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What the Hell Effect: The Slippery Slope to NEVER Eliminating a Bad Habit

We’ve all been there…

You are trying, with all your willpower, not to eat bad food; but that slice of pizza is simply calling to you.

“Eat me, eat me,” the pizza is practically screaming. So your willpower snaps and you eat the slice.

Then what usually happens?

After that, do you chalk it up as a mistake and jump right back into your diet?

WRONG!!!

For most dieters the response is something like:

What the hell! I’ve already screwed up, so I might as well enjoy my failure.

Next thing you know you’re knee deep in cardboard boxes, crusts and empty coke cans after a weekend of binge eating pizza.

Obviously, I’m trying to be humorous here, but the “what the hell effect” is a very real problem that is anything but funny.

It can have a disastrous consequence on any type of restrictive habit change: Saving money, limiting alcohol consumption, eating, shopping, gambling or even an addiction to Facebook.

If you are changing a habit and you go over your “limit,” there is a really good chance that the “what the hell effect” will rear its ugly head.  And once this happens you might slip into a bizarre behavior pattern that often results in complete failure.

Let me explain…

An Example of the “What the Hell Effect”

The “what the hell effect” can be found for any sort of goal-setting or willpower task, but it’s most commonly found when people are dieting.

Numerous experiments have shown that when someone on a calorie restrictive diet goes “over” their limit, they are far more likely to over-indulge than someone who is on no diet at all.

Anyone who has tried to diet at some point can probably think of a time where they blew their diet in a spectacular manner. (This is one of the many reasons why “diet” is considered a bad word by many nutritionists because it focuses on short-term changes instead of a total modification of a behavior.)

The Root Cause of the “What the Hell Effect”

Willpower has no on/off switch.  It is like a muscle. It can be built and strengthened through use, but it can also wear out and become fatigued. (This is also known as ego depletion.)

Everything you do that requires willpower, weakens your resolve and makes the likelihood of success at your next use of willpower less likely.

This is why it’s important to not try more than one significant habit change at a given time. Trying to do too much weakens that willpower and makes the occurrence of a “what the hell effect” slip-up even more likely.

(Find out more about the importance of Willpower in Baumeister and Tierney’s great book: Willpower.)

How to Prevent the “What the Hell Effect”

If the “what the hell effect” is natural and something most people experience from time to time, how can it be prevented?

Here are a four ways to minimize this problem:

1. Set specific short term goals.

Goals that last too long can weigh down willpower. By breaking them into smaller specific chunks you give your willpower the best chance for success. The idea here is to create small wins that help you build emotional momentum, which helps you overcome those small “hiccups” that often occur with a major habit change.What the Hell Effect

2. Use accountability logs.

Don’t fall into the trap of using yes/no outcomes with your habit changes.  Mistakes happen. When you maintain an overall positive daily trend with a habit, it becomes easier to accept those small failures.  Simply take note of the mistake, record it in your journal and then move on.  This is the best formula to NOT turn a minor mistake into a habit catastrophe.

3. Understand the underlying problems.

Just the realization that you are engaging in “what the hell effect” thinking can help talk yourself down from a huge amount of backsliding. Remind yourself not to turn a “little” mistake become a “big” mistake by remembering that everyone experiences some form of habit regression from time to time.

4. Turn goals into celebrations.

Alcoholics Anonymous does this to great effect. The ultimate goal is to limit drinking, but the celebratory goals are ANY days when you haven’t drank. This takes it from a limiting goal to a building goal by simply looking at the problem from a different perspective.

If you desire to change your habits the important thing to remember is we all encounter “what the hell effect” once in a while.  The simplest plan for avoiding it is to focus on one habit at a time, be specific in your goal setting, and understand that mistakes will happen.

When you realize you’re experiencing this kind of mindset, you can avoid complete failure and simply have a “bad day” that’s easy to overcome.

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