Are You a Self-Sabotaging Academic?

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It’s difficult enough being an academic, without setting yourself up to fail. Yet countless harried and hassled graduate students and professors do this daily.

How do they do it? Let me count the ways.

  1. They put too many things on their schedule. Then they get upset when they don’t do them all.
  2. They set unrealistic deadlines for themselves. Then they get upset when they don’t meet them.
  3. They think that other scholars write quickly and easily. Then they get upset with themselves when they find writing slow and difficult.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

The result of putting yourself into these kinds of situations is that you end up feeling inadequate and ineffective, and you don’t trust your own scheduling, planning and writing skills. This lowers your self esteem and decreases your motivation.

This self-sabotaging pattern comes about as a result of a conflict between expectations and reality. If you expect yourself to perform at an unrealistic level, you’re bound to be disappointed in yourself.


The Four Faces of “You”

How can you change this pattern?

To find some answers, let’s examine this in terms of setting deadlines, a skill that tends to trip people up a lot.

I see it as four sides of yourself that are at odds with each other. (No, you don’t have multiple personalities.)

“Adult You”

This is the side of you that is reasonable and objective. “Adult You” knows that you need to set a deadline, lets say for finishing your current chapter, in order to motivate yourself and keep yourself on course. You know you should set a reasonable deadline, which will allow for all the other things happening in your life. You also know that there is an optimum amount of time you should spend writing on a daily basis, say 30 minutes.

“Crazed Scholar You”

This side of you sees everything in extremes. If you don’t finish that chapter in 3 weeks! Everything! Will! Go wrong!

“Critical Academic You”

This side of you thinks of itself as extremely rational and logical, and is quite judgmental. “Any fool could write this chapter in 3 weeks.”

This part of you is grandiose and in denial. “As an undergrad, I wrote a 15-page paper in 48 hours, so it should be a snap for me to write this chapter in 3 weeks.”

What happens when these four sides of yourself get together? Well, 3 out of 4 of You agree – that chapter can be finished in 3 weeks!


“Super-Scholar You”

This part of you is grandiose and in denial.  “As an undergrad, I wrote a 15-page paper in 48 hours, so it should be a snap for me to write this chapter in 3 weeks.”

The Aftermath

Ok, it’s 2 days until your self-imposed deadline. Let’s tune in to the internal conversation:

“Critical Academic You”

“I knew it – you won’t make your deadline. You never do. You’re just not cut out for academia. Furthermore, you’re not that smart and you don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know how you fooled all of them for this long.”

“Crazed Scholar You”

“Everything! Will! Go! Wrong! And it did!”

“Super-Scholar You”

“La-di-da! This didn’t happen, and besides, I’ve already forgotten about it! I’ll just set another ambitious deadline. I’m sure I’ll meet it! I always do!”

“Adult You”

“Be quiet, all of you. I set an unreasonable deadline, so of course I didn’t meet it. It doesn’t say anything about how smart I am. And there is no calamity here, so calm down. I just need to remember what I learned about being more realistic when I set a deadline.”

This final voice of reason is there, somewhere deep inside your head. But unfortunately, you can’t hear it. It’s drowned out by the other voices.

A Meeting of the Minds

The answer to this dilemma is that you need to help “Adult You” to have a louder voice. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Become aware of the negative voices. They are there in the background; you just need to tune in. You can’t answer them back if you haven’t heard them. Then write down what you hear. For example, you might hear: “You’ll never get this done!”

  • Answer the negative voices. Even if it feels like what they’re saying is true, go through the exercise of writing down a response. So for that above example, you could write, “If I continue writing a little every day, I will finish.” This will take care of the “Crazed Scholar You” and the “Critical Academic You.”

  • Keep records of how you actually do on making deadlines. Note how long it actually took you to write a certain number of pages, and how many minutes you actually spent writing daily. Note whether you are able to write on your teaching days, or on the weekends (not suggested.) This will help you with future time estimation, and will help you deal with “Super-Scholar You.”

  • Maintain a list of positive affirmations about your abilities, intelligence, and situation. Read it frequently. This will help you strengthen “Adult You.” And if you sign up for this newsletter (see upper left hand corner of this page), you will receive 4 pages of Positive Affirmations for Academics,” in addition to two other fantastic bonuses.

I believe that nobody sets out to sabotage themselves. If you follow these steps, you will feel more in control of your academic future, and feel better about yourself. And that strange buzzing in your head will stop.


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