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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Dealing With Failure

Victim No More: How to Stop Self-Sabotaging

Stop blaming outside forces for your unfinished projects and get them out into the world and out of your mind.


Sometimes, it makes sense to quit a creative project, but other times, that’s not an option. Maybe you need to turn in your thesis to complete your degree program, or finish a client project to maintain your professional reputation, or put up your portfolio so you can apply for jobs. You want to cut your losses and move on—maybe even pretend it never happened.

But in reality, you can’t move forward professionally until you get out of your head and into action.

If you find yourself feeling like a victim to a creative project, follow these steps to empower yourself. I’ve seen them work with time coaching clients around the world, and I believe they can help you break the inertia and see real progress—starting now.

Take ownership, and stop the blame game

When you feel like the victim of your circumstances, you spend copious amounts of time blaming everything and everyone around you. Although it may feel good to vent about your stupid computer or annoying degree requirements, this attitude won’t get you anywhere.

Instead, you need to go back to the point at which you did make a choice such as when you signed up for the masters program, took on the client project, or decided to pursue an artistic career. Then accept the fact that whatever project you need to finish now is a natural consequence of your decisions, not some unreasonable burden placed upon you. (Except for a few instances of extreme familial pressure, almost everyone can trace back their current situation to some point at which they did make an autonomous choice.) After you’ve come to terms with the fact that you are responsible for where you find yourself now, you can stop brooding and replace the thought, “Woe is me!” with the question, “What can I do to move forward?”

Acknowledge avoidance and focus on moving forward

Once you’ve shifted your mindset from that of a victim to that of a self-determining individual, you need to do something about your actions. People operating in the victim mode have a tendency to fill their schedules with everything but what they say is most important. This avoidance through busyness allows them to justify their lack of progress.

Common traps include seemingly “productive” activities like maintaining a spotless inbox that gives you a surface-level feeling of control and some quick positive feedback but is a thinly veiled cover up for the fact that you have huge gaps in your effectiveness. If this sounds like you, get honest about how you spend your hours so that you “don’t have time” for what you actually need to do. Then start to either eliminate or limit the time investment you make in these less essential activities so you have space for the important.

Chunk your tasks into smaller steps

If you’ve attempted to avoid a project for months or even years, thinking in detail about the entire scope of the project can leave you discouraged instead of encouraged. Here’s how one of my time coaching clients described it: “If I look at the end goal, it’s the equivalent of staring at a mountain’s summit. Instead, I need to look at the few next steps ahead.”

Let’s say the dreaded project involves completing your portfolio so you can apply for new jobs. Your next few baby steps could include: Finding the slides you’ve already made, gathering your other work, and looking over the projects to pick which ones you’ll include. Once you’ve done these three steps, the next few will become evident. Focus on small, easy wins to keep the project from feeling insurmountable.

Enlist cheerleaders

The initial process of accumulating even small, easy wins will require a great deal of courage because you’ll likely need to break through a thick wall of guilt, fear, and regret. One of the best ways to make it to the other side is to enlist people who will give you loads of positive feedback for any action steps in the right direction. This affirmation along the way will increase your motivation to progress toward your goal even if the final completion and the accompanying rewards still stand a long way off.

De-prioritize results and acknowledge progress

Once you’ve taken ownership and begun to make meaningful progress toward your goal, you may still face some internal resistance. This often stems from the fact that despite all of your rhetoric to the contrary, you do care very deeply about this project and really want it to turn out well. When you start to notice yourself worrying about what people will think about your finished product, you can tell yourself these truths:

  • Doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • This is only a draft—I can always come back and edit it.
  • I can’t know whether or not people will be happy, but I can focus on doing what I know how to do well.

By focusing on the process instead of the results, you’ll create a safe environment for gradual progress toward your ultimate goal.

How about you?

Have you found yourself stuck on a must-do project?

How did you breakthrough the inertia?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at http://www.RealLifeE.com.

Comments (53)
  • Emerald

    So very timely! yes, I am stuck, unmotivated and unfulfilled. So much creative product just sitting…waiting to be used.

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      Glad to hear it! I hope these steps work well to help you get unstuck.

      You have much more power than you may realize.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • mike

    Thanks for this article, its refreshingly honest but not overwhelming or discouraging. I would like to ask if u have any advice in how to get people you live with, like family, to understand your project pressures and make it easier for you to focus?

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      Hello Mike-

      I’m really glad that you found the article honest and encouraging. I work with people going through these situations on a regular basis so it’s all based on first-hand experience.

      To answer your question around setting boundaries, here’s an article on taking back control of your calendar that I wrote for the 99U: http://99u.com/articles/7288/respect-yourself-and-take-back-control-of-your-calendar

      More specifically in regard to people that live with you, here’s what I find works well:
      -Set daily office hours for yourself: These could be the same each day or vary, but the important thing is that you’re clear on them with the people you live with. So for instance, your office hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. or if it’s for a side project 9 p.m.-11 p.m. If they vary, I recommend you putting them on a white board outside your door.

