When a test, project, or deadline looms, do you apply yourself harder or binge shows on Netflix? If you’re prone to the latter, you probably realize on some level that you’re engaging in “self-sabotaging” behaviors. In other words, your brain is trying to soften the blow of potential failure by manufacturing circumstances that prevent you from carrying out a stressful activity.
But a new study out of Indiana University (IU) reveals something surprising about self-sabotage: Whether you’re a person who identifies as a “morning person” or a “night owl”—terms that correlate with your peak hours of alertness and energy—you are most likely to undermine yourself when you should theoretically be at your best.
Why? Because avoidance takes nearly as much effort as actual work. “You can get yourself more worked up about something when you have the resources to be able to think it through,” says Ed Hirt, lead study author and professor of social psychology in the IU department of psychological and brain sciences.
Though Cori Magnotta, a product specialist in Portland, Connecticut, identifies as a night owl, she jokingly refers to herself as a “permanently exhausted pigeon.” In a recent example of self-sabotage, she needed to clean the house for her two-year-old’s birthday party but “was a sloth all day and then around 8 p.m. started running around and cleaning like a maniac,” she says.
Having bitten off too large a task to complete in the time, Magnotta stayed awake for “almost 24 hours straight to finish before the guests arrived.” The root of this behavior, she says, “comes from a place of feeling overwhelmed. Shutting down doesn’t take much effort, but dealing with the anxiety of knowing that I should be productive takes effort.”
Self-sabotaging is almost always related to the woolly emotional monster that we call fear.
Morning people suffer from self-sabotage, too. Antonia Malchik, a Montana writer and morning person who finds the brittle hour of 4 a.m. her most productive, has figured out how to sabotage her peak hours by staying up too late. “I know perfectly well that if I don’t go to bed by 9:30 at night, I won’t be getting up at 4 a.m.”
And she doesn’t stop there if she’s on a self-sabotage streak. “I’ll use up all my morning work time by checking Twitter,” she says, tracing this behavior to a fear of failure. “It would make a lot more sense to deal with fear by just doing the work, but there are times when the fear is overwhelming and I end up giving into panic.” TV is her drug of choice when the anxiety comes.
“Self-sabotaging is almost always related to the woolly emotional monster that we call fear,” Dr. Juli Fraga, a San Francisco psychologist, says. “People may self-sabotage when they are afraid of failure, or success for that matter… The fear of failing is larger than failure itself, [which] is really just an opportunity for self-growth.”
To understand these fairly common habits of self-sabotage, the IU research team administered intelligence tests to 237 students (male and female), either at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m., in accordance with whichever time the students identified as their peak hours.
Half of the group was told that stress would affect performance on the test, and the other half was told it would not. The research team then allowed students to use “recent elevated stress” as an excuse for why they would not do well on the test—in essence, testing to see who would self-sabotage by claiming stress.
It would make a lot more sense to deal with fear by just doing the work, but there are times when it’s too overwhelming.
“What we found was those people who were at their peak times were the ones who took advantage of that stress opportunity. Whereas people at their non-peak times, they didn’t exercise their opportunity to handicap in that situation, which seems against the odds,” says Hirt, adding that having “full resources and being more alert” is more likely to cause a person to engage in self-sabotage.
In short: Morning people should try working at night, and night owls should do the opposite.
The study also found that people who talk about their fear of not doing well—thus anticipating and articulating negative outcomes—are even more likely to sabotage themselves during their peak hours. For that reason, Hirt’s team is also studying how to help people focus more on the positive to drive them toward habits of success. “If you can shift … away from thinking about the negative and more toward approaching the positive and success, the [sabatoging] behavior seems to disappear.”
Meanwhile, Fraga recommends the following tips if you tend to destroy your chances at success: Start small—perhaps breaking scarily big tasks into manageable bits. And when you recognize that you’re feeling fear, try confronting it (rather than avoiding it) by asking yourself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”
But the best move might just be the simplest, no matter how counterintuitive: Work when you’re tired. Your brain and body will be too exhausted to get in your own way.
Image via Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images