Why you should care
Because you’re getting in your own way.
I’m a night owl, so I work best at ungodly hours, yet it’s after midnight and I’m still procrastinating on this article — writer’s block, the Wi-Fi isn’t working, the room is too cold — well past the deadline. Putting off your obligations is a common form of self-sabotage, but according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, self-sabotage is actually hard work in itself.
You tend to self-sabotage when you’re at your sharpest.
It’s a counterintuitive discovery, since your peak performance hours would seem to be when you’re most likely to hunker down and focus on work, ticking tasks off your checklist. But according to a study out of Indiana University, the most likely time to engage in self-handicapping behaviors such as drinking before final exams or staying up late before an important interview is when you’re at the top of your game — specifically, when you’re burning the midnight oil (if you’re a night owl) or rising early (if you’re a morning person).
To arrive at such a “weird conclusion,” the study’s lead author, Julie Eyin, gathered 237 college students and gave them verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests randomly at either 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. The students who self-reported as morning people were more likely to self-sabotage in the morning, whereas the students who self-reported as night people were more likely to self-sabotage at night. So, people are more likely to shortchange themselves during stressful tasks when they are most alert. In other words, you can’t win.
Why, oh why, do we keep getting in our own way, particularly when we’re in the zone? Messing up your chances to do well is a “cognitively costly thing to do,” says Eyin — you need all your mental wherewithal to submit to the “mental gymnastics” and “arithmetic” of protecting your self-esteem. Self-sabotage is fueled by feelings of inadequacy and the fear of failure. Nearly everyone has fallen victim to other self-preservation tactics, like procrastination and imagined fatigue. And it turns out all that rationalization takes a lot of mental energy: “It requires forethought,” adds Eyin. But using circadian rhythms as an indication of mental energy levels may not be a valid measurement — in layman’s terms, night owls aren’t necessarily most alert at 8 p.m. nor are morning people at 8 a.m., says Marcos Egea-Cortines, who researches circadian rhythms at the Polytechnic University of Cartagena in Spain.
Yet if you truly are your own worst enemy, then it all makes sense — you struggle when your inner beast has the most fire and the most bite.