Self-Sabotage: Five Ways to Kill Your Own Productivity

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford, pioneering American automaker.

In some ways, you may be your own worst enemy—even when you don’t realize it.

Self-sabotage is a very real problem in corporate America, and I’ve seen many people and organizations fall prey to it (← click to tweet).  It’s almost never deliberate; it’s typically either due to subconscious beliefs or compulsive activities that take control of your good sense. It can happen even to those of you who consider yourself a top producer, if you let your guard down. Self-sabotage can even feed on contentment; it’s one of the more destructive aspects of our subconscious minds, which can otherwise serve us so well on the productivity front.

Paralysis analysis may be the most famous form of self-sabotage. This occurs when you have so many things to do you can’t choose what to do first. Some refer to it as “the tyranny of choice.” But you can overcome it through draconian prioritization and delegation. But there are many other insidious forms of self-sabotage. Let’s take a closer look at five, and at how you can fight them.

1. Letting negative self-talk take control. Remember when you were a kid, and often spoke instructions and rules out loud as you played or performed a task? Some of us still do so, especially in times of stress; but by the time you reach adulthood, the “self-talk” has mostly gone underground. Your inner monologue also consists of self-assessments of your abilities. If you consistently think of yourself as a failure, you’ll fail. So stop and think about how you think of yourself, and deliberately choose to fan the flames of the bright spots in your life. Look at your tasks and accomplishments realistically, and accentuate the positive. Bobby McFerrin’s philosophy of “Don’t worry, be happy” may not prove easy, but it’s sound advice.

2. Fear of success. When you get right down to it, this is really fear of change. Change almost always scares us; but as I emphasize so often, it’s those of us who embrace change as it occurs who bounce back quickest and come out on top. Stop worrying about what might go wrong. Instead, focus on what might go right. Yes, people and the world will change in ways you don’t expect and can’t control; it’s up to you to evolve with them, rather than give up or even slow down.

3. Complacency. When you get too self-satisfied, it’s easy to stay in one place and let life pass you by. You stop taking responsibility for your success, and sometimes that success goes away or plateaus. It happens constantly in the business realm: Apple almost died of it during the Gil Amelio era, and so did Nokia when they decided to focus on dumb phones rather than smart ones. Same goes for Kodak: they invented digital photography in the 1970s, but suppressed it so it wouldn’t harm photographic film sales. Errors like those just about put an end to the company that practically invented photography. Stop getting in your own way and don’t rest on your laurels, even when you finally achieve everything you’ve dreamed of. Instead, set new goals and start striving to reach them. Don’t be content with “good enough,” or “everything is just fine.”

4. Letting less important things take too much of your attention. You already know you can’t bother with work tasks below your pay grade; it’s an unproductive use of your time. Nor can you allow outside influences, like hobbies or personal interests, intrude on your work time. Keep them in their place. This may require a huge level of self-control, especially when you’re doing well enough to get by at your job to indulge yourself, but “well enough” isn’t good enough nowadays. You have the capacity for self-discipline, or you wouldn’t have achieved what you have so far.

Side note: another common attention-hog is email (especially unimportant email!). I talk more about email and what I call “email OCD” in this short video.

5. Dwelling on “if only.” If only you had a million dollars. If only you’d gotten that promotion last year. If only Lake Erie was made of grape Kool-Aid. Rather than keep focusing on what could or should have been, get past it. If you want to make a million dollars, plan a way to get you there. That position you wanted is gone, but you’ll have other chances, some of which you can create yourself. And sorry, Lake Erie’s just water, and nothing short of a Biblical miracle will change that. Sometimes you just have to accept reality. The true wisdom comes from knowing the difference between what you can and can’t change—and focusing on what truly matters, right now, right in front of you, so you can move forward.

So Many Paths

Humans are endlessly inventive; we ­will find ways to hurt ourselves no matter what. By no means is the list I’ve outlined here complete, but it’s a place to start when you realize you’re self-sabotaging. If you are, you’ll probably backslide a bit as you work your way out of the pit, but keep trying until you recapture your productivity. If you’re fortunate enough not to have fallen under the sway of self-sabotage, then keep your eyes wide open so you make sure you don’t. Vigilance is the eternal price of liberty, even from your own worst tendencies.

© 2017 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Berrett-Koehler 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us.



  1. I love this post. Hit me right where I live. Thanks for such insightful information.

  2. Thanks Laura, very useful aspects in your post