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Don’t Let One Mistake Sabotage Your Success

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Here’s something you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about Willpower, a chapter about forgiveness.

There were actually a bunch of themes throughout this book that surprised me (that means more posts to follow). I was expecting a kind of “tough love” book about doing the hard work to build those big, tough willpower muscles everyone wants, but instead got an extremely insightful book into why we act the way we do.

The book I’m referring to is “The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More Of It” by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. I highly recommend this book and think it can be a great follow up to our current book club book “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way To Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones,” by James Clear.

One of the points James makes towards the closing of his book is to try your best to never mess up twice in a row. James says, “The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follow. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”

He continues, “This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.”

This past weekend I went to Walt Disney World with the family. Let’s just say…mistakes were made. Where I surprised myself, was my commitment to never fail twice in a row or just give in to what Kelly refers to as the “what the hell effect”.

The “what the hell effect” is when we screw up and go off road from our diet or workout plan, and instead of correcting course, we just say “the hell with it” and eat worse and workout less.

Kelly says, “Welcome to one of the biggest threats to willpower worldwide: the ‘what-the-hell effect.’ First coined by dieting researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, the what-the-hell effect describes a cycle of indulgence, regret, and greater indulgence. These researchers noticed that many dieters would feel so bad about any lapse—a piece of pizza, a bite of cake —that they felt as if their whole diet was blown. Instead of minimizing the harm by not taking another bite, they would say, ‘What the hell, I already blew my diet. I might as well eat the whole thing.’”

There was a study Polivy and Herman conducted where they rigged a scale to make dieters think they had gained five pounds. Would this encourage the dieters to work harder? Or would this cause them to digress.

They found the dieters felt depressed, guilty, and disappointed with themselves. Instead of resolving to lose the extra weight the scale revealed, they promptly turned back to food to try and fix those feelings.

I thought it was crazy how Kelly found study after study of guilt causing participants to further derail. College students who were guilted for the amounts of alcohol they drank, drank more the next time they went out. Procrastinators who were hard on themselves for waiting to study for an exam, waited even longer the next time!

It flies in the face of what we think is common sense, that you need to guilt people into eating right. A nutrition challenge at your local CrossFit gym should call you out on all the bad things you ate over the weekend and make you feel really bad about it, shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t we?

That’s never been my style personally, and I’m starting to realize what a strength forgiveness has become. It helps me as a coach, as a parent, and has really helped when coaching myself.

It’s made the biggest difference in my workouts, where I truly enjoy every single minute of every single one. There is never a moment I’m not grateful to just be using my fitness. There is zero guilt around not hitting old PR’s, missing lifts, or not meeting unreasonable expectations.

And then as my wife Shannon and I saw this past weekend at Disney, we love to indulge in food and drinks we know we shouldn’t have. But we always come back to eating healthy because that is what feels most natural, and helps us feel our best.

There definitely was a time where we use to say the hell with it, because eating crappy felt more comfortable and convenient. Now, the opposite is true. While eating sweets and drinking alcoholic beverages is enjoyable in the moment, too much of it feels unnatural, and gives us cravings to do something positive for our bodies.

If you’ve been perfect so far this year, congrats to you, you magical unicorn. If you’re human and you made a few wrong choices, forgive yourself. Know that the trajectory of where you’re going can’t be derailed by a bad decision here and there.

Keep Living Superhuman,
-Tony