July 25, 2018

You're sitting at your desk, finally ready to dive into that big new project put on your plate, and the scene is set: Water? Check. Snack? Check. Perfect Spotify playlist for focusing? Check. Your hands reach for the keyboard to grace the page with that first word and... nothing.

Your brain grinds to a halt.

Feel familiar? Even when we have the best intentions to get things done, we can get in our own way.

It's called "self-sabotage," and in my new book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I help readers self-diagnose the sabotaging thinking and behavioral habits that are holding them back, and provide simple, practical tips for overcoming these patterns.

To stop sabotaging yourself, you must first recognize when you’re getting in your own way. Some of the time, we’re acutely and painfully aware of this—like when we find ourselves procrastinating before taking care of a (literal or figurative) mess, so that it becomes a bigger deal to clean up later.

To stop sabotaging yourself, you must first recognize when you’re getting in your own way.
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Of course, other times we’re less aware of our self-sabotage or we misdiagnose the core problem. For example: Feeling competitive with a co-worker and missing out on the chance to actually work together.

To stop sabotaging yourself, you need to figure out your patterns of behavior and then find creative ways to counteract them and form new habits. Here are some of the practical strategies I suggest in my book.

Start Where You Can

When we procrastinate or avoid, our anxiety tends to increase. Many times, people who procrastinate don’t think to use a strategy for getting started—even though many exist. By identifying your six or seven favorite strategies, you’ll always have one that’s relevant and feels achievable in a particular situation.

When we procrastinate or avoid, our anxiety about whatever we’re avoiding tends to increase.
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Some strategies for getting started include:

●︎ Try “last things first.” Sometimes the typical final steps in a task are easier to start with than the typical first steps.

●︎ Use project to-do lists to outline every step involved in a particular project. Save your daily to-do list for things that truly need to be done that day. Project-specific to-do lists help you utilize small scraps of time. If you have five or ten minutes, you can do a tiny step from your project-specific list.

●︎ Shrink relatively unimportant tasks to the bare minimum required for getting them done. Perfectionists habitually expand the scope of projects to the point that they become unwieldy.

●︎ Pretend you’re going to outsource a task and write the instructions you’d give someone else. This can help you simplify your expectations if your demands of someone else would be more reasonable than your demands of yourself.

The strategies you prefer may change over time, but having a big list to choose from lets you try new ones when the old ones don’t work or feel stale. As your life circumstances change (such as becoming a parent or changing work roles), you’ll likely need to explore new strategies.

Make Tiny Changes

When you reduce your mental clutter, you’ll have more time and cognitive energy for correcting your thinking and behavioral biases.

In modern life, it’s extremely easy to get into a pattern of being “too busy chasing cows to build a fence.” A very common self-sabotaging habit is thinking we’ll remember to do something but then forgetting. To work around this tendency, you can design aspects of your life with the assumption that you’re going to be imperfect.

Design aspects of your life with the assumption that you’re going to be imperfect.
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In your work and home life, you can streamline your workflow so you can get simple things done without significant willpower. Tiny changes can help you feel in control.

For example, instead of having a container for pens and scissors in only one room of the house, I have these in three different rooms. This makes it much less likely I’ll leave pens lying around, since putting them back after use only involves walking a few steps, rather than going to another room and interrupting the flow of whatever I’m doing. Strategies like these save time and, more importantly, help free you up mentally.

Make Decision Making Easier With 'Rules of Thumb'

Decision making) is hugely draining—especially if you’re anxious or a perfectionist who overthinks every decision. If you can reduce cognitive fatigue from decision making, you’ll have more emotional energy for other things.

If you can reduce cognitive fatigue from decision making, you’ll have more emotional energy for other things.
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One way to do that is to use heuristics—“rules of thumb” aimed at producing a good outcome most of the time with minimal case-by-case effort. For example, to help me prioritize, I use the rule “Do tasks that are worth over $100 before any tasks worth less than $100.” No, no one is actually paying me that amount for the tasks, but it helps me better prioritize.

Even a Small Improvement Can Make All the Difference

A paradox perfectionists face in trying to reduce self-sabotage is their tendency to have inflexible standards and be dismissive of incremental gains. They want to solve a problem completely, right now, and aren’t motivated by solutions that improve a problem by, say, one, 10, or 20 percent—even if these solutions are almost effortless.

When you start to appreciate the beauty of making incremental improvements, you’ll see easy solutions that you’d previously been overlooking. Over time, even tiny improvements add up significantly. It can be extremely helpful to ask yourself, “How could I improve this by one percent?” instead of “How can I completely eliminate this sabotaging habit?” For instance, you might ask yourself, “How can I improve my problem of low self-esteem by one percent?”

It can be extremely helpful to ask yourself, “How could I improve this by one percent?” instead of “How can I completely eliminate this sabotaging habit?”
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Understand Your Seemingly Irrelevant Decisions

“Seemingly irrelevant decisions” is a concept that comes from treatment for addiction. It's making a decision that might seem like it won't make an impact—but it could lead you down a slippery slope.

You can use this same concept to understand much less destructive, but still sabotaging, behaviors. For example, you might realize that if you start a new task within 30 minutes of when you plan to leave work, it’s highly likely that you’ll leave late. Or, if you’re prone to running late for appointments, you might learn to recognize your sabotaging behavior of answering the phone when you should be walking out the door to be on time.

On the positive side, you can also learn what makes it more likely you’ll do positive, wanted behaviors later. A micro decision for me is whether I leave a document open on my computer when I plan to go back and work on it after taking a break. If I leave it open, I’ll generally go back to it. If I close it, I won’t. It can be very satisfying to understand your own psychology and realize your personal patterns.

Practice Acceptance and Self-Care

Making changes in your life requires time and energy. You can’t ask this of yourself if your psychological bank account is already in overdraft.

Sometimes people get into a trap of thinking, “When I’m being more self-disciplined or more productive, then I’ll do more self-care.” But, if you’ve run yourself to empty, try it the other way around: Allow yourself to have more experiences of pleasure before you think you “deserve” them. Otherwise, you’ll continue to run yourself into the ground and engage in self-sabotage.

Sometimes people get into a trap of thinking, “When I’m being more self-disciplined or more productive, then I’ll do more self-care.”

Another way to free up your cognitive and emotional reserves is to practice acceptance.

Ask yourself: What aspects of reality can I accept instead of ruminating on them or nagging others about them? This could be accepting certain traits of your romantic partner, occasional human error, changes at work, or something as simple as your kid liking a food one day and rejecting it the next. When you can let go of anger, anxiety, and frustration about this stuff, you’ll have more focus and energy available for productively addressing your self-sabotage.

Though everyone’s self-sabotaging may appear a little different, these tools can help you discover what yours looks like and how to address it. Following these tips and others, you can free yourself to explore new opportunities and work more efficiently. And, hopefully, you’ll get that first word on the page!

A version of this article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.


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