The beginning of a new year is normally a time when many of us plot for self-improvement and set resolutions for the year to come.
Sadly, despite our best intentions, research shows that most resolutions are not maintained over time. In a late-1980s study from the University of Scranton, researchers found that, of a group of 200 “resolvers,” only 55% had kept up their resolutions after one month, 43% after three months, and a mere 19% had done so at the two-year follow-up.
Despite how much so many of us want to achieve our goals, changing our behaviors and habits is notoriously difficult.
Our self-improvement efforts fail for many reasons, and it can be easy to get discouraged. One pitfall is the aptly named “what-the-hell” effect. And yes, that’s really how scientists refer to it (take a read of Roy F. Baumeister and Jon Tierney’s book, Willpower, for more discussion of the concept).
Have you ever set out to lose weight, but then eat something you weren’t supposed to and think, “Oh well, I’ve already blown it for today. I might as well have more”? If you’ve ever done something like this before (because haven’t we all?), you understand this “what-the-hell” response.
This nefarious psychological phenomenon causes us to abandon our goal because of a small failure and can lead to a downward spiral of behavior. And unfortunately, it’s not limited to dieting.
Anytime we set a change goal for ourselves, we can get derailed by the “what-the-hell” effect. However, there are ways we can dodge this common pitfall and stay on track. Try these proven strategies to help you strive more successfully toward your goals:
Grant yourself wiggle room
If you find yourself falling into “what-the-hell” thinking, it likely signals you need to set a more realistic goal.
When we endeavor to improve ourselves, it’s unrealistic to assume that we’ll get it right all the time. We can be more successful in achieving our goals when we allow for the inevitable setbacks upfront. Studies have demonstrated that setting goals that aim high but allow for fumbles along the way help people stick with their goals longer and get back on track when they miss the mark.
Grant yourself a limited number of free passes for slipping up. For example, let’s say your goal is to start meditating every day. To avoid saying “what-the-hell” and throwing in the towel when you miss a day, set a specific number of days per week (say, 1-2 days) where you can take a pass if necessary.
You might think that allowing yourself these free passes may tempt you to skip days unnecessarily. However, the same research showed that people persist even more with their goals because they want to avoid using their “emergency” reserve.
Giving yourself wiggle room ensures that you’re making your goal realistic. But how you frame your goal is also key to your success and evading the feeling of, “who cares anyway?”
The most effective goals are ones that move you toward your desired results (“approach goals”) versus away from the negative outcomes you’re looking to avoid (“avoidance goals”). Relative to avoidance goals, approach goals increase goal success and boost psychological well-being.
Imagine you have an ambitious creative project that you want to complete this year. Rather than resolving to “stop wasting time surfing and doomscrolling,” phrase your goal as, “I will spend five hours per week working on my project.” This positive framing increases your likelihood of success.
Prepare for obstacles
We all run into obstacles on the path to our goal. Creating plans for when we hit these inevitable hurdles helps us avoid a “what-the-hell” response and follow through on our intentions.
Let’s return to the example of having an ambitious project you want to complete. Start by listing the obstacles you’ll likely run into as you strive toward your goal. Next, create “if-then plans” for when you run into that obstacle. A sample implementation intention might be: “If I find myself wasting time on social media, I will close it immediately and return to my project.”
Called “implementation intentions” by the scientific community, nearly 100 studies demonstrate their powerful effect on behavior. By making simple “if-then” plans for when and where you’ll perform your new habit (especially in the face of challenge) you are far more likely to follow through and achieve your goal.
Reframe yourself as a work in progress
The “what-the-hell”effect highlights an essential element of successful change. It’s not just how often you hit your goal. It’s also what you do when you inevitably fail.
Do you self-criticize and feel defeated, or do you see failure as part of your journey to success? To bounce back from setbacks more quickly, adopt a growth mindset. By seeing yourself as capable of improvement and failure as an opportunity to learn, you are more likely to persist in the face of challenge.
In addition, practice self-compassion. Rather than dwell on your mistakes and beat yourself up when you veer off track, treat yourself as you would a friend in a similar situation. Among its benefits, practicing self-compassion boosts your resilience, improves your well-being, and will help you move forward productively.
Change is hard, and you are human. Therefore, you will make mistakes and have setbacks. However, by seeing yourself as a work in progress and taking an accepting approach to failure, you can maintain your motivation and increase your chances of success.
When you’re pursuing an ambitious change goal, it’s unrealistic to assume you’ll be right on target the entire time. Like a boat tacking back and forth on the way to its destination, achieving our goals requires a lot of course correcting. By following these strategies, you can evade the “what-the-hell” effect when you go off-track and arrive at your destination.
Dina Denham Smith is the founder of Cognitas, an executive and team coaching firm. Her clients include senior leaders and teams at companies such as Adobe, Netflix, and PwC.