:

  1. The number of goals was not related to performance. In other words, setting a backup goal did not increase participant game scores.
  2. People with two goals played longer. Participants who set a primary and a backup goal played more times or longer than those with only one goal or without a goal.
  3. People with two goals who achieved both goals had higher self-appraisals of performance than all the other groups. However, participants who only achieved backup goals did not think they did better than those who only set one goal, regardless of their actual scores.
  4. Among those with two goals, if someone met their backup goal, there was a 49% chance they would quit before reaching their primary goal. Meeting a backup goal seems to be satisfying enough that many participants stop playing after achieving it.

Having a backup goal can motivate people to spend more effort toward the goals they set. People might also feel better after achieving a backup goal, which has the potential to keep them motivated towards their long-term goals. However, during the single session of game play, as in our studies, this additional effort and motivation does not lead to higher performance.

While our results don’t support setting both a primary goal and a secondary goal for one-time behaviors, as it appeared not to affect performance, they suggest questions for future research.

Game design and goal achievement

In all games, the majority of participants who met their backup goal also met their primary goal. However, they achieved their primary goals at a much greater rate in boggle than in snake and whack-a-mole. Among people with two goals, 86% of participants playing the boggle game achieved both goals while 8% achieved only backup goals. In contrast, 52% of snake game and the whack-a-mole players achieved both goals while 23% of these participants achieved only backup goals.

Percentage of participants with two goals achieving primary goals, backup goals, and no goals in different games

Differences in game and study design may account for these differences in goal achievement. These differences include whether participants played a practice round before setting goals, the achievability of the goals they set, and whether the game had distinct rounds, at which participants could choose to play again or quit.

1. Practice rounds (or the lack thereof) may inform how people in the two condition set their goals: Participants in the snake game and the whack-a-mole game had a chance to play a base round and therefore knew their limitation. As a result, the primary goals set by these participants were, on average, as high as goals in the one goal condition, while there backup goals were a fallback, which are 40% lower than their primary goal.

In contrast, participants playing the boggle game had no experience from which to predict their performance and knew they could play as long as they wanted. Their backup goals were comparable to the goals set by participants in the one goal condition, while they set primary goals that are 1.8 times higher than their backup goals.

2. Achievability of goals may affect how hard people tried: It is possible that reaction time and computer setups limited participant performance in the snake game and the whack-a-mole game. Therefore participants felt frustrated seeing little improvement after trying several times, thought their goals were not achievable, and became more likely to give up as soon as they achieved the backup goal. In contrast, performance of the boggle game is only limited by the amount of time participants were willing to play or number of words contain in a board (we designed the game so that the number of words were sufficiently large and that was never a constraint). Hence, participants in the boggle game might think their goals were more achievable and they would be more willing to keep trying.

3. In boggle, the default was to keep playing, while in snake and whack-a-mole, breaks between rounds made people choose to stop or continue. Participants in the snake game and the whack-a-mole games played several rounds and could decide whether they would like to play again or stop between each round. Those who already achieved their backup goals might have considered it a good time to stop. On the other hand, with no time limit or defined “rounds”, participants in the boggle game could keep playing — and increasing their score — as long as they wanted. This served as a default to continue playing in boggle, while snake and whack-a-mole players had to make an explicit choice to stop or continue each round.

We would need future research to understand whether or how these game designs influence how people achieve their goals. In turn, these understandings might help game designers to encourage people to keep playing or to take a break.

What do these results mean for other goals, like exercise?

We don’t know, but we can speculate and suggest future research based on ways other behaviors are similar or different from casual games. As we note above, one key difference between our study and many everyday behaviors is duration. In our study, or in a single session of game play, it might be preferable to pursue achieving one’s high score goal. One might also want to achieve performance peaks in exercise or to make a single financial decision in the most thrifty way possible. From the perspective of a single session, if achieving backup goals encourages people to stop with lower performance, those goals would be undesirable.

However, from a longer-term perspective, performance in a single session matters less. Players might evaluate games by how much engagement or entertainment they provide over time. In behavior change contexts, long-term trends often matter most: getting fit and obtaining the long-term benefits of exercise requires regular, sustained exercise. Saving for a house, college, or retirement requires a series of good financial decisions (or starting from a very fortunate place). So, consider someone who achieves a backup goal and quits their exercise session without achieving their primary goal. Someone with one goal might strive for that goal, and perform better, while still failing to achieve the goal — and thus appraise themselves lower than someone who achieved at least a backup goal. That person with two goals, lower objective performance, and the higher self-appraisal might be more likely to come back the next day, and thus be better off in the long term. It will, however, be up to future studies to assess this.

For further reading please check out our paper in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. If you want to know more about the research or want to share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you! Please contact Christina Chung at