The Glory of the Cheat Day

A new study suggests that planned lapses in self-control can help you stick with your goals over time.

Lisi Niesner / Reuters

If you’re on a strict diet—Paleo, say, or Atkins—there are likely some foods you’re instructed to rarely, if ever, allow near your face.

But a recent study suggests that it’s best to plan certain days on which you’ll cast off the shackles of your diet—or budget, or workout plan, or whatever ascetic goal you’ve set for yourself—and really just let loose. Temporarily, that is.

These so-called planned hedonic deviations, or “cheat days,” can boost your drive in the long run.

Over the course of three experiments published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and flagged by BPS Research Digest, researchers gauged whether subjects would be better able to stick with their goals if they were allowed cheat days.

First, the participants imagined either being on a 1,500-calorie diet every day or a 1,300-calorie diet with a 2,700-calorie splurge day at the end of each week. Those with the splurge option predicted they would have more self control by the end, and they could come up with more strategies to overcome temptation than the others, even though they were on the stricter diet plan.

Then, the researchers asked 36 participants to actually do the two diets for two weeks. Those who had the cheat day reported they were better able to sustain their motivation and self-control than those who ate the same amount each day. Surprisingly, the two groups lost similar amounts of weight.

Finally, the study authors asked a new set of participants to describe their personal goals on a questionnaire. They told the participants about the two paths to achieving goals—with cheat days and without. The cheat-day plan, the subjects said, seemed more helpful for their motivation, no matter what their goal was.

The authors theorize that when we’re intently focused on a strenuous target, we sometimes view the smallest lapse as evidence the entire endeavor has failed. This sets off a “failure cascade,” or more bluntly, the “what the hell” effect. (Might as well eat the whole box...) A zero-tolerance approach strains motivation, and the forbidden fruit only ripens with time. But cheat days are like mini-vacations from your self-control. Just like taking a Christmas vacation doesn’t mean you’ve failed at work, getting a burger on Sunday doesn’t mean you’ve failed at being (overall) pretty healthy.

Plus, according to their results, this “intermittent striving” tends to put people in a better mood—something eating only 1,500 calories each day isn’t known for doing.