It took many years and input from others for me to finally figure out some of the many ways that I was needlessly sabotaging my own businesses and my own performance every single day.
You don’t think you sabotage yourself, do you? Every entrepreneur sabotages him or herself all the time. It’s the nature of the beast, and what a beast it is.
We’ll never be able to totally eliminate self-sabotaging behaviors. But if we can just eliminate or cut down on some of the worst and most damaging behaviors, we can send our performance, and our business performance, through the roof.
First, I’m going to tell you just how widespread self-sabotaging is among entrepreneurs and how damaging it can be.
Second, I’m going to tell you why entrepreneurs self-sabotage.
Third, I’m going to give you some of the most common examples of self-sabotage among entrepreneurs like choosing one of the worst business ideas instead of one more likely to succeed.
Fourth, I’m going to tell you how you can combat self-sabotage and really ramp up your personal performance, and the personal performance of your business.
Finally, I’m going to tell you the really good news about self-sabotage.
How Widespread Is Self-Sabotaging among Entrepreneurs and How Damaging Can It Be?
I believe that every single entrepreneur engages in significant self-sabotaging behaviors. I am certainly no exception. Furthermore, entrepreneurs are often in denial or refuse to recognize that their behavior is self-sabotaging and killing their personal potential, as well as that of their business.
Self-sabotage can be incredibly damaging. Every day you may be engaging in activities that are a poor use of your time, or worse, a total waste of your time. Or, even worse than that, they may be activities that threaten the very existence of your business.
For example, in the early days of the Internet, I created a major website for job postings called Careercity.com. However, as I failed to keep up with the massive spending and investing (related degree of operating losses) of my major competitors, and failed to find a defensible niche or differentiating strategy, I fell further and further behind.
Soon it became obvious, even to my peers in the monthly business discussion groups I belonged to, that Careercity.com was hopeless and that I would be much better off shutting it down and ending the cash drain. In the middle of one of these meetings, a friend of mind even said, “Show me where the plug is to the server and I’ll help you out by unplugging it right now!”
Stubbornly, I didn’t listen to any of their advice and endured many more years of operating losses before selling CareerCity for a pittance. I just couldn’t bring myself to examine this business rationally, admit that it had failed, that I did not have a viable strategy, and that I was totally wasting thousands of dollars every month in operating costs.
This is just one, highly visible example of self-sabotage. Usually self-sabotage isn’t so visible, but even when it’s not it can be very damaging. Failure to confront issues head-on is a common example of self-sabotage. Maybe you have a marketing program that needs revision. A product that needs improvement. An employee problem that needs addressing. Maybe you even need to re-write your business plan.
Why Do Entrepreneurs Self-Sabotage?
Well, for starters, we are only human beings. Human beings are not rational creatures. Things like pride, ego, fear, and habits get in the way of how we think and how we act. Our minds have been programmed to survive in the jungle, among wild animals, not to build businesses. Our minds naturally think in terms of “fear and flight,” not to make a careful, calculated risk and prosper.
We wake up in the morning, not with a brain that is programmed to think, “What great things can I do to build my business today?” but instead a brain that says, “Watch out for tigers in the jungle and get ready to run!” So it’s no wonder that fear is often a major component of self-sabotage.
Similarly, we are not pre-programmed to take chances. If prehistoric man walked a particular path and was not attacked by a dinosaur, he learned to take that same path every single day, and not to try a new path even if it seemed more convenient.
Denial of Self-Sabotage
Before giving you examples of self-sabotage, I want to emphasize that as entrepreneurs we particularly tend to be unaware, or in denial, that we sabotage ourselves. How could we possibly be so dumb or self-destructive as to sabotage ourselves? Besides, if we admitted to engaging in such behavior, wouldn’t we also be admitting we were deeply, psychologically disturbed and also an incredibly incompetent businessperson?
No, absolutely not. Admitting you engage in self-sabotage is simply admitting you are a human being Rather than implying you are an incompetent businessperson, starting to recognize your own self-sabotage puts you on the path to becoming an unusually aware and potentially highly talented entrepreneur.