      -Stick to those hours: During those hours focus on your project. When you’re not in those hours, commit yourself to being available to the people living with you. If you want them to respect your need to focus, you need to respect their need to know when you will be available.

      -Have a standard working place: Preferably this is a room with a door, but if that’s not possible, pick a standard spot where everyone knows you’re in project mode.

      -Explain what to do instead: If you don’t want people interrupting you, explain that they should e-mail or wait until you’re off office hours or write a list of items for you to look at once you’re done.

      -If necessary, leave: Sometimes people really can’t respect your boundaries and you’re best off going to a coffee shop, library, or shared workspace where you can focus and get your work done.

      Hope these ideas help.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      • mike

        Hey Elizabeth,

        Thanks for the great response, I will definitely give the suggestions a shot. Never thought to set boundaries like that, till now i’ve been resorting to the local starbucks and late nights when everyones sleeping, haha.🙂 I especially like the idea for others to email or write a list to prevent interruptions while working.

        To your brilliance also!
        Mike M

  • Lydell

    I found this article very inspiring and motivational. I must say that I have found myself practicing avoidance and I appreciate the way you address the issue in this article. You are right I do have a passion for the project and doing something is so much better than doing nothing. I am inspired to move forward. Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      You’re very welcome Lydell!

      I’m so glad that you rediscovered your passion. Now be sure to take a few small steps each day toward your goal. When guilt creeps in, tell yourself, “I can’t change the past but I can decide what to do in the present.”

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://tathan.blogspot.gr/ Takis Athanassiou

    Excellent insights and a very well written article about a very common problem, subotazing a lot creative efforts. Thank you for sharing.

  • Benjamin

    I will recommend my friends to read this. I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      Awesome! Glad this can be of assistance to you and those you know.

      Maybe you can be the cheerleader—helping these people realize that each small step in the right direction is something to be celebrated.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://twitter.com/sophiawallace Sophia Wallace

    Just the medicine I needed today. Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your brilliance with us!

  • BORJA RISUEÑO

    GREAT and reflective. I can see myself justifying the lack of progrees. I like the fact of “if you are here is as a consecuence of your decissions”. Thanks

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      You’re welcome.

      Although the work you have to do is the same, taking ownership of the fact that you CHOSE this instead of this work being something horrible done to you by someone else, completely changes your emotional relationship with the project.

      This then can amp up your motivation to push through to the end.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://www.facebook.com/abha.khadar Abha Khabar

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    work through this link, snap11 com

  • http://www.facebook.com/amy.malsbenden Amy Malsbenden

    Wow, this article really articulates my procrastination. This line “People operating in the victim mode have a tendency to fill their schedules with everything but what they say is most important” is exactly what I do.

    To avoid doing this, I make schedules and lists. It works most of the time, but every now and then I push something to the bottom of the list.

    Great advice, and it helps me realize I am not the only one who feels this way. Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      You are absolutely not alone.

      It’s good that you’ve recognized your “cover up” techniques. Staying busy is not the same as being effective and we all need to constantly ask ourselves: Why am I doing what I’m doing right now?

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Raj

    Brilliant article…

  • http://twitter.com/WriteRevolt Muchemwa Sichone

    Thank you very much. I have had to face a few truths about myself after reading that article.

  • http://www.artistictreatment.com/ Branden Barnett

    When we set out to make art, it can be crippling to view the entire creative project all at once. Most people say you should break it down into steps from right now to a completed project. To me, this can be just as paralyzing. I love the idea of becoming aware of your next few steps and focusing on finishing those. I talk about Action Oriented Creativity, a similar concept, over on my blog. This is a fantastic article.

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      I find that for some people it helps to see the big picture, whereas for people in this situation, it makes matters worse.

      If you’re in the later category, just look a little bit ahead so that you avoid overwhelm.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Martin

    Thanks a Ton for that. good to know others make similar experiences.

  • AvriellaCarlecci

    Thank you so much for this article! It was exactly what I needed… I have lost complete faith in a big project I’m in the middle of in, which involves traveling around the world and building a portfolio and creating connections. I woke up feeling exhausted and hopeless and depressed and ready to jump back on a plane home. I’ve been planning on going home in about 6 weeks anyway, to compile all of my results and research and progress and spend 6 months getting back on track, and then setting off again with a better plan and better prepared. But something in me broke this week and I’ve been really struggling with it. Battling myself, what I should do, what I want to do, the disappointment, the shame, the right decisions, the wrong decisions, the what if’s, the excuses…
    After reading this I feel a bit better about both my decision to go home, but also a bit stronger to stay on track with my current schedule.. and not give up just yet. I have things to finish and a reputation to uphold, and pride in my work…
    Thank you!!!

