4 Ways Your Brain Is Holding You Back

From Imposter Syndrome to Design Fixation, here are the ways your brain works against you and how you can outsmart it.

4 Ways Your Brain Is Holding You Back
[Photo: Flickr user sayot]

You may not realize it, but your brain is working against you.


Think about it: How many times have you tried to focus in a meeting, only to succumb to a burning desire to check your Instagram?

Or how about the time you were told to come up with 10 new ideas—and found you couldn’t even brainstorm one?

Turns out there are a slew of psychological tendencies that can get in your way at work, affect your productivity, and even hurt your rise through the corporate ranks.


And as much as you may believe you’re the master of your mind, with all those synapses firing constantly there’s sure to be some brain activity that’s conspiring against you.

But we’re here to help you show your brain who’s boss.

Here are four all-too-common behavioral phenomena that have the potential to waylay your best professional intentions—along with some advice from psychologists on how to transcend them.


Brain Blocker #1: The Goldfish Effect

Here’s a fun fact: The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.

Here’s another one: According to research by Microsoft, the average attention span of a human now maxes out at eight seconds—that’s down from 12 in 2000.

That’s right—a fish can now concentrate longer than a human.


The reason we suffer from the Goldfish Effect? Our always-connected society leaves us in a constant state of sensory overload, making every digital notification suddenly the most important thing to attend to.

How It Can Hinder You at Work Between responding to emails, fielding multiple chats, and actually answering questions in real life, you get so bogged down in the minutiae of the day that by 5:30 your to-do list has only gotten longer.

And if you pride yourself on being able to juggle multiple tasks, you may be fooling yourself—University of Utah research suggests that only 2% of people are actually effective multitaskers.


How to Outsmart Your Noggin What you drown out can be just as important to your brain’s efficiency as what you absorb, according to a recent University of Rochester study.

Researchers found that people with high IQs were also the best at filtering out background stimuli—suggesting that smart people are good at suppressing information that is less important to the task at hand.

But if you’re not a natural at ignoring the not-so-crucial stuff, it is something you can get better at with time, says Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy.


The key is to start small. Define a limited period of time—say, five minutes—when you’ll commit to focusing on just one task, like answering a lengthy email.

“If that doesn’t work, start with one minute, or even 30 seconds,” Michaelis says. “Then gradually add increments of time. Before you know it, you’ll be able to suppress that nagging wish to see what’s happening on Facebook.”


Brain Blocker #2: Imposter Syndrome

You hold the corner office, but do you still have a nagging feeling that you’re undeserving of your accomplishments?

If so, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome—the idea that your success has been a fluke and you’ll be “found out” for not being as talented as everyone thinks.


By some estimates, more than 70% of people have felt this way at some point in their lives. But despite it being extremely common, clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, says imposter syndrome is rarely discussed, which can leave you feeling like you’re the only one in the office harboring such thoughts.

How It Can Hinder You at Work “This syndrome can cause a wide variety of fear-related behaviors, not to mention increased stress and relationship strain,” Lombardo says.

For example, you may refuse to accept coaching because you’re afraid colleagues will discover you’re a fraud. Or you may tend to get upset at other people’s incompetence in an attempt to hide your own. You may even become a micromanager because you believe mistakes on your team hint that you’re in over your head.


And, most obviously, you may avoid gunning for promotions because you’re afraid you’re not qualified.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin One big sign you’re suffering from imposter syndrome is that you feel inadequate—despite what the evidence shows. But could you really have faked your way through record sales figures or multiple promotions?

So when doubt starts to set in, it helps to take stock of your past successes.


Maybe it’s reminding yourself of a company award, rereading old client praise, or digging up a stellar performance review. The key is to own your accomplishments, rather than chalk them up to luck.

“Then the next time that inner critic creeps up and says, ‘Who are you to be doing this?’ you can stop and answer that critic with past data,” Lombardo says.

Brain Blocker #3: Thought Suppression

Remember when your mom told you not to even think about touching that cookie jar, which just made you obsess over that chocolaty goodness more?


You were engaging in the thankless task of thought suppression, or the idea that you can will your brain not to think about something. Well, the problem is that research has found thought suppression actually has the opposite effect.

Harvard professor Daniel Wegner discovered this in a classic experiment that involved thinking about a white bear. Those who were instructed to suppress thoughts of a white bear actually ended up thinking about one more than those who were told they could think about white bears freely.

How It Can Hinder You at Work Anyone who’s been in a tough work situation knows it’s futile to heed the advice of well-meaning friends who say, “Try not to think about your boss/that big project/the mistake you made.”


Your brain, it turns out, won’t let you replace negative thoughts with flowers and puppies. Rather, you focus on them all the more—which can ramp up your stress levels, leaving you mentally exhausted at the end of the day.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin As with imposter syndrome, failed attempts at thought suppression are the result of a too-loud inner pessimist you can’t silence.

So instead of avoiding a stressful situation or wasting energy trying to control how you feel about it, roll up your sleeves and work through the issue.

“Many people believe they can reason their way through their feelings,” Michaelis explains in his book. “[But] the reason you can’t use your rational mind to control your emotions is because your feelings are stronger than your thoughts.”

His advice? Accept the reality of whatever outcome your negative voice says is coming—but have your actions reflect the opposite.

For instance, if you always tell yourself you’ll blow a big presentation because you’re a horrible speaker, pretend you’re a great one—and approach your practice run-through with that confidence.

“By facing and embracing your fears, you let go of the need to control them,” Michaelis says.

Brain Blocker #4: Design Fixation

Ever get so obsessed with the first idea that comes to your head that your brain can’t even entertain the idea of, well, other ideas?

Then you’re likely a victim of design fixation, a phenomenon in which people’s past experiences end up limiting their ability to embrace new ones.

Its name comes from the challenge designers and engineers face when they have to come up with novel solutions—only to feel stunted because they can’t get past established ways of thinking.

How It Can Hinder You at Work Design fixation can strike at any time in the workplace, whether it’s not being able to embrace a new workflow or being resistant to adopting a new company logo.

But there’s a reason why design fixation is nicknamed “first is worst” syndrome: It inhibits creativity. Plus, if you’re not able to embrace change, you’re limiting opportunities to advance your skills—and climb that career ladder.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin Step one, Michaelis says, is to flood your head with as many different ideas as possible—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The notion is that doing so pushes your brain to keep working when it’d rather sit back and relax.

“Part of [why you get] stuck with your first idea is that, once you have an idea in mind, you don’t have to keep thinking,” he explains. “But if you force yourself to consider alternatives, you might just stumble upon something better.”

Michaelis’s second suggestion is a bit more outside the box.

“If you pair your first idea with something distasteful—like a picture of some garbage or a negative smell—you might bring down your natural tendency to like it,” says Michaelis, who’s used this tactic with clients. “If you still like it after it’s been paired with an ‘aversive stimulus,’ it’s probably an idea worth keeping.”

This article originally appeared on LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.