The Most Common Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
So what are some of the most common self-sabotaging behaviors among entrepreneurs?
(And by the way, I’ve engaged in and been held back by every single one of these behaviors at one time or another.)
The No. 1 self-sabotaging behavior for entrepreneurs is diving into your work without a plan
We tend to jump into the tasks that pop up each day without deeply thinking and strategizing about how we are spending our time. As entrepreneurs, we tend to work hard and work long hours. But do we think hard enough and often enough about how we choose our daily tasks? Do we strategize and have a written plan for what our personal time priorities will be for the year, the month, and each day?
If we spend 12 hours a day working, isn’t it worthwhile to spend more than a couple minutes a day thinking deeply about where to focus our work? Instead, we tend to be creatures of habit, or perhaps captives of habit. We have a tendency to, more or less, do the same kind of work that we have done in the past without giving much thought to alternative ways of doing the same things. Or we fail to realize that there are different things we could be doing that might be more important in driving the business ahead.
The No. 2 way in which entrepreneurs self-sabotage themselves is not recognizing fear.
We need to recognize the innate human fear of failure that may be keeping us from charging into a new businesses, creating major new products, approaching that huge client prospect or just making that next important sales call.
Other self-sabotaging behaviors for entrepreneurs include:
Having difficulty visualizing success. Your successful business may be down the road, but there are also day-to-day successes, such as a successful sales call, a successful presentation, or even being able to envision a well done sales attempt.
Having negative self-critical thoughts.
Being a creature or captive of habit.
Procrastinating. This includes putting off the work that really matters that could really take you ahead. Of course, sometimes it even means putting off any work at all.
Choosing a bad business idea. Again, it is crucial to pick a business idea that is likely to succeed. To help you, we put together this list of small business ideas. Enjoy!
Putting off client and sales generating work. Unfortunately, this is done to focus on busy work kind of activities.
Staying within our comfort zone.
Not delegating. You need to delegate. And to do so, you need to build a good team of employees.
Making comfortable hires. Bringing in people that would be likable, follow instructions well, and be good team players, as opposed to people who might challenge us, be more difficult, and potentially take us to higher levels.
Not getting feedback from others. Or worse, ignoring good feedback if you do get it.
Setting unrealistic goals. For yourself or for what you can deliver clients.
Failure to praise and celebrate. Whether it’s the work of our employees or ourselves.
Hesitating to outsource work. Particularly when it is rational to do so.
Putting off key decisions. Delaying important choices by over analyzing or finding other less important things to focus on.
Trying to focus on too many things. As opposed to focusing on the things that really matter.
Tackling the easy tasks first. Instead of the more important or difficult ones.
Not thinking “big” enough.
Responding first to the “loudest” noise. As opposed to the most important thing calling for our attention.
Not recognizing our weaknesses. Not accepting them and not trying to improve or to work around them.
Not networking with other entrepreneurs. Whether they are inside or outside the industry.
Checking email or social media. Also disregarding the national or financial news too often.
Allowing personal life to overflow. Letting our individual problems spill over into business too often.
Allowing constant interruptions. Letting outside influences disturb our workflow.
Constantly worrying. Fretting, even subconsciously, about what could go wrong.
Kidding ourselves that we are brilliantly multi-tasking. Instead of realizing that we are really engaged in high-paced and inefficient task-switching.
Fooling ourselves by thinking we will not burn out. Thinking we are succeeding by working all the time.
Not recognizing that others can do some tasks as well as we can.
Trying too hard to perfect things. Particularly with those things that don’t really matter.
Getting distracted by all kinds of things. Focusing on things that pop up and seem important today but in hindsight are not worthy of the amount of time you spent on them.
Not getting to sleep early enough. Ignoring the rest we need to get to work early and start the day totally rested.
Not staying in excellent physical condition.
Not pricing your products high enough.
Eating poorly. Unhealthy and/or sporadically.
Coming up with excuses or rationalizations for veering off your business plan. For instance, not considering that overspending on your budget may seem good today but you will regret it tomorrow.
