It’s easy to blame outside factors when your life doesn’t feel quite right, but what if it’s not your job, your roommate, or your upbringing that’s holding you back? There are plenty of reasons you may be getting in your own way of reaching your goals.
Here are five science-backed ways you may be keeping yourself down, plus strategies to help you stop.
You’re Setting Unrealistic Expectations
If you bail on meeting that new guy or dismiss a job opening because each seems out of your league, you’re not being realistic — you’re giving in to what researchers call “defensive pessimism.” This all-too-common trait doesn’t help you. Lowering your expectations in the hopes of preparing for the worst only holds you back.
To make sure you don’t block your own goals and happiness, get really specific, say University of Liverpool researchers who studied goal-making and depression. Instead of setting a vague goal like “Get a promotion” or “Find a boyfriend,” narrow it down to “Pick up three new projects at work” or “Go on three blind dates by spring.” By zooming in on your goals and making them focused and realistic, you’re more likely to achieve them instead of talking yourself out of them.
You’re Not Giving Yourself Enough Time
Do you often find yourself scrambling to get things done at the last minute, wondering how you ended up cutting it so close? You’re probably underestimating how long your to-do list will take, leaving you less time to do the job right and giving you more time to panic.
We often inaccurately rely on our optimistic memories to predict how long a task will take, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. And we generally overestimate how long it will take to do short tasks (the kind that take fewer than two minutes) and underestimate the duration of bigger projects, according to a study in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
The best way to change this? Become a little bit of a data nerd. Clock and record how long certain tasks take; later, when planning a similar project, you can reference those numbers instead of plucking an estimate out of your untrustworthy memory. You’ll spend less time agonizing over looming deadlines and will have the mental freedom to focus on getting your work done well.
You’re Overthinking It ... and Stifling Your Creativity
Have you decided to finally sit down and write your novel only to draw a total blank? Deliberate attempts to be creative stifle results, according to one Stanford study. As one researcher put it, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” That’s because when you overthink, you undermine the parts of your brain that churn out your best ideas.
So the next time you need to get something done, creative or otherwise, set time for breaks. Use them to do something completely unrelated and enjoyable, from exercising to watching a movie. Letting an idea simmer on your mental back burner as you focus on something else may deliver the breakthroughs you were trying to force.
You’re Not Sleeping Enough
How many of us really get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night? Between deadlines, errands, and social and family obligations, shut-eye is often the first thing we sacrifice. But sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you feel groggy. According to Clemson University researchers, it compromises your decision making, ability to focus, and impulse control. Try keeping your life together, much less thriving, without those abilities. Not possible.
To kick your sleep problems, create a specific bedtime ritual, like applying hand moisturizer for two minutes before turning off the lights, advises the National Sleep Foundation. Even a small ritual like this will give your brain the cue that it’s time to sleep. And stick to the same bedtime (and wake-up time) on weekdays and weekends. These little nighttime changes promise big differences in your daytime performance.
You’re Not Letting Yourself Fail
Being terrified of any mistake, feeling afraid to let others down, or setting impossibly high standards for yourself sets up a ton of obstacles to success. A perfectionistic attitude comes with a serious risk of burnout and potential health problems, like depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and even death, according to a study in Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Study author Andrew Hill notes that people should be “setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail.” So instead of beating yourself up when you fall short, recognize it as part of the process, moving you closer to success. If you’re a boss, you can do your part to help your employees who are struggling by fostering a workplace where “creativity, effort, and perseverance are valued,” Hill says.