The term “self-sabotage” is thrown about a lot these days, but it’s only ever meant one thing:
Self-sabotage is when you know you should be doing better – that it would be easy for you to do better, in fact – but you just can’t seem to get motivated.
And it tears you up inside, because you know just how easy it’d be to start getting shit done. You know you’re better than this laziness and slackness, but you just can’t get moving.
So what the hell is going on, exactly?
The psychological source of self-sabotage explained:
The Unconscious Mind – the part of our thinking process that is literally outside of our conscious awareness – has one prime directive above all others:
It wants to keep us safe.
The Unconscious is obsessed with pain and pleasure. It has a full-time focus on moving us toward the latter and way from the former.
And once an entrepreneur starts forcing themselves to work, with rigid productivity hacks and iron-structured ritual, they start a process of delaying gratification… which explains everything about why overachieving entrepreneurs can be so damn miserable and unmotivated.
A type of mental negotiation happens between the entrepreneur’s conscious self and the unconscious mind at the beginning, and it goes like this:
Conscious self: “Ok, I want this big shiny goal – let’s stay a gold-plated Jet Ski – cos it’d be super fun and awesome. But I need us to work really, really hard to get it, okay?”
Unconscious mind: “Got it. Work hard now = a bit of pain now. Jet Ski later = a lot of pleasure later. I get that. Let’s do it!”
Initially, the unconscious mind is fully on board.
The unconscious mind gets in behind the desires of the conscious self. It understands the concept of delayed gratification and suspends its natural inclination for total hedonism to allow you to work hard in pursuit of your goal.
But business is way harder than most people think.
Talented, “overachiever” entrepreneurs are used to everything being easy. They’re people who have always been told they’re full of potential. They’ve never had to give anything much a 100% effort, because everything has been pretty easy.
Such people – who find life, regular jobs and schooling (for example) a breeze – tend to underestimate just how hard they’ll have to work and how long it’ll take to arrive at that jet-ski-winning-business-success moment.
So the overachiever starts out their business career, and they’re flush with optimism and visions of Jet Skis. Or whatever. As they start climbing the entrepreneurial learning curve, the epiphany occurs: this is hard. The business learning curve is steeper and longer than almost anyone imagines.
Many give up.
Those who remain have another epiphany: In light of how discouraging and difficult this whole business success thing, a few productivity hacks are needed. It’s at this point that entrepreneurs realize they can’t rely on their default work habits, so they become obsessed with productivity hacking, structure and discipline.
It’s all an effort to stay productive and work harder than ever.
Some entrepreneurs find themselves clocking crazy hours, never really switching off and eliminating almost all distractions in life besides their business.
These are the people who say, “My business is my (only) hobby”.
I was one of them, a few years back. At my worst, I worked 10+ hours a day on my business, taking time out only to eat, sleep and work out. My social life consisted of networking with other entrepreneurs… to talk about business. I didn’t do things for fun, and I told myself I didn’t need to – that my business was fun.
The truth was that I was afraid I if I made room for true non-business fun, it’d compromise my success.
During this entrepreneurial phase, the mental negotiation between conscious and unconscious mind continues to unfold. Initially the unconscious mind cooperates, but as years go buy it starts to get suspicious.
Unconscious mind: “Hey, it’s been a few years of this whole “working hard” thing. And it’s kind of a drag. You’re now micromanaging your schedule down to 15 minute increments, for example. Where’s that Jet Ski you promised me?”
Conscious mind: “Yeeeeah, so it turns out this business thing is way harder than I anticipated. That’s okay though, I just need us to try harder. I need more motivation, more structure and more discipline. Then we’ll make it big, I swear!”
It’s at this point that the unconscious mind decides, “Fuck THAT!”
All this time, your unconscious mind has been trusting that your conscious mind knew what it was doing. It trusted that a little bit of pain now would result in a ton of pleasure later. (Jet Ski, baby!)
Everything falls apart when your unconscious mind loses that trust. In a split-second moment, it realizes that either the pleasure is never coming, or that it simply isn’t worth all the pain and struggle you’re going through now.
When this epiphany strikes your unconscious, you won’t consciously realize anything… but your motivation will vanish.
Your unconscious mind’s primary job is to act as a pain/pleasure radar detection system. It’s constantly scanning your future, based on the actions you carry out in the present, to see where it thinks you’re going to end up.
Once your unconscious mind realizes that your future, at the rate you’re going, is going to continue to be just as shitty or shittier than the present… it hits the emergency breaks.
Consciously, you’re just beavering away at your business, trying to implement all your productivity hacks. Then suddenly you find you just can’t get out of bed, or maybe you catch yourself watching Netflix all day, or surfing the internet when you should be working.
This self-sabotaging behavior is the unconscious mind desperately trying to squeeze some pleasure out of the present. It realizes how shitty you’re making your life with all this discipline and work. And it loses all faith and hope that you’ll ever accomplish the “good life”.
So it starts trying to squeeze as much fun (i.e. pleasure) as it possibly can in the moment. It looks for instant emotional gratification that’ll make you feel “good” in the simplest sense, with zero concern for the future.
For most entrepreneurs, surfing the internet is the only fun that’s left. You’ve rid yourself of all potential distractions to focus on business, so you don’t have a bunch of toys or opportunities to really enjoy yourself – you haven’t trusted yourself to be around such things for so long.
So the unconscious mind defaults to the most emotionally satisfying thing it has. For some it’s eating or mindless TV. It’s kind of sad that for many people, it’s Facebook.
If that doesn’t open your eyes to the problem, nothing will.
So what the hell is the solution?
What I’m about to tell you is the most significant idea in all psychology, if you want to win big success as a business owner:
You need to prove to your unconscious mind that your future, business success included, will be more hedonistically pleasurable than a life of half-assing everything and fluffing about on the internet.
You need to condition yourself so that every burst of motivation you can conjure up is immediately followed by something emotionally rewarding. Something pleasurable.
Right now you’re unfulfilled, unmotivated and unhappy because your unconscious mind equates your business goals with hard work, struggle and misery. Visualizing golden Jet Skis coming in your distant future isn’t enough. Your unconscious mind doesn’t believe you anymore.
The fact is, for the vast majority of unfulfilled overachievers, hard work only creates more stress and unhappiness. The unconscious mind actually starts to fear the side effects of success because, more often than not, it equates success with more responsibility and inevitable structure and discipline. Yuck.
When life starts looking like it’s going to get less and less fun, the unconscious mind will do everything it can to stop you from proceeding as planned.
And since it has a monopoly on your motivation reserves, this is a serious problem.
The solution is simple: Have more fun now. Stop delaying gratification. Try to make the gap between hard work and rewarding pleasure as small as possible. You have to reward yourself and your unconscious, so that it knows that motivation and hard work directly equates to pleasure and fun here and now.
Most people, when you really dig into their mind, have five-year goals – aka “when I make it big, THEN I’ll start living the life I want to” plans. This is broken thinking.
A big shiny goal in your distant future will motivate a green entrepreneur who hasn’t experienced any hard knocks or reality checks. If you’re a jaded veteran, you need something more.
I suggest you start with a 30-minute loop. Work hard for 30 minutes, then go do something you really love. Go have fun. Show your unconscious mind the rewards it can get when it gives you access to the motivation juice.
If you’re stuck now, it’s because your unconscious mind knows that more business success is going to make your life worse – not better. It’s that simple.
When you wholeheartedly and unconsciously believe that business success will be more fun and more pleasurable than the comfortable life you have now, you’ll effortlessly tap into the motivation you need to get you there.