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Things You Need to Do to Stop Holding Yourself Back
Small things that you need to cull from your life
Last month, I published a post about ten behaviors that are holding you back in the workplace. From conflict avoidance to defensiveness, these traits may be tripping you up in your career, both now and in the future. These are patterns I have noticed in those I have mentored, coached, and sponsored. I have also wrestled with many of them in my own career. They are often small, and they may even feel innocuous, but they can add up to big problems in the long run.
The good news is that there are ways to counteract these bad habits. By making small adjustments to your actions, reactions, and ways of thinking, you can get around the roadblocks that are standing in your way. Don’t focus on doing all of these things at once, or the task will feel insurmountable. Instead, consider whether you can make small, consistent changes to your behavior, day by day, week by week. In doing so, you will reduce friction, improve your relationships, and break down the barriers that are holding you back.
1. Let go of perfectionism
Life is imperfect. You are imperfect. You will sometimes fall short. Your kids will have tangled hair, your house will be messy, and you will show up to work in a wrinkled shirt. You will sometimes have to order pizza instead of making a homemade meal. You will have clutter on your kitchen island, and you will have stacks of mail staring you down.
But you will also have evenings of cuddling on the couch with your kids. You will have mornings free of worrying about the laundry. You will enjoy laughing about the obscenely large pizza your husband ordered, rather than stressing about not having the perfect home-cooked meal.
Perfectionism can be a strong motivator, but it has rapidly diminishing returns. It quickly robs you of time, energy, and attention that you could be putting toward what’s really important in your life and your job. Sometimes just aiming for good enough is the best thing for yourself and your sanity.
I’m not saying you should stop caring. Do your best, but don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Whenever you find yourself stressing about getting something exactly right, take a step back and ask yourself whether good enough is good enough. Practice caring less about the little things, and focus on the big picture.
2. Break free of the sunk cost fallacy
When you’ve put a lot of time, resources, or energy into something, it becomes hard to let go of it. This can happen even when it’s objectively in your best interest to change your course of action, like when you are in a bad job or relationship. You tell yourself, “I have invested so much in this already. How can I possibly walk away now?”
It is like selling a stock after the price has dropped by half. Your mind tells you that the new value is 50 percent, but it doesn’t feel real until you sell it at a loss.
I have asked so many of the people I coach this one question: “If you were offered this job today, with the conditions as they are, would you take it?” So many say no—they have spent years in their current role, working to build their relationships and make an impact, and they don’t want to feel like all that time and effort was a waste. Yet by saying no to a new path, they are also saying yes to staying in a difficult situation.
If something isn’t working, despite your best efforts, sometimes the best thing to do is bite the bullet and walk away. Rather than doubling down, think back to when you started down your current path. Ask yourself if you would have still done it, knowing what you know now. If the answer is no, then why do you keep saying yes?
3. Stop ruminating
I sometimes get stuck in a thought loop. Lying in bed at night, I stay awake thinking about all the things I should have said or done that day, the regrets I have, the decisions I wish I could take back. I often struggle with the idea that I missed something that should have been obvious, or that I didn’t have an answer that should have come easily to me. During the times I struggled with insomnia, these thoughts would run through my mind like a neverending reel. I lost sleep as I struggled with my inner turmoil.
Does this sound familiar?
It can be extremely difficult to let go of regrets, concerns, and past negative experiences. But by ruminating on these things, we are only torturing ourselves. By fixating on the things we can’t change, we are depriving ourselves of energy and time that we could put toward the things we can.
I used some of the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy to break this cycle. Rather than worrying about what was beyond my control, I worked to reframe my thoughts in terms of what I could control. What could I learn from these experiences? How could I be proactive going forward? Forcing myself to retrain my thinking helped me get out of the loop and start having more healthy thoughts.
If you’re a worrier, start writing down the things you ruminate about. How many of them are in your power to change? How can you reframe your thoughts and worries in a way that is kinder to yourself?
4. Think of your future self
I am a major procrastinator. You would be surprised how many of these articles I’ve written at the last minute, or how close to the deadline I was when I submitted my book to the editor. I know I am capable, but I often put things off. This is a dangerous habit, especially when faced with tight deadlines.
Procrastination is insidious, because it allows us to avoid something in the moment at the cost of our future happiness. Remember, your future self is responsible for the stress created by your current self, the one doing the procrastinating. By kicking the can down the road, you are signing up for stress further down the line—usually more than if you were to just do the task now, before the deadline looms.
The next time you feel the temptation to procrastinate, think about your future self. Put yourself in their shoes, and ask yourself what they would wish you had done today. They are banging on the glass, begging you to do the work now, rather than wait until it falls into their lap. Listen to them.
