4 seemingly harmless habits that can ruin your career

Being your own biggest critic might seem like a positive attribute, but it can lead you to career troubles.


When people say that “your career is a marathon,” they are probably referring to being patient when it comes to moving up the ladder, and being willing to put in hours and hours of hard work before you get there. But there is another example where the marathon analogy can apply–small habits can stop you from completing it, whether it’s bad form or not fueling properly. Likewise, seemingly innocent tendencies can jeopardize–or stall–your career if you’re not careful.

Next time you find yourself exhibiting one of these behaviors, take a step back and assess how it might impact your career in the long run, even if it might not seem that way.

School teaches you to score perfect grades and aim for gold stars, and in most cases you will not come across tests that have materials you’ve never seen (if you do your work properly, that is). Real life, however, doesn’t work like that. You might get assigned tasks you have no idea how to do, and you might not necessarily have a go-to person in the office to ask for help. You’ll make mistakes, and they’ll have real-life consequences.

There’s nothing wrong with that. What is problematic is when you start beating yourself up for every little error, and being too afraid to ask for help for fear of sounding stupid. As Cheryl Lock previously wrote in Fast Company, “Disappointments at work can stop you from asking crucial questions or taking on responsibilities that could potentially move you ahead in your job. It’s unrealistic to believe you’ll never make mistakes in a long career, though, and the ability to recover quickly is what can set you apart from the pack.”

In the ideal workplace, you’d be able to bring your whole self to work, and present yourself the way you want. However, sometimes your job requires you to embody a different persona. For example, in a formal corporate setting, you might have to tone down your personality a little bit.

But when you feel the need to hide a huge part of yourself, that’s an issue. As Elizabeth Segran reported in a 2015 Fast Company article, respondents from a Deloitte study admitted to changing their appearance, not visibly associating with certain ethnic/political/religious groups, and being silent about issues they support if it’s an unpopular opinion. “Covering up who you are on a daily basis comes at a cost: It takes time and energy and is psychologically exhausting,” Segran wrote. “Employees who feel the need to hide parts of their private life at work also struggle to build close bonds with their colleagues, which makes it hard for them to establish strong networks of support in their career.”

Productivity is important. In a world of never-ending to-do lists, working harder just doesn’t cut it–you have to figure out a way to be efficient and work smarter. But too much of anything can be bad for you, including productivity. When you’re so obsessed with “hacking” and “optimizing” every hour with the goal of producing more output, you’re trading in time that you can spend thinking, which is what’s going to move you forward in the long run.

Business psychologist Tony Crabbe articulated this in his book, Busy: How to Thrive in a World Of Too Much. He pointed out that our brains are not machines, and that by putting an emphasis on producing more, we’re not exercising our “cognitive intellect, imagination, and problem-solving” muscle. “In other words, the very capability that our businesses need to cultivate is being damaged, day by day, by “more.” Floundering under the avalanche of corporate communication and demand, our poor brains struggle to do anything more than flit from micro-task to micro-task. We are productive but dumb; our battered and distracted attentional systems are slowing the entire system, and eroding corporate progress.”

In a company, some level of change and uncertainty is inevitable. People leave, products fail, and new leaders switch directions and visions. When that happens, it’s easy to move into defense mode. The problem is, that stops you from thinking rationally and making the best of the situation. Fast Company contributor Art Markman previously wrote, “When a big negative outcome feels like it’s right around the corner, it’s likely that your fear outstrips the potential reality. Stress causes you to magnify the imagined impact of the event you’re worrying about, which makes it hard to actually plan for it.”

Playing defense might prevent you from losing your job, but just like focusing too much on output, it can hamper your creativity and prevent you from taking risks that allow you to grow. And that’s not going to be fulfilling for anyone.

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company’s Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work. More

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