You have an essay to write. You know you should start now. You know the longer you put it off, the harder the task will become. You read the question. It seems okay. Maybe it will be easy. How long does it take to write 2000 words anyway? You have a week until it’s due. Maybe you’ll start it tomorrow.
You’ve done all your reading. But you’re not happy with that opening paragraph. If you could just get that right, you know the rest of the essay would flow from there. **sigh** You've rewritten it at least five times. Why does it have to be so hard? You don’t feel in the mood to work on your essay now. What’s the point? - it’s probably not going to be any good anyway.
If you find yourself behaving in a way which you know isn’t going to help you achieve a goal you desire then you are almost certainly a victim of self-sabotage. In today’s blog post I’ll explain why you are sabotaging your essay success and what to do about it. If you know on an intellectual level that you DO things you SHOULDN’T do and DON’T do things you SHOULD, then read on!
From time to time (or maybe all the time) we find ourselves behaving in a way that runs counter to what we want to achieve. And that realisation can baffle us. Nowhere is this issue starker than when we are studying at university.
University comes at an important and formative stage in life when we are beginning to stand on our own two feet and we have to learn how to organise, manage and prioritise what we want to do. It also comes at a stage where we may understandably lack experience and self-awareness.
It’s no surprise we often find our behaviour doesn’t always align with our goals. And it’s often when we reach a crunch point in our studies such as an essay or exam deadline that we realise we have sabotaged our best efforts and have underachieved. The really frustrating part? We often repeat the same pattern again. And again. And again.
Why would I sabotage my own success?
Good question, my friend. It seems bizarre, doesn’t it?
If you want to do something, why would you do things which make it LESS likely to happen? Why wouldn’t you choose activities which are MORE likely to get you the result, and as quickly and easily as possible? The reason is self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage is any pattern or thoughts, behavior or actions which results in you falling short of a goal you’re consciously working towards. It’s upsetting because we sometimes find ourselves doomed to repeat the same lessons over and over again without seeming to learn from them.
But the secret to understanding and preventing self-sabotage is realising you actually have TWO sets of goals. Conscious goals and unconscious goals. What underlies self-sabotage is a conflict between what we consciously want and unconsciously fear.
Imagine trying to swim when there’s a strong undercurrent traveling in the opposite direction. Even though you put effort into moving towards your goal, underneath the surface there are forces dragging you further away.
When it comes to studying, you may have a conscious goal of completing your essay early, but subconsciously you may have a goal of protecting yourself from failure, pain or physical, mental or emotional discomfort.
You have to give your brain some credit here.
It’s doing it’s best to take care of you and make your life as safe and comfortable as possible. But being comfortable isn’t often a springboard to success! Once you realise you have this safety mechanism to protect you against unpleasant outcomes, you can choose to correct the flawed or faulty thinking that triggers the self-sabotage behaviour. When you recognise self-sabotage behaviour you can CHOOSE to act differently, which means you’re more likely to behave in ways which support your goals instead of undermining them.
When we find ourselves repeating the self-sabotage behaviour it's usually because we only deal with the surface level problem or don’t deal with the problem at all. And because the underlying fear remains unaddressed, we are locked into a pattern where we react to events, circumstances and people in ways which stop us from making progress and ultimately undermine the goals we want to achieve.
Breaking free from self-sabotage behaviours
If we want to break free from this frustrating cycle once and for all, we need to:
Identify the self-sabotage behaviour
Understand the behaviour
Choose a different, supportive behaviour
Practice the new behaviour until it becomes a habit
Identify the behaviour
The first step is to notice when you are displaying the self-sabotage behaviour. Often this will become apparent when you find yourself angry or frustrated with yourself for messing something up. This is a signal to you that you are self-sabotaging yourself. By becoming consciously aware of what you are doing and the outcome of that behaviour, you can put a plan in place to overcome it and prevent it happening again. Remember, we are often unaware of self-sabotage behaviour and that's why it's so insidious and difficult to tackle. Just getting it out in the open and acknowledging it is a start.
Understand the behaviour
Instead of staying in these emotions, now is the perfect time to reflect on what has happened and why. For example, if you have had to stay up all night to complete an essay and you didn't have time to properly proofread it and edit it, then sit down with your journal and pen and ask yourself why this happened. Every time you ask why? take the reflection deeper. It could look like this:
I did not have time to proofread and edit my essay. Why?
Because I wrote most of it the night before the deadline. Why?
Because I spent most of the week working on ideas for the Sports and Social Committee. Why?
Because it was fun. Why?
Because it involves other people and I get lonely on my own. Ta-da!
Now you've dug down into the issue you have insight into what is driving the behaviour. Your deep-seated underlying fear of being lonely means you are more likely to gravitate towards activities which are social instead of those which are solitary. Knowing and naming this fear enables you to stop and choose a different approach. One which addresses the fear AND helps you achieve your goal.
Choose a different, supportive behaviour
Now you have identified and understood what lies under the self-sabotaging behaviour, it's time to act. It's unlikely you can simply will yourself to change so you suddenly act in a more resourceful way. It is much better to choose a different approach to the task which meets your underlying needs as well as getting you closer to your goals.
Take time to identify a new, different and appropriate way of responding to help you achieve your goals and objectives. Ask yourself how you could respond in a more appropriate and proactive way that would help you get what you want.
In this case, if the solitary nature of essay writing is a situation you unconsciously avoid, experiment with writing in the university library where there are people around - even if you are concentrating on your studies! Or form a study group with friends; you can check out my blog post on setting up a study group here. This way you can have some company and external motivation and the task won't seem so unappealing.
Practice the new behaviour
Once you have chosen how you are going to behave in future, you need to practice implementing it as often as possible. It can take between four and six weeks to completely break an old habit and establish a new one. Be intentional in the way you behave and stay vigilant so you don't slip back into the old way of doing things. Place some reminders where you can see them. A post-it note in a prominent place, a subtle reminder on the lock screen on your phone, or changing your computer password to a short phrase which jogs your memory are all good ways of supporting your new behaviour.
There you have it - a plan to stop sabotaging behaviour in its tracks and keep you on the straight and narrow path to achieveing your goals. Now, you know why you find yourself repeating the same unhelpful way of thinking and working and have a four step process to correct your mindset and your method.
Do you self-sabotage? What do you do which frustrates you and stops you reaching your goals? Tell me in the comments below.