Oh, What the Hell

In dieting, there’s an effect that scientists have nick-named the What the Hell effect.

This effect is what happens when you’re on a good roll with your food and drinks, then something crazy happens: A piece of cake falls into your mouth! You drink a milkshake! You eat a piece of cheese!

In other words, you veer from the plan you made. That’s when all hell breaks loose.

Once the threshold has been crossed, a part of your brain says, “Ah, what the hell”… it becomes increasing difficult to stick with your plan… it feels as if you’ve already blown it… since you’ve already blown it you might as well write the entire day off… maybe you’ll go back for that other piece of cake…

Scientists have studied this and given it this nickname because they see it so often. (You can read more about this, as well as other tales of woe and redemption, in the book Willpower, by Baumeister & Tierney.) The What the Hell effect actively works against you, pulling you back into your old patterns and making creating a new habit, like sticking to your food plan, difficult to achieve.

This same principle applies to your work as well.

Imagine you’ve got a juicy new plan you’re putting into action, and you’re getting some traction. For example, say you’ve set aside an hour a day to make phone calls to former clients letting them know about your new offerings, and you’ve done it daily for an entire week; success! Then one morning something happens that interrupts your flow – mailman at the door, dog needs out, an urgent email pops in – and that’s it: What the Hell takes over. You don’t make your calls that day, and for the rest of the day you don’t take care of the other things that you wanted to do, either. The whole day feels shot.

The good news is that while the What the Hell effect is real, it’s not inevitable. Because you know about the effect now, you can put scaffolding into place to guard against it: put a giant sticky note reminding you of what you’re doing on your computer, set a timer for your ideal amount of focus time, turn off email notifications, close the door to your office.

To practice this, take a minute to think back to a time when What the Hell took over. What were you trying to do, and what happened? How did you feel, not being able to stay on track? What cascaded through the day as a result? Now imagine that same scenario, except this time you had your scaffolding in place. Something happened to derail you, yet your safeguards kicked in and you were saved! Notice how good it felt, being able to get back on track after the upset.

Even the best of us have What the Hell days; with some time and practice, you’ll be a pro at sticking to your plan, and should you veer off, you’ll have compassion for yourself, understanding what’s happening, with scaffolding to help get you back on track.

Here’s to doing your best when these days come along, and staying focused on what’s really important to you.

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