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      YEAH!!!

      So glad that this was so encouraging to you. Go back and remember WHY you chose to take on this project. Then focus on the simple next steps. Finally, cheer yourself on for any small progress in the right direction.

      Often times the way to keep going is to calm down and be gentle with ourselves instead of pushing harder and being self-critical.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Irik Henry

    Actually this comes as a huge relief. While some blame can come from others which admittedly could be the case. I guess major part could have been from me too. So honest evaluation and critical dissection. But I guess my problem is that I tell myself all the time I suck, I suck. That part of “doing something, than nothing is just nerve motivating. Therefore I will keep pressing on, with the useful tips here to keep improving. This article is tremendously awesome. I have shared it already to most people around me.

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      Glad to hear it’s helpful. Also, my article on “The Thought Patterns of Success” for Harvard Business Review might help you with talking to yourself in a new way: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/04/the_thought-patterns_of_succes.html

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      • Guest

        The first few sentences, gave me the impression this article will be remarkable. Beyond the expectation though, was down-to-earth thinking pattern suggested. I have tried it in the past two days. Good pattern never occurs just with the snap of a finger or thought switch. I would admit, it’s not easy shaking off the stomach panic or anxiety. Especially, with problems that seems solved but for some reason, obstinate, and non-committal attitude from the opposite side feel like regurgitation the old-habits. But, I will keep trying till the positives over takes the already developed obsessive pattern that has eaten into the deep into my behavioural fabric. But, the determination after this mind enriching article is to keep gearing up in the right direction. Thank you.

      • Irik Henry

        The first few sentences, gave me the impression this article will be
        remarkable. Beyond the expectation though, was down-to-earth thinking
        pattern suggested. I have tried it in the past two days. Good pattern
        never occurs just with the snap of a finger or thought switch. I would
        admit, it’s not easy shaking off the stomach panic or anxiety.
        Especially, with problems that seems solved but for some reason,
        obstinate, and non-committal attitude from the opposite side feel like
        regurgitation the old-habits. But, I will keep trying till the positives
        over takes the already developed obsessive pattern, that has eaten deep into my behavioural fabric. The determination thereafter this
        mind enriching article, is to keep gearing up in the right direction.
        Thank you. Eli

  • Irik Henry

    Actually this comes as a huge relief. While some blame can come from
    others which admittedly could be the case. I guess major part could have
    been from me too. So honest evaluation and critical dissection. But I
    guess my problem is that I tell myself all the time I suck, I suck. That
    part of “doing something, than nothing is just nerve motivating.
    Therefore I will keep pressing on, with the useful tips here to keep
    improving. I might not have the right adjectives, but this his article is tremendously awesome, and an invaluable source of motivation lead educ-information. I have shared it
    already with most people around me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/iraja3 Imran Raja

    I am actually stuck on such a project now, i ve not been able to get my head around it at all, find a million other things to do and now im even scared to look at my work, think its time to actually prioritise the priorities, one thing i will say is i agree its not about the results, too many people are fixated on money and you become overwhelmed by your situation, i think i have to learn that you cant eat an elephant in one bite and just do alittle at a time but get going and keep going.

  • Abi

    The first two steps were already so helpful! Taking ownership is exactly what I’ve been trying to do, and de-prioritizing inessentials like that “spotless inbox” is exactly what I should be doing. Thank you! #Progress!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ekaterinazotkova Ekaterina Zotkova

    Great article! I guess the hardest thing is to start, but then, once you’ve started, it all goes well. It was so with my thesis and the job-hunting process. I usually do this: 1) make a detailed plan of what should be done 2) don’t put my will in starting the work, but in simply denying myself all the time-killing& procrastination pleasures. That’s an important point. Try and sit calmly for 30 minutes – no TV, the Internet, or WhatsApp, you know what I mean ). You will be so bored that you will jump at any task! 3) wow, so now I’ve got nothing to do and just start doing something small about the project 4) the project itself starts to fascinate me and becomes a pleasure 5) follow the plan till the end making necessary amendments in it.

    • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

      Great strategy! Thanks for sharing!

      To your brilliance!

      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

    Go for it Laura!!!

    There’s no better time than today to get started. Be your own cheerleader and support yourself 100% percent.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

    Why?

  • IJP

    This was one of the most useful articles I have ever read.

  • http://twitter.com/RealLifeE Elizabeth Saunders

    Awesome! So glad it was helpful for you.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Linda-n

    Well-written and deeply researched advises.
    Thank you Elizabeth. It was really inspiring and I actually learned a couple of things.

  • Adar Darnov

    Great article, It feels legitimizing to read about some techniques I already use and empowering to learn new ones.

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