The “What the Heck” Effect

No one knows exactly when people started making New Year’s resolutions, but whenever that was, the habit of breaking them probably started a few weeks later. Failed resolutions are such a common occurrence that a lot of leadership coaches aren’t in favor of making them at all, choosing instead to think in terms of setting intentions, cultivating behaviors, or practicing new habits. Call it whatever you like, we think hitting the reset button at the beginning of the year is a fine thing for leaders to do. As long as you don’t fall into the trap of what psychologists call the “What the Heck” Effect.

(Okay, that’s not totally true. Psychologists actually call it the “What the H-E-double-toothpick-Effect.” But in our house growing up, that was considered profanity and old habits die hard, as we shall see.)

Anyway. Let’s say this New Year, in an effort to improve your time management, you resolved to tame your email inbox and keep it close to empty at all times. Over the holiday break you spent the better part of a day cleaning out hundreds of emails. You created folders, unsubscribed to everything you could, and deleted old messages with wild abandon. You’ve got a fresh start and a new system. How great does that feel?

A few weeks later, you come into the office and you’re hit with a major customer problem that takes you out of the office most of the day. When you finally get back to your desk, you don’t have the time or energy to deal with your email. So you decide to tackle it tomorrow. But when tomorrow comes, there’s a new crisis, and you put off your resolution again.

Now from a time management standpoint, a day or two of not sticking to your inbox resolution isn’t that big a deal. But from a psychological standpoint, it might be huge. Because this is when the What the Heck Effect can come in. As your email overflows, so does your anxiety. You feel frustrated and disappointed. You might even be mad at yourself for not sticking to your guns. “What the heck,” you say to yourself, “I’ve already blown it, so what difference does it make? And you know what, that system was never going to work for me in the long run anyway.”

Yep. And just like that, you’re back to business as usual. You made one misstep, which led to another, which somehow (against all logic) led to giving yourself permission to chuck the whole thing out the window.

The What the Heck Effect isn’t something that only happens to undisciplined people. It’s about what happens when we set a goal and fail to reach it. In fact, some might argue that high achieving people are more susceptible to the What the Heck Effect, because they tend to be so goal oriented. It’s all or nothing thinking.

But take a look back at the email inbox scenario. Did you really fail to reach your goal? Or did you only perceive that you failed to reach it? This is a key distinction. One way to sidestep the WTH Effect is to remember that we’re not failing while we’re still actively trying, and get right back in the game.

Another is to remind ourselves that we’re not going to be perfect on the way to achieving our goals. In fact, starting out with that mindset is one of the surest ways to sabotage ourselves. The What the Heck Effect teaches us that it’s not about perfection, it’s about course correction. It’s not about how quickly you reach your goal, but what you do when you fall short. You can either rationalize or you can recover. Don’t let one mistake send you on a downward spiral.



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