4 Things Most People Don't Realize Are Holding Them Back


The fact of the matter is that sometimes there are obstacles working against us that we're simply unaware of. Rather than beat yourself up, it's time to start looking at how various aspects of your life might be thwarting your goals. (See also: 10 Reasons You Aren't Reaching Your Goals)

Here are four common obstacles, and how to fix them.

1. Your Environment

Raise your hand if you ever argued with your parents about studying or doing homework in front of the television.

The bad news is that Mom and Dad were right. Studies show that having the television on while studying — even as background noise — leads to lower-quality work. (The better news is that the studies are inconclusive about the distracting nature of music — so keep your favorite tunes going in the background if you feel like it helps.)

Whether you are surrounded by distracting noise, distracting clutter, or distracting comfort (imagine trying to write an essay in your pajamas on your bed), you might find yourself wasting the day away if your environment is not outfitted for your optimal productivity.

The Fix

Work spaces — from home offices to cube farms — tend to be set up either how you think they should look, or according to someone else's vision. We often end up forcing ourselves to work in a space that doesn't work for us.

In order to optimize your space, take into account your "desire path." This term, named for the footpaths created as shortcuts when pedestrians repeatedly ignore paved paths, describes how you actually use your space, rather than how you are supposed to use it.

For instance, if you set up a very organized office but generally end up doing your work on the kitchen table, take the time to figure out what it is about your desire path that causes you to forgo the office. Following your desire path can help you to determine what you need in order to do your best work.

2. Your Language

A recent UCLA study discovered that differences in how languages refer to events in the future can affect our behavior.

For instance, English has a very distinct future tense. If we want to talk about tomorrow's weather, we say, "It will rain tomorrow." In languages with a less distinct future tense (like German, for example), speakers say, "It rains tomorrow." That difference means that English speakers' brains encode the future as a distinct time from now, while German speakers do not.

Where this gets interesting is in the fact that speakers of languages with less distinction between the present and the future "save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese."

That means we English speakers are at a distinct disadvantage. We already tend to see the future as somebody else's problem because of a cognitive bias known as hyperbolic discounting. Add in a language that codifies the difference between the present and future, and we are very likely to continue to push today's consequences onto our future selves.

The Fix

Jerry Seinfeld has a very funny take on this particular problem. He talks about how when he's Night Guy, he simply doesn't care that Morning Guy has to get up early to go to work.

In that humorous observation lies a solution to the problem of English's future tense. Start thinking about what your Morning Guy would most like to wake up to. That might mean you do the dishes tonight, or that you pay yourself first, or that you choose the apple slices rather than the donuts. If you take the time to think about what you will want and how you will feel in the future, it's much easier to act in accordance to that now.

3. Your Smartphone

How long can you go without checking your smartphone for updates? According to a Mobile Mindset study conducted by the security app company Lookout, 60% of respondents check their phone at least once an hour.

This kind of addictive behavior is problematic, since it can get in the way of your productivity.

And addictive is the operative word. Technology offers us intermittent reinforcement: We cannot predict how often we will get an interesting comment, a like, an email, a tweet, or other technological interaction, which makes us crave those interactions even more. Intermittent reinforcement is the reason why gambling is addictive, and it is why smartphones are so tough to quit.

The Fix

It's possible to lose days at a time to noodling away on your phone, so cut off the intermittent reinforcement. First, turn off your notifications. Every time your phone pings to let you know something interesting has happened, you get another little reinforcement. The news will wait, so let it.

In addition, you will need to plan ahead when and for how long you will use your phone. When you do play on your phone, set a timer and keep to it. If you train yourself to only use your phone at set times, that habit will replace the check-all-the-time habit you currently have.

4. Your Sleep Schedule

No matter how good your intentions are in the evening, it can seem impossible to get up with the alarm when it goes off at Zero Dark-Thirty. You hit the snooze button two or seven times, stumble out of bed in search of coffee, and barely make it to work on time. You'd love to take advantage of all of the benefits of being an early riser — like time to exercise and plan your day — but even when you go to bed earlier, you simply cannot get yourself out of bed early.

The Fix

Part of the reason why it is so difficult to retrain your body to accept early wake-up times has to do with our biology. If you simply go to bed eight hours before you need to be up (which is often how switching to an earlier wake-up time goes), you might find yourself staring at the ceiling, completely awake, until your normal bedtime. You are not listening to your body's sleepiness cues in the evening, which is both frustrating and unproductive.

It's for this reason that the best strategy for changing your sleep pattern combines biology with a schedule. Instead of simply making your bedtime earlier, wait to go to bed until you are sleepy enough to drift off quickly. (A good sleepiness test is if you can't read more than a page or two of a book without drifting off.)

Doing this will mean that you go to bed when you are sleepy and get up at a fixed time. Although you might be dragging the first few days, you'll quickly find that your sleep patterns will realign so that you will feel sleepy at the optimal time for a good night's sleep before your alarm the next morning.

Be the Master of Your Fate

The obstacles to your best self may be physical, cultural, biological, or technological. But you ultimately have control over your life. The best way to take that control is to listen to your own desires and needs while planning ahead. This one-two punch should be enough to tame all those obstacles trying thwart you.

What's working against you? How will you fix it?

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