Belle Beth Cooper
Belle is an iOS developer and writer. She’s also a co-founder of Hello Code, a Melbourne-based startup.
December 13, 2016 · 6 min read

Self-sabotage, fear of failure, and how to stop them hurting your productivity

Body Clock

You probably know if you're a night owl or a morning lark—or somewhere in-between. We all have an internal body clock that runs slightly differently, meaning we're more alert and productive during a particular time of day, and prefer to sleep during a particular period. Night owls tend to have a later body clock, which makes them more productive later in the day and sleepy early in the morning.

If you know where your body clock fits, you can schedule your day to work with your energy levels rather than against them. Depending on how much flexibility you have, you might be able to schedule your entire work day to be a few hours earlier or later than your colleagues to suit your body clock, or you may just have to juggle your 9-5 hours so your most important tasks are scheduled for the hours you're most switched-on.

If you know where your body clock fits, you can schedule your day to work with your energy levels.

Despite having a period of time when we're most likely to be productive, we also have an unfortunate tendency to self-sabotage during those same hours, according to research.

Self-sabotaging is when we set ourselves up for failure so we don't have to face the truth about whether we would have failed otherwise. A good example is having a huge night out before an important meeting, or when we spend the night partying instead of studying right before an exam.


By sabotaging our own efforts, we have an excuse to fall back on when we fail, which protects our egos from taking the fall.

One study found that "you are more likely to engage in self-sabotage during the hours in which your mind is at its best." The study's lead author, Julie Eyink, says, "unfortunately, it's not uncommon to get caught in a negative spiral, in which self-handicapping leads to lower self-esteem and higher failure beliefs, which prompt more self-handicapping."

By sabotaging our own efforts, we have an excuse to fall back on when we fail, which protects our egos.

And it's not just the obvious acts of staying up late, not preparing for a meeting, or getting drunk so you head to work with a hangover—self-handicappers also tend to make-up excuses for not being able to perform like being sick, tired, or stressed.

This might sound like procrastination in the extreme, but it's slightly different. While we procrastinate to avoid all kinds of unpleasant emotions, such as boredom, stress, or frustration, self-sabotage is mostly related to a fear of failure. Ed Hirt, another author of the study explains:

People who are feeling uncertain about themselves and start to fear that they might fail are more likely to identify potential excuses and self-handicap when they're at their peak than when they're not.

So these destructive behaviors tend to start from that one nasty feeling: a fear of failure. Stopping ourselves from self-sabotaging is difficult, because we often don't realize exactly why we're doing it. We know we should be preparing for work, but we find ourselves at the bar anyway, and we can't really explain it.

If we focus on that fear of failure instead, we may be able to lessen the fear that's causing us to self-sabotage in the first place.

Think of failure as a learning experience

Jeff Atwood, founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse, says developers should learn to expect failure. After all, it's extremely common when dealing with software projects.

As a developer, the likelihood that you're working on a project that will fail is high. Every failure should be considered a rich opportunity for learning what doesn't work, and why.

Atwood isn't fetishizing failure, as we've seen happen in startup culture, but rather pushing us to accept that it's likely we'll run into failure. Since failure is common for software projects, setting out with the idea that failed projects can teach us something can take the sting out of failure when it does happen, and help us get past our fear of it.

"If you really want to know if someone is competent at their profession," says Atwood, "ask them about their failures."

He quotes an article by Malcolm Gladwell about predicting the success or failure of surgeons. In the article, sociologist Charles Bosk explains that when interviewing young doctors who'd been fired or resigned to determine what had made them fail, it was those who said they never failed who didn't fit his prediction of who would become a good doctor.

And the residents who said, 'I make mistakes all the time. There was this horrible thing that happened just yesterday and here's what it was.' They were the best. They had the ability to rethink everything that they'd done and imagine how they might have done it differently.

Michael Hunter from Microsoft says, "learning doesn't happen from failure itself but rather from analyzing the failure, making a change, and then trying again."

If we're to learn, we need to fail—but more than that, if Hunter's to be believed, we need to thoroughly analyze those failures to understand how to avoid that failure next time.

Think of yourself as a scientist

Buckminster Fuller was an eccentric and prolific inventor. He published over 30 books as well as inventing various architectural designs, and even coining new terms such as "Spaceship Earth."

But one of the most interesting things about Fuller is his scientific approach to life. After hitting rock bottom and considering suicide, Fuller decided to instead approach his life as an experiment. Since he had nothing left to lose, he began thinking of his life as one long study in how he could best contribute to humanity. "My objective," he said, "was humanity's comprehensive success in the universe."

Fuller's approach to life made it possible for him to fail, often, and invent things that didn't work, without losing enthusiasm for his work. His thought process reframed failures so they simply became data points in his life-long search for the best ways to contribute to the human race.

As designer and entrepreneur Paul Jarvis says, this style of thinking makes it easier to try things that might fail. Jarvis noticed his skills stagnating and knew side projects could help him improve, but fear held him back. "My day-job was comfortable," he says, "so I didn’t want to fail at something new."

Side projects can be scary. There's more of us in them so they hit closer to home. This can make them difficult to start or follow through on.

Jarvis realized thinking like a scientist would stop his fear of failure from holding him back.

To get over my own fear of failure with them, I started picturing these ideas as simply being experiments. Experiments don't "fail"—they simply prove or disprove a hypothesis. For example, despite my day job as a designer I had the hypothesis that I could also write an e-book. I then simply started writing. I didn’t focus on the outcome, how the book would be received or what others would think of it. I figured, "let's give this a try".

Jarvis readily admits that many of his side projects have failed. "Some only proved that there wasn’t a market or opportunity for an idea, and several apps I made didn’t sell a single copy," he says.

But his new approach to thinking about side projects has removed the fear that leads us to self-sabotage. Now Jarvis is experimenting constantly, rather than finding excuses to stay safe.

Remember that failure is necessary for success

Embrace Failure

Another entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about failure is Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Adams has had many an entrepreneurial idea in his time, and many have failed. In fact, Adams admits Dilbert was one of his many schemes to make something people wanted, rather than a passion project, and it just happened to take off.

"For most people," he says, "it's easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion." Cartooning wasn't something Adams was passionate about when he started Dilbert, but he says his passion mysteriously grew as Dilbert's success increased.

So Adams suggests we don't rely on passion, but rather focus on figuring out what people want, and using failures as stepping stones along the way.

... failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.

More than just accepting that we'll have failures and we can learn from them, Adams takes things a step further. Failures are the best learning tools we have, insists Adams, and they should be doing more than simply preparing you for future failures.

If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I'm not satisfied knowing that I'll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again.

According to Adams, failures are necessary for us to reach success. So besides accepting them when they happen, we can prepare ourselves for failures that might arise by remembering that any failure is a step closer to success.

Everything you want is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.

Fear of failure is a tricky subject, because many of us don't realize we have it in the first place. But if it's holding us back by causing us to self-sabotage during our most productive hours, it's something we need to get under control.

Fear is a strong feeling to overcome, but combining an experimental approach to our work, acceptance that failure is necessary for us to reach success, and looking for ways to learn from each flop we produce can take the sting out of failure so we're a little less hesitant to face it next time.