How to Break a Bad Habit and Cha-Cha Your Way to Success

10 actions to avoid the "what the hell effect" and stick to your goal.

Posted Apr 02, 2019

Ever have a small setback or fall into a bad mood and throw your resolutions to the wind? Ever say to hell with it because you blew your eating plan when you polished off that chocolate bar in the morning, so you decide you might as well have dessert after dinner? Or after missing a week of exercise, you chunk the whole idea of physical fitness? Welcome to the Club.

Photo  By DESIGNECOLOGIST On Unsplash
How To Lift Yourself Out Of A Bad Habit
Source: Photo By DESIGNECOLOGIST On Unsplash

Change Is A Cha Cha

It has been said that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster; it’s a cha-cha. When you’re grappling with changing a bad habit, relapse is often part of the package deal. If you were to plot the average person’s progress of changing a habit, it would make an upward zigzag, not follow an ascending straight line. When you have a setback, it’s tempting to condemn yourself and give up. This impulsive reaction is an attempt to bring quick relief to your misery of failing. So you seek comfort in the very thing you’re trying to conquer. Truth be told this attitude—scientists call it the what-the-hell effect—adds heartache on top of heartache.

The What-The-Hell-Effect

Studies show that when you’re trying to break a habit, disappointment triggers a what-the-hell attitude and turns a minor slip into a major relapse. It lets you return to the bad habit, which comforted you in the first place. Dr. Janet Polivy at the University of Toronto put the What-the-hell effect under scientific scrutiny. She served dieters unusually large slices of pizza to compare with non-dieters who were served smaller slices. When a plateful of cookies came their way, dieters were inclined to eat more of the sweets than non-dieters. Turns out the dieters saw the excessive pizza that they’d already consumed as a license to pig out.

Once provoked into a bad mood, you’re more likely to give up on your goals and engage in risky behavior (alcohol, overeating, or smoking) so you don’t have to keep feeling bad about failing. The bad mood eclipses your goal of breaking a bad habit. And the what-the-hell attitude gives you a way out—permission to backslide with whatever behavior you’re trying to change. Studies show one of the best strategies to keep you from falling into relapse is to treat yourself with compassion after your shortcomings get the better of you.

Self-Compassion: The Rx For Changing A Bad Habit

If you’re like most people, you kick yourself for your shortcomings. You probably have a deep belief that self-ridicule can help you do better. But it doesn’t. Or you might worry that giving yourself too much leeway would turn you into a total slacker. But it won’t. You don’t have to berate yourself to make successful change. Studies show that when you substitute self-compassion for self-condemnation, you foster positive change in just about anything you do.

When you have a setback—whether you’re trying to taper off alcohol, stay on an exercise regimen, or stop smoking—accepting exactly where you are without criticizing yourself makes you more likely to succeed. Self-compassion allows you to deal with the painful experience, not the added bad feelings from your self-judgment. When you’re self-compassionate, you don’t deny the hardships you’re going through. You admit the frustration and disappointment while supporting instead of attacking yourself through the struggle.

Cha-Cha Your Way To Success

Here are 10 tips to keep you from adding insult to injury and undermining your progress so you’re more likely to get back on your plan and meet your goals.

1. Accept the defeat, put down your gavel, and replace the judgment with self-compassion so you can recover more quickly.

2. Separate yourself from your shortfalls and see them for what they are: habits, old behavior patterns, or just plain mistakes that all of us make.

3. Think of foregoing that cigarette, beer, or extra piece of cake as self-care instead of self-deprivation.

4. Don’t get fooled into just looking at where you want to land and feeling disheartened that you haven’t reached your goal. Learn to look back and affirm how far you’ve come instead of how far you have to go. Then you get a truer picture of your map of progress.  

5. Talk yourself off the ledge with comforting self-talk after a setback. Self-soothing in the form of pep talks and supportive words (“You can do this”) reduces the stress and helps you hop back in the saddle and try again.

6. Pinpoint the challenge or opportunity in the relapse. When you look for opportunity in the difficulty (“How can I make this setback work to my advantage?”), instead of the difficulty in the opportunity, it renews you with the fuel of optimism.

7. Think of a setback or mistake as a lesson for you to learn more about yourself instead of a failure to endure.

8. Remind yourself of the personal resources you have to break the habit and how a setback can make you stronger and more resilient.

9. Look at the big picture. As you broaden your outlook and name all the things you’re grateful for, how important is the judgment you make against yourself? Chances are when you create a wider context, your failure loses its sting, enabling you to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

10. Remember this: Success and failure are a package deal. As long as your zigzag keeps spiraling upward, you’re “cha-cha-ing” your way to success.