Imagine the following scenario: you’re in a classroom taking a test -- one that’s quite easy. The professor then approaches you and offers you a choice: you can either take a “performance-enhancing drug" or a drug that inhibits your performance. Which would you choose?
Now imagine the same scenario except this time you’re taking a test with extremely hard questions. Again, the professor approaches you and offers either the performance-enhancing drug or the performance-inhibiting one. Which do you choose this time?
According to the results of a famous study conducted by researchers from Princeton and Harvard, students who received the difficult test were more likely to choose the performance-inhibiting drug, and students who had the easy test were more likely to choose the enhancing drug.
Why? The researchers concluded those who received difficult test questions chose the performance-impairing drug because they wanted an excuse to justify their expected poor performance in the future.
In other words, when you’re scared to fail, you’re more likely to find ways to protect your self-esteem. This is a psychological phenomenon known as self-handicapping, and it holds you back much more than you think.
Generally speaking, research shows that self-handicapping has a negative impact on your performance and motivation. Here are a few examples:
- People stay in jobs they hate because they’re scared of failing at something else.
- Obese people use their genetics as an excuse for why they’re overweight.
- Hypochondriacs use their health as an excuse for when things don’t go their way.
- Athletes attribute their losses to external circumstances.
We use excuses as crutches to justify our underachievements in life. However, you can actually learn to use this to your advantage.
In an experiment conducted by psychologist Martin Seligman, researchers told a group of swimmers that their preliminary event times were worse than they actually were. They then measured how the swimmers reacted in comparison to their results in their next race. The swimmers who justified their poor performance to themselves in a pessimistic manner performed worse in the next race. But swimmers who attributed their failure to an external force beyond their control and kept a positive attitude about themselves actually performed better.
In other words, self-handicapping can actually help you if you don’t internalize your failure and let it affect your self esteem.
Let’s say you’re struggling with getting a new business venture off the ground.
Rather than saying, “I can’t do this because I’m too lazy,” try, “I’m human. Everyone struggles with this.”
Rather than “I’m going to fail,” try, “I’ll be fine. Even if the worst-case scenario happens and I do fail, I’ll learn from it.”
You can’t control everything, but you can control how you react and the action you take.
The reason you do the things you do is out of habit. Our habits control whether we exercise, eat healthy or start working on that new business idea.
To create a new habit, says Charless Duhigg, author of the book, The Power of Habit, practice these steps:
Choose the habit you want to change. This one’s easy. Do you want to exercise more? Quit smoking? Be more productive? Start a business in a field you actually like?
Attach that habit to a cue you do every day. Let’s say you want to start a new business. Try using time as a cue: “Every night at 7 p.m. I will work on my business plan.”
Start doing a “tiny habit” every day on cue. Starting small is key. Commit to just five to 10 minutes per day. You’ll find that you’re naturally inclined to do more than this, but the important part is just doing a little bit so you create a behavior loop that sticks.
Allow yourself to feel and experience the rewards. Rewards are powerful. They help solidify habits (both good and bad). Allow yourself to experience the rewards by keeping a journal. Every day, write the steps you’ve taken to move your business forward. On days you’re struggling, feeling those self-handicapping doubts creep in, grab your journal and look at the progress you’ve made. It works.
The only way to stop holding yourself back from achieving your life goals is to start. Stop making excuses. Stop self-handicapping. Just start.
Scott Christ is a writer, entrepreneur, and founder of The Healthy Eating Guide. He shows how to lose weight without dieting and keep it off using science-backed techniques. Sign up for free blog updates to his website for weekly tips on getting healthy, fit, lean and happy.