Why do you self-sabotage and how can you stop doing it?

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Self-sabotage might sound like a dramatic way to behave but, in fact, it’s a relatively common type of reaction for many writers…

When I was in high school and university, I always left writing my papers until the night before they were due. At the time, I just thought I was too lazy to squeeze in the work any earlier. But I now understand that this was a pretty obvious type of self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage refers to behaviors or thoughts that hold us back or prevent us from doing what we want to do. While the human capacity for self-sabotage is almost infinite, here are seven of the most common reasons for it.  Do any of them ring a bell with you?

  1. You’re bored
  2. You prefer the immediate kind of reward you can get from answering an email
  3. You can’t say no to other tasks or other people
  4. You’re worried about being an imposter 
  5. You need your work to be perfect
  6. You’re afraid (whether of failure or success)
  7. You’ll do it, but later

When things go wrong for us — for example, we miss deadlines or we do shoddy work on a project or report — we tend to blame ourselves harshly, as if we were bad people.

Understand that you are not a bad person! And you’re probably not lazy either. The roots of many self-sabotaging behaviours can be traced back to childhood and youth. Perhaps your parents didn’t pay enough attention to you unless you were causing trouble. Maybe teachers didn’t give you adequate or thoughtful feedback. Or perhaps you faced anxiety (the most common — and often, undiagnosed and untreated — mental health challenge facing young people). 

But I’m not suggesting you blame anyone. Instead, I’m suggesting that you compassionately resolve to end the self-sabotage. Here’s what you can do:

  • Understand how self-sabotage operates. Blame is a game that might seem to make other people responsible, but it’s also a game that you can never win. Instead of looking to blame, aim to become healthier.
  • Give yourself exceptionally small goals. People don’t procrastinate because they’re lazy. They procrastinate because the job they’ve taken on is too painful, too boring or too overwhelming. If you’d use any of these terms to describe your work, make your time commitment small enough that you won’t be tempted to procrastinate. I often advocate writing for no more than five minutes a day as a way of short-circuiting the desire to procrastinate. Also, breaking the habit of editing while you write can make the act of writing far less painful. 
  • Undertake tasks that help you feel better about yourself. If you already enjoy your work, this suggestion may be unnecessary. But if you don’t enjoy it, make sure you get some pleasure in other areas of your life. Perhaps you can set up a side gig that you find enormously satisfying and that even earns you a small bit of income? Or maybe you can volunteer for an organization that you really believe in. (Yes, there are many volunteer opportunities even during the pandemic. One of my daughters is making weekly phone calls to a shut-in senior.) As well, meditating and getting exercise are two projects that will help most people. 
  • Embrace a growth-mindset. We can all become better at anything we want to do — if we’re prepared to work at it. Carol Dweck’s research has shown that what she calls a growth mindset (believing that hard work is more essential than talent) is crucial to success. I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own case. While I was born with ample talent for editing, I had almost no natural ability as a writer. My determination and hard work are the attributes that have allowed me to become a competent writer who now enjoys the work (something I never imagined I’d be able to say.)
  • Develop strategies that will allow you stop multi-tasking. The amount of time you spend on social media or doom-scrolling about the political situation in the US, the less time you’re going to have to accomplish the researching, writing and editing you need to do. Plus, too much time on your phone is only going to make you feel more stressed and uncomfortable. Declare times of day when you will free yourself from the yoke of your phone and allow yourself to do the work you really want to accomplish. This strategy will require turning off your phone (or putting it in another room) and perhaps even shutting down your internet browser. You can use software to help you enforce this decision: Focus at will, Cold Turkey and Self-Control.  
  • Get some accountability. Most of us respond to deadlines. But when a project is big (for example, a 10,000-word paper or a 70,000-word book), we have a hard time managing the lack of daily accountability we’ll need to get the work done. It’s way too easy to sluff off a day’s worth of writing, arguing that we’re too tired or too busy and we can “make it up” tomorrow. The secret to avoiding this problem is to have an accountability partner. I act as an accountability coach for the people in my Get It Done group, but you can also find your own such partner — provided they’re able to give you adequate grief if you don’t actually do your work.
  • Understand that everyone deals with some degree of negativity. You are not alone in feeling inadequate or incapable of doing your work. I like to remind writers that the wildly successful Maya Angelou always felt that she was on the verge of being “unmasked” as a pretender. Accept that these fears are a predictable side effect of being a writer. If Maya Angelou could continue, you can, too. 
  • Surround yourself with positive people. We are often dragged down by the people around us. If you interact only with Negative Norms and Down-in-the-dumps Darcies, you’ll soon start feeling terrible yourself. The more positive people you have in your life, the more likely you’ll be able to stop self-sabotaging yourself. Joining a club or taking a class to learn how to do something new are both good ways to meet new people. Pro-tip: Positive people tend to volunteer a lot so here’s another reason for looking for a good place where you can give back, getting something in return. 

Self-sabotage is something that almost all writers struggle with. Don’t decide that you’re helpless or hopeless in the face of this challenge. Instead, take simple steps to deal with it.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed whether digital printers are helpful with editing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Do you ever self-sabotage? What do you tend to do? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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