Home » 21 Day Mini-Course: Establish an Exercise Habit » Day 19: Beware the “What the Hell” Effect

Day 19: Beware the “What the Hell” Effect


Say you’ve sworn off sugar, but one morning you eat a piece of pie for breakfast. You’re now at risk for what researchers formally call the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE) and jokingly call the “what the hell effect.” If you’ve already blown your diet today, why not go hog wild? What the hell—you can begin again tomorrow, right? Wrong. The more damage you do during your binge, the more likely you are to slip again the next day, and the less confidence you’ll have in yourself that you can change.

With exercise, the “What the Hell” effect isn’t quite so obvious, as all you are really abstaining from is staying on the couch (or at work in front of your computer, or in bed) during your workout. But you’ll know the feeling. Say your boss comes in just as you are headed out the door to your favorite exercise class at the gym. She keeps you tied up until it’s too late, and you’ve missed the class. If you are anything like me, now you think you’re off the hook for exercise today. Wrong! That’s the what the hell effect sneaking up on you! Put on a fun podcast and march yourself up a few flights of stairs, or your brain will get the idea that it doesn’t actually have to habitually exercise after the trigger (which in this case, was probably time of day and leaving work).

As soon as you notice a slip, try the following to avoid getting into that “what the hell” moment:

Don’t get too emotional about your slip or succumb to self-criticism. Instead, forgive yourself. Remind yourself that lapses are part of the process, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

Rededicate yourself to your new habit (now, in this instant, not tomorrow). Why do you want to exercise today? How will you benefit? Do a little deep breathing and calm contemplation of how you want to feel.

Make a plan for the next time that you will face a similar challenge. What will you do differently? What have you learned from your slip? What temptation did you face that you can remove? Were you stressed or tired or hungry—and if so, how can you prevent that the next time?

HomeworkWhat To Do Today

Task #1: Use the page called “Beware the ‘What the Hell’ Effect” in your workbook as a tool to rededicate yourself to your new habit.

Task #2: You know what this task is, right? Because you’re starting to exercise automatically some days…right?