3 Ways To Prevent The 'What-The-Hell Effect' From Derailing Your Goals

Do minor setbacks to your goals ever leave you abandoning them altogether? If so, you might be a victim of the 'what-the-hell effect.'

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 13, 2024

Imagine you are on a strict diet, aiming to lose weight and eat healthy. You've been doing well for a week, but one evening, you go to a party and indulge in a slice of cake. Here's how the "what-the-hell effect" might play out after this misstep:

  • Initial indulgence. You eat a slice of cake, which goes against your diet plan.
  • The feeling of failure. You feel guilty and think, "I've already broken my diet."
  • Rationalization. You tell yourself, "What the hell, I've already messed up today, so I might as well enjoy myself."
  • Further indulgence. You then proceed to eat more unhealthy food at the party, thinking that you can always start afresh tomorrow.

The "what-the-hell effect" occurs when people abandon their initial goals or resolutions after a small setback, leading to progressively indulgent behavior. It is commonly associated with dieting but can also apply to various self-regulation scenarios.

This effect is triggered by an all-or-nothing mindset, where a minor lapse leads to a sense of total failure, causing a person to give up their efforts entirely, at least temporarily. It highlights the importance of a flexible approach to goal-setting and self-regulation, allowing for minor setbacks and reducing the chance of abandoning the overall goal.

Here are three ways to overcome the downward spiral of the what-the-hell effect after a minor setback:

1. Setting Realistic Goals

When people set goals, they often think, "I will complete 'X' task in 'Y' time, in a timeframe of 'Z' many days." Their plans usually stop there, with no safe space to fail or slack when they inevitably encounter a setback.

Most people envision success as a linear path with no obstacles, where everything goes smoothly from start to finish. However, this is far from reality, and the journey towards any goal has its ups and downs.

Planning for contingencies is the realistic approach to goal setting, especially when your intentions to achieve that goal are crystal clear. Embracing the possibility of setbacks and having backup plans in place can determine whether choose to give up or power through during tense moments.

For instance, when crafting a diet plan, begin by recognizing your vulnerabilities and potential stumbling blocks. Set achievable goals, such as permitting indulgences thrice a week or rewarding yourself when you don't fall prey to your indulgent streak. This approach establishes realistic expectations and fosters a more sustainable path toward success.

2. Capping Down On The Spiral

In a dietstudy, researchers served dieting participants big slices of pizza while non-dieters got smaller ones. Then, they offered everyone a plate of cookies. The dieters ended up eating more cookies than the non-dieters. It seems the dieters felt they could eat more cookies because they had already eaten a lot of pizza and "broken" their diet.

Whether you are trying to save money, lose weight or sleep on time—it's vital to recognize when to stand down to prevent further self-sabotage fueled by the momentum of the what-the-hell effect.

Instead of riding the guilt of the initial failure into another one, pause and remind yourself that one failure doesn't define your success. When you're striving to improve how you approach challenges, it's not solely about the number of successes you achieve. What truly counts is how you respond when faced with obstacles or setbacks.

3. Being Kinder To Your Failures

When confronted with failure, the overwhelming guilt and shame of seeing your plans annihilated often drives you to harshly judge yourself and engage in self-criticism. Unfortunately, the misguided belief that self-ridicule leads to self-improvement proves ineffective in such scenarios.

Approaching failure with self-compassion and kindness is more likely to lead to goal achievement than self-criticism. A study published in the journal Self and Identity found that self-compassion is associated with wanting to learn and improve (mastery goals) and not wanting to outperform others (performance goals).

This relationship is influenced by the fact that self-compassionate individuals have less fear of failure and feel more competent. Additionally, self-compassion is linked to using coping strategies focused on emotions, like seeking support or expressing feelings, rather than avoiding strategies that ignore or prevent the problem.

Here are some ways individuals can practice self-compassion after facing a setback:

  • Practice self-kindness. Extend kindness to yourself, just as you would to loved ones. Treat and cheer yourself gently during challenging times.
  • Reframe failure as an opportunity for growth. Ask yourself, "What can I learn from this? Where's the room for improvement? How can I stop repeating this behavior?"
  • Develop compassionate mantras. Create positive affirmations to use during difficult moments, such as, "Setbacks are part of the process; my failures are progress too." These affirmations can shift your mindset, reduce self-criticism, and remind you of the bigger picture.
  • Connect with others. Share your experiences with trusted friends or a therapist. Talking about failure can provide emotional support and perspective.

Do you often fall prey to the "what-the-hell" effect? Take the Mistake Rumination Scale to know if you need professional help.

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