Self-awareness—the marvelous human capacity to reflect on who we are and contemplate our own behavior—is the source of great achievement, but it’s also the source of many pitfalls. Taking things too personally, being overly self-critical or mistrusting our own instincts are all possible side effects. These self-defeating tendencies can make your personal life difficult, but they also may be having a huge and largely invisible impact on how well you function at work.
When you walk in the door Monday morning, you might think that you leave your personal life behind. But emotionally, it’s not so simple. What you do and where you work become a part of you. Your sense of your self—your identity—inevitably gets bound up in your job.
While you might prefer to think of work as a straightforward money-for-labor transaction between you and your employer, in truth it’s much more emotionally complex. Inevitably, work engages powerful psychological dynamics—how you feel about your co-workers, your feelings about being told what to do, your own self-respect and confidence in your abilities. You may be a hard worker, a dedicated employee and whip-smart—but that doesn’t mean you can prevent your idiosyncrasies and your emotions from playing a role while you’re on the job.
Whether we consciously realize it or not, most of us see the workplace as a peer group or even a family, says psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston, author of the new book Get Out of Your Way at Work…And Help Others do the Same (Putnam, 2005). That belief tends to encourage self-sabotaging behaviors such as being defensive or thin-skinned, being overly blunt or worrying too much about whether or not your colleagues like you.
By recognizing some of these tendencies and understanding their origins, you may be able to circumvent them. In his book, Goulston offers suggestions that may help you avoid some particularly common bad habits:
Procrastination: People procrastinate when they are afraid to take responsibility for a decision—afraid to commit to a course of action and, ultimately, afraid to fail. Procrastinators wait until their backs are against the wall and rely on adrenaline to push past their fears and get the work done. But often the work suffers—and the constant stress is exhausting.
What to do: List the top two things you’re currently avoiding that are truly crucial for your job and tackle them first, suggests Goulston. No more than two, though, or you’ll be setting yourself up to avoid the whole list.
Being defensive: If you feel that your co-workers are constantly shooting you down and that the subtext of many of your conversations with them is that they’re right and you’re wrong, you may be struggling with defensiveness. You may tend to feel attacked when people disagree with you—even if they don’t intend to offend.
What to do: Realize that other people may see you as the aggressor. If there are a few people in your office you tend to argue with frequently, you might try to clear the air by asking: “When we disagree, are you saying I’m wrong or simply trying to explain why you’re not wrong?” You may find that at least some of them aren’t actually trying to provoke you or dismiss your opinions.
Frittering time away: If you end the day feeling like nothing’s been accomplished and your to-do list has grown even longer, you may want to take a hard look at how you spend your time. All too often, we get lost in busywork simply because it’s easier. The anxiety of being overworked may cause you to turn first to whatever’s on the top of your pile rather than to prioritize.
What to do: Respond to emails and phone calls in blocks, unless they are truly urgent. Take time to stop and think before reacting. Even though you think you don’t have time to digest information, this will save you from making time-consuming mistakes. Keep a list of your two or three highest priorities in your line of sight and check frequently to make sure that your activities are in line with those priorities.