5. Make space for the small things
Sometimes a lot of little things start piling up. A ton of email comes in. You face a set of deadlines that are too close together. The stack of mail on the counter only seems to get bigger, no matter how often you sift through it. Taken individually, each of these things is just a small nuisance. But when they’re all nagging at you at once, they quickly become overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much to do that you can’t possibly handle it all, so you freeze up while the to-do list gets longer and longer. This only makes the problem worse, creating a vicious cycle.
One of my friends taught me a technique that has helped me get on top of this. Build five minutes into your schedule between meetings. Then, during those five minutes, if there is anything you can resolve immediately, do it. Reply to that email, set up that meeting, or submit that ticket.
If you let the small things build up, you will be left with an hour of five-minute tasks to do at the end of the day. You will also spend twice as much time context-switching in and out while the work sits in the back of your mind all day. Instead, start creating space for yourself to clear the small things when you can. Stay on top of the easy to-dos so you don’t end up overwhelmed.
6. Look forward, not back
You are more than the worst things that have ever happened to you, yet it’s all too common to forget this and focus just on the negatives. How much of your time do you spend looking back at that job you didn’t get, that promotion you were passed over for, or that crappy review you received? How much of that time could you be using to learn, grow, and achieve?
We all have anchor points: moments that we constantly revisit, whether mistakes we’ve made, opportunities we've missed, or decisions we wish we could undo. One of my friends was hung up on the time they were fired when a new manager came in. Another colleague failed at a job in a terrible work environment. Yet another got an unexpected bad review and was taken off the promotion track. These are single moments in time, and yet they take up so much space in our minds. While these memories can be painful, allowing them to weigh down your future is counterproductive. You will stumble on your way forward if you are always looking backward.
When you allow the past to anchor you, you are not allowing the future to blossom. Take a step back and think about what your anchor points are. Write down a list of events from your past that are holding you back, then burn the list. Next, make a new plan: write down a list of constructive steps that will carry you forward from here.
By opening yourself up to the future and looking ahead you can focus not on what can’t change, but on what you will change going forward.
7. Run your own race
The old adage goes, "Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Comparing your day-to-day life to someone else's highlights is always going to be a recipe for disappointment. We feel like we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not successful enough. We focus on others’ successes and wonder why we can’t do the same things. We push ourselves harder and harder, because we think of life as a footrace with only one winner. The truth is that life isn’t a footrace; it’s actually a marathon. Just finishing is an accomplishment.
Focus on your own race. You may not start in the same place as someone else. You may not have the same equipment. You may not have been born with the same amount of stamina. But you have an opportunity to run the best race for yourself. Stop looking left and right to see how fast the others are running, and don’t let other people define what success looks like for you. Instead, focus on the progress you can make, the challenges you can overcome, and the goals you can set for yourself. You may be faster or slower than others, but the most important thing is finishing the marathon on your own terms.
8. Embrace the risk of being judged
I was once coaching someone who reported to me, and I sensed that they were holding back. I could feel them resisting participating in our discussions, not allowing themselves to make their voice and opinions heard. It was like they were observing our team from the sidelines, unable or unwilling to jump in. I was new to managing this person, so I didn’t know how to approach the situation.
Finally, we sat down for a 1:1. I asked why they always seemed to be holding back. They explained that their previous leader had a different style that made it hard to engage, so they were reluctant to speak up out of fear of overstepping. We worked together to find ways for them to fully participate, without feeling like they had to censor themselves. Over time, they grew much more comfortable voicing their thoughts, so much so that they gained substantially more responsibility and opportunities to grow. This was something that would not have happened had they not opened up.
Sometimes we hold ourselves back to feel safe or to protect ourselves, but staying silent comes with a cost. Yes, when you put yourself out there, there’s a risk involved. You are opening yourself up to the judgment of others. But at the same time, it is taking that risk that allows you to hone your leadership and evolve. Growth does not come without the risk of being judged, but by being okay with that risk, you are allowing yourself to be part of the conversation.
If you often notice yourself holding back your opinions or contributions, start small. Choose one thing to do each day that goes beyond your comfort zone. Maybe it is sending an email to someone more senior than you, or speaking up in a large meeting. The more you put yourself out there, the more confident you will become, and the more impact you will have in your role and your career.
Negative habits are easy to fall into, and they can hold us back even if we don’t realize it. However, by making small changes to the ways we think and act, we can move out of those ruts and gradually get back on the right track.
Use this checklist to note which behaviors you would like to adjust in your own life. Start by just picking one, and then decide what small changes you can make each day to break down that barrier. Allow yourself to slowly evolve and change, one step at a time. I guarantee you will see positive results.