If you tried to collect all the tears shed by ambitious workers who unwittingly sabotaged their careers, it would fill an ocean. Job failure can be heartbreaking, but it can also be an impetus to keep going. Many beliefs that have been passed down for generations about career success don’t pass the smell test. There’s still a long way to go before we have a definitive science of career sustainability. But over the years, experts have made some compelling reversals, providing alternatives to how we think about productivity, memory, self-care and workplace success.
Don’t Drink The Kool-Aid
Don’t believe everything you hear about job success. Research shows that you can teach old dogs new tricks, and you’re not crazy if you talk to yourself. In fact, cutting-edge psychology has shown that talking to yourself is one of the best tools for clarity and one of the best ways to find creative solutions on the job. Science is ditching some of the old dinosaur beliefs about job success passed down over the years. There’s a new normal in the workplace about memory, productivity and healthy living that can help you find the success you seek. To bring you up to speed, here are ten major career killers along with tips on what you can do about them.
1. Multitask. Raise your hand if you think multitasking is the golden ticket to productivity. I thought so. While you might think multitasking is the answer to job success, experts say that it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Studies at the University of Michigan showed that when you bounce between several tasks at once, you’re actually forcing your brain to keep refocusing with each rebound and reducing productivity by up to 40%. Not only does multitasking undermine productivity, it neutralizes efficiency and quality of the outcome, creating several half-baked projects that can leave you overwhelmed and stressed. Scientists at Stanford University also found that multitaskers have trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information and that multitasking causes fractured thinking, inability to concentrate and brain fatigue. The solution? It’s counter-intuitive, but studies show that when you slow down—instead of speed—and perform one task at a time, you’ll be more productive, efficient and successful. You’ll avoid frying your brain, too, and it will be happier and so will you.
2. Play It Safe. Statistics show that you have more stamina to continue to take safety risks after a car crash than to continue after a series of psychological defeats. Do you seek safety at work in routines and avoiding risking the unfamiliar or unexpected? Growth happens outside your comfort zone. Studies show that you have a greater chance of achieving success if you stick your neck out. The solution? Stretch yourself. Instead of fleeing from career unknowns, step into the unfamiliar and unexpected, embrace novelty and build your resilience. What edge can you go to in your work today? What unpredictable bridge can you jump off to sprout your wings? What limb can you reach to get to the fruit of the tree?
3. Work More Hours. Do you work longer and faster to accomplish your goals? Perhaps Dolly Parton needs to update her song, “Working 9 to 5” and rename it “Toiling 24/7.” Science has debunked the old notion that working harder, longer and faster makes you more productive. In fact, studies show that highly effective managers work fewer hours (an average of 52 hours a week), compared to less productive managers who work longer hours (an average of 70 hours a week). Managers who work longer hours have greater mental and physical health problems. British researchers report that employees who put in more than eleven hours a day were 67% more likely to have a heart attack, compared to those who put in fewer hours. The solution? When you work less and smarter you get more done faster with higher-quality performance outcomes, and you remain healthier, enjoy a sustained career trajectory and live longer.
4. Focus On Problems. Mother Nature hardwired you for survival, which means you, like everybody on the planet, have what scientists call a negativity bias to keep you out of harm’s way. Because negativity has a longer shelf life than positivity, you tend to overestimate job threats and underestimate your ability to overcome them. It takes three positive thoughts to offset one negative thought. Although negativity hard-wires you for safety, it works against you in the workplace. Focusing on the problem constricts your outlook, jails your ability to see possibilities and keeps you from believing in yourself. Studies show that pessimists are less likely than optimists to scale the career ladder. If you live by Murphy’s Law—if something can go wrong in your life, it will—you essentially drink the Kool-Aid that can circumvent your success. The solution? Stack your positivity deck and focus on solutions. Pinpoint the opportunity in a difficulty instead of the difficulty in the opportunity.
5. Put Yourself Down. In an effort to perform better, do you kick yourself when you lose a promotion or management doesn’t like your idea, thinking self-ridicule will help you achieve success? Boy, have I got news for you. Studies show it’s the other way around. A direct link exists between self-compassion and success. Coming down hard on yourself after a setback reduces your chances of rebounding. Self-criticism is so painful you throw in the towel to end your misery. When job letdowns leave you disheartened or hopeless, the last thing you want to do is attack yourself. The solution? Extinguish your blame thrower, put down your gavel and chill your faultfinder. Talk yourself off the ledge, and give yourself a healthy dose of self-compassion—a pep talk, an affirmation or take a different, more encouraging perspective.
6. Practice Self-Neglect. Chances are you were taught that self-sacrifice is a virtue and that putting yourself last is strength of character. But that adage no longer holds water. We now know that always putting yourself at the end of the line is a grave disservice and can actually sabotage career success. The solution? Amp up self-care. Self-care makes your use of time more sustainable. Avoid gobble, gulp and go. Healthy eating, rest and regular exercise give you the stamina to withstand job challenges. Indulge in a restorative activity—a hobby, yoga, massage or hot bath—that rejuvenates your mind and body and restores your creative juices. Take care of yourself first, and you have more to give to your personal job goals and to others.
7. Harbor Self-Doubt. Chances are there are days when self-doubt takes up residence in your head. It tells you that you’re defeated before you begin. When doubt precedes your path, you’re already halfway down, and you haven’t even started the journey. Doubt overshadows facts about who you are and what you can achieve. Each time you step out of doubt’s shadow, you learn more self-truths. The solution? Send self-doubt packing. If you have a self-defeating outlook blocking your success, replace it with a positive outlook and take steps to make the positive thought a reality.
8. Fear Failure. Only the diligent survive the ups and downs in the work world. Fear of failure leads to fear of success. Psychologists have identified why some people are more successful than others: because they have a winning frame of mind, known as a growth mindset. Babe Ruth, arguably one of the best ballplayers of all time said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” If you have a growth mindset, you think of success and failure as a package deal. You accept both equally because you know you can’t have an up without a down, a back without a front or a right without a left. You welcome failure—no matter how painful, frustrating big or small—and consider it a lesson from which to learn. The solution? Accept failure with open arms, learn from it and take the perspective that failure happens for you, not to you.
9. Set Unreasonable Deadlines. They’re called deadlines for a reason. If you’re like the majority of today’s workforce, you kill yourself trying to make unrealistic deadlines. And if you’re dead, you can’t reach your career goals. The solution? Set realistic lifelines that can paradoxically give you more time, slow you down and make you more productive and effective. Put time cushions between tasks so you can breathe, eat a snack or just look out the window. When you set lifelines instead of deadlines, you’re less likely to hear that whooshing sound as deadlines go by or feel that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach for falling short.
10. Eschew An Idle Mind. “Idle my mind?” I can imagine you scratching your head and rolling your eyes as you look at your to-do list. If you’re like most corporate climbers, the old myth, “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop,” still lingers in the back your head. But the avalanche of research from Harvard and other institutions of higher learning shows that idle moments of mindfulness without imperatives—nothing to rush to, fix or accomplish—actually adds to your mental and physical health: greater productivity, better memory, stronger immune system, fewer health problems, greater happiness and longer life. The solution? Take time out of the daily grind to quiet your mind—idle moments to meditate, take a power nap or contemplate some aspect of nature. Doing nothing provides a period for important decisions to incubate and cultivates clarity and creativity to put into your career goals and make them a reality.
I am the author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books, including #CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow) and the long-selling CHAINED TO THE DESK: A GUIDEBOOK FOR WORKAHOLICS, THEIR PARTNERS AND CHILDREN, AND THE CLINICIANS WHO TREAT THEM (New York University Press). My books have been translated into fifteen languages. I am Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I conducted the first studies on children of workaholics and the effects of workaholism on marriage. I built my career on the themes of resilience and work/life balance and have lectured throughout the world on work addiction and workplace issues. My research was featured on 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC’s World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, NBC Universal, The CBS Early Show, CNBC’s The Big Idea and NPR's Marketplace. I hosted the PBS documentary, Overdoing It: How to Slow Down and Take Care of Yourself. I maintain a private psychotherapy practice in Asheville, NC and reside in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my spouse, three dogs, one cat, several tropical birds, and occasional bears at night.