Hurting Yourself When You’re At Your Best

Self-sabotage most common during peak time of day

We’ve all done it—self-sabotaged by staying up too late the night before a big exam or by talking ourselves out of an exciting opportunity. Luckily, a new study linking self-sabotage to circadian rhythms may help explain why we’re harming our chances to advance, and what to do about it.

According to a press release issued by Indiana University, a new study found that people are most likely to self-sabotage during their peak time of day–“morning people” in the morning and “night owls” in the evening.

Many people identify as either a “night-owl” or a “morning person.” Circadian rhythm can explain when we’re at our best and when we feel most energized—typically either before the sunrise or after the sunrise. Conventional wisdom suggests that a person would self-sabotage less during their peak time.

The practice of self-sabotage, also known as self-handicapping, occurs when a person creates circumstances that harm their ability to complete a stressful task. Self-handicapping is understood to be a protection against the responsibility of failure.

Previous studies have linked self-handicapping to other destructive behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse, aggression and overeating.

To conduct the study, researchers gave tests to 237 students, half of whom were told that stress had been found to affect test performance, and half of whom were told stress would not affect their performance.

Participants took the test at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m., based on whether they had been characterized as “morning people” or “night people.” To determine whether they were morning or night people, researchers administered a survey shown to accurately predict circadian rhythm.

Researchers found that people who scored higher on risk for self-sabotage reported greater stress levels at hours of peak performance, a tendency that didn’t make a difference at off-peak hours.

They also found that individuals who make excuses for under-productivity reported the same levels of stress at off-peak hours as those not prone to make excuses. However, at peak-hours, those individuals used higher levels of stress as an excuse for poor performance.

“What this study tells us is that self-handicapping requires thought and planning,” says study author Ed Hirt in the press release. Hirt is a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He adds:

“People who are feeling uncertain about themselves and start to fear that they might fail are more likely to identify potential excuses and self-handicap when they’re at their peak than when they’re not.”

Want to combat self-handicapping in your own life? Experts recommend watching for warning signs (making excuses, creating distractions), substituting excuses for goals, recognizing and managing negative emotions and talking with a counselor.

This study was published on August 2, 2016 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The authors disclosed no financial information or conflicts of interest.

Harvard Business Review, “Don’t Sabotage Yourself”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “Circadian variations in claimed self-handicapping: Exploring the strategic use of stress as an excuse”
Indiana University, “’Morning people’ self-sabotage less at night, night owls’ less at sunrise”