What is it?

Self-sabotaging or self-handicapping behaviour is behaviour that gives you a plausible excuse for failure or lack of progress – “If I hadn’t been so busy doing work for the student association I’m president of, I would have written a much better confirmation document.”

Am I doing it?

If you find yourself giving excuses for poor performance or lack of progress, ask yourself whether it is a legitimate excuse to blame factors outside of your control for your current difficulties, or whether your current predicament is a result of choices you have made or a result of a lack of proactive action on your part? If it's the latter, then chances are you are sub-consciously sabotaging your work to give you an excuse for poor performance in order to protect your ego.

As reviewed by Kearns, Gardiner and Marshall (2008), self-handicapping behaviours include such things as:

  • Overcommitting (e.g. taking on too many responsibilities and using these to “justify” neglecting your research)
  • Busyness (avoiding high priority or difficult tasks by filling in your time with easier, less important tasks. E.g. avoiding getting down to writing by saying you still need to do some more reading.)
  • Perfectionism (e.g. expecting that a first draft needs to be near "submission perfect" can lead to writer’s block. See general writing tips.)
  • Procrastination – actually, all of the above are forms of procrastination.
  • Not putting in enough effort.
  • Choosing bad environments in which to work (e.g. where there are lots of distractions).

It’s important to note that exhibiting some of these behaviours some of the time doesn’t indicate a problem, the same way that being a bit down doesn’t necessarily mean you’re clinically depressed and in need of professional help. It just indicates that you’re human like everybody else. However, if you start missing deadlines and start avoiding coming into uni and talking to your supervisor, then you probably have dug yourself into a hole which you will need help getting out of.

How do I overcome it?

As dieters and smokers know only too well, changing unproductive habits and replacing them with better habits and thought patterns is not easy, and guidance and support can be helpful (for the case under discussion, see Kearns et al. (2008)). Consequently, if you find yourself self-sabotaging your performance, and implementing the general advice above doesn’t seem to help, then seek the guidance and support of a Counsellor at Student Services.

Reference: Kearns, H., Gardiner, M., & Marshall, K. (2008), “Innovation in PhD completion: the hardy shall succeed (and be happy)!” Higher Education Research and Development, 27(1), 77-89. See Table 1 of for a “self-sabotage checklist”.