How to Combat Self-Sabotage and Really Ramp up Your Personal Performance
You probably now realize that you’ve engaged in a few of the self-sabotaging activities I just mentioned. If not, take a hard look again. Any entrepreneur who is being honest with themselves and is even somewhat self-aware can’t help but recognize that they’ve committed some of this self-sabotaging behavior.
Furthermore, if you’re like me, you’ve fallen victim to many of these self-sabotaging behaviors at one point or another.
I know it may seem overwhelming. How could anyone possibly try to change all these behaviors at once.
Well, don’t despair. Just recognizing and admitting to yourself that you engage is the behavior – which is not easy to do, mind you – will go a long way to mitigating this behavior or at least toning it down.
I would suggest you don’t try to change all of these self-sabotaging behaviors at once, but rather zero in on the ones that might make the biggest difference and offer the juiciest rewards for you. Maybe even focus on just one.
For starters, you might want to really think about how you are planning out your time. Do you have a list of your time priorities for the year, the month, the week, and each day?
Maybe you even have a list. But do really think it out? Do you really deep-think it? How much is your time worth? If you’re really working hard all week long but working on the wrong thing, how deep of a problem is that? How much of a missed opportunity is that? I would suggest that however long you spend thinking about time management, you could benefit significantly by spending even more time and energy on this key task.
The next self-sabotaging activity I might focus on would be mitigating fear, specifically how innate fear or aversion to risk or change might be holding you back. This is not easy. To help me confront this, I have put at the top of my daily calendar the words, “What would do if I have no fear?”
One way I try to mitigate fear is to place hard limits on risks. When I launch a new business or a new product, I write down a hard limit of the maximum financial risk I am willing to take. I might also write down the maximum amount of time I would put into it, as well as some “must achieve” milestones.
While limiting your maximum financial and time exposure can help you see and cap the worse downside for a business, you must also try to envision the best possible upside. With a thorough business plan, for example, you should include a separate section for “Future Vision,” basically what the business would look like if it succeeds. This vision, I believe, is important for you to keep in mind. You can also reinforce it by sharing it with your management team or, lacking that, with your closest friends or relatives.
I believe that to run a business well, you need to be in top mental shape. How can you make key decisions if you can’t think straight, aren’t well rested, are feeling stressful, or are burnt out and working around the clock?
To me, being in top mental shape goes hand in hand with being in top physical shape. I think you should exercise for at least 20 minutes a day, three times a week (if not more) to get your heart rate up to a healthy level. This will not only benefit your body, it will benefit your mind, too.
When should you work out? I personally used to work out in the evening. Then, when my business became particularly stressful, I shifted my workout to lunchtime and just wolfed down a quick sandwich afterwards.
Over the past year, I have shifted my workout to mornings before work – something I never thought I would do. I never believed I could muster up the energy for a morning workout. But the cool thing about working out in the morning is you tend never to miss a workout. You don’t have to worry about how you will fit it into my schedule later in the day. And I find that if I start the day feeling great, I tend to keep that feeling all day.
Believe me, if you’ve just had a good workout, all the bad stuff – self-doubt, self-criticism, deep fears – tends to go away, at least for a little while. If you tackle your most important work of the day right after exercising, then your day is already off to a roaring strong start.
Whatever self-sabotaging behavior you have been engaging in – and we are all guilty of engaging in some form of that behavior at one time – there is a solution that will at least help you mitigate it. So decide which one issue you want to focus in on, come up with a solid solution, and stick with it.
The Good News
The good news is that you aren’t the only entrepreneur suffering from self-sabotaging behavior. All other entrepreneurs are too, including huge face-less big corporations. In fact, you wouldn’t believe the self-sabotaging behavior these big companies do all the time.
So the good news is that, like you, all of your competitors engage in some sort of self-sabotaging behavior. If you can recognize your sabotaging behaviors, chip away at them and make a good attempt to improve even a couple of them. You will be a significantly more capable entrepreneur and a more powerful business competitor.
Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown.