Letting Go Of Your Ego At Work

letting go

In this post, I’ll talk about something that doesn’t seem to make sense. Why is it that, when we’re working on a project that’s deeply important to us, we tend to procrastinate the most?

I’m sure you’ve experienced this while doing a task that seemed “make or break” to you. Maybe it was a project that was for an important client or worth a lot of money. Maybe it was a paper you were writing for school that was worth a big part of your grade. Whatever it was, I’ll bet you noticed yourself putting it off more often than your usual chores.

Why Procrastination Makes Sense

Why does this happen? In my experience, when a task seems really important, that usually means our ego is deeply invested in it. In other words, our self-worth is riding on how we perform. If the project goes well, we’ll think well of ourselves. But if we screw up, we’ll see ourselves as screwups.

It’s understandable that we’d put off doing a project like this. After all, if we finished the work, someone might think it’s not good enough. We can avoid that risk by not trying and never finishing.

I think this is one reason so many people have a breakthrough novel they’ve been “meaning” to write, or a dream business they’ve been “planning” to start, for many years. They haven’t tried, because they know how much their self-worth would suffer if they failed.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

How do we let go of this habit of putting off our most important work? The key, I think, is to recognize that we’re basically okay and worthwhile, no matter what mistakes or setbacks happen in the project we’re doing. In my book, this is what I call developing a sense of inner foundation.

One way to have this realization, I think, is to seriously ask yourself what would happen if the project you’ve been putting off doesn’t work out. What’s the worst-case scenario that might come about if you wrote that groundbreaking novel and nobody read it, or you started that dream business and no one bought anything from it?

What I think you’ll recognize when you ask this question is that, in fact, life would probably go on if you failed. You probably wouldn’t disintegrate or spontaneously combust, and you’d likely live to write another book or start another business if you so desired.

Getting Grounded

At a deeper level, it’s also useful, when you’re feeling anxious about how a project will turn out, to do what’s often called getting grounded — to bring your attention into your body, and feel its power and stability. Yoga offers some great ways to do this.

One technique you can use, without even getting up from your chair, is called breathing into your spine. To do this, focus your attention on the base of your spine, around the tailbone area. If you have trouble doing this, press your hand against your lower back, and tune into the sensation of pressure you feel there.

With your attention focused there, take a few deep breaths. Notice how this reminds you, on a physical level, of your strength and solidity. As you can imagine, this is great for moments at work when you feel paralyzed with worry that your project won’t turn out well.

It may seem like a paradox, but the more we see ourselves as safe and adequate, no matter what results we get at work, the more we get the ease and efficiency we want in what we do.

Photo by mugley

50 thoughts on “Letting Go Of Your Ego At Work”

  1. I notice I often procrastinate important things at work. I’ll take the easy stuff first and get it done with and then by the time I’m ready for the big thing, other little things have piled up. The idea that someone’s ego is forcing them to not do important tasks is very unique. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but it makes a lot of sense.

    I try to use Randy Pausch’s grid of not important to important and due soon or not due soon to determine what I need to get done.

    1. Hi Will — your recognition that you do small things to avoid the big thing sounds like valuable awareness — a lot of people, I’ve found, just unconsciously avoid the big project and are then left wondering where the work day went. The next step I often recommend is to ask: what is the thought or feeling that’s coming up right before I start putting off the big thing? What is it about the big project that makes it so problematic? The answer, I think, is different for each person, but that awareness is also powerful.

  2. This is so true. When I have something really important I will clean my cupboards, sort out my inbox, do the ironing (I hate ironing!) anything but just get on with it.
    I do a lot of breathing exercises but this is one I have never come across, looking forward to trying it.
    I also find it helpful to focus on how I will feel when I have accomplished whatever I am putting off, often the feelings of achievement will give me a kick up the backside!
    Many thanks,
    Kate

    1. Hi Kate — thanks, I hope the breathing exercise is helpful. I like what you said about focusing on what you want to accomplish — I think it’s useful, when we’re doing a task that starts to seem boring or difficult, to look at the “big picture” of what we’re trying to contribute to the world and to ourselves, and get back in touch with the sense of mission that drove us to be on this path.

  3. Hi Christopher,

    I think you nailed it when you said this: “It may seem like a paradox, but the more we see ourselves as safe and adequate, no matter what results we get at work, the more we get the ease and efficiency we want in what we do.” So often we look to external validation to boost our ego, but if you were focused more on internal validation and knew that no matter what anyone else said or thought at work, that you knew that you were adequate and a success already, we wouldn’t be concerned with anything external. That’s why people can speak up at meetings without worrying that their idea will be shot down, or will inititate change or will take risks – because internally they already know that what anyone thinks of them is none of their business.

    Interesting topic.

    Thanks for sharing this,
    Karen

    1. Hi Karen — I like that way of putting it — that sense of groundedness I’m talking about is key to being able to voice our ideas. It’s funny that the conventional wisdom in our culture seems to be that we won’t get anything done unless we’re really worried about how it’s going to turn out, when in fact it seems like the opposite is true.

  4. Wonderful post, Chris! I’ve read lots about dealing with ego and failure but have never seen a discussion of getting grounded included – what a great addition! So often we get lost in our reaction to what’s happening and create even more angst for ourselves.

    I love looking at “failure” as pure information – once I’ve failed I know somet things that don’t work, which actually puts me that much closer to success.

    Melinda

    1. Hi Melinda — that’s a good observation, I think — that practices to get grounded in the body help us let go of all that anxiety about being destroyed if the project doesn’t go the way we want it to.

    1. Hi J.D. — it sounds like you’ve found freedom from something that bugs a lot of other people — the fear of completing something without perfecting it first. The view that perfection isn’t really possible when it comes to a project — just many possible versions — sounds like a liberating perspective.

  5. Chris: Great post and great suggestion. I think it is inevitable that we are going to run into those times that we are feeling less than thrilled about doing certain projects and we really do need to have an approach for positively managing through these times. I think it is important to find our way to the best frame of mind so that we can also find our way to enjoying ourselves while we are completing the project. I really thought your recommendations were great and would help us get to the best perspective about what we are doing. Great post.

    1. Hi Sybil — yes, I think that’s an important thing to remember — that, no matter how amazing our work may look from the outside, there will always be moments when we don’t feel like we’re getting into the flow. I think the best we can do in those moments is acknowledge to ourselves that we’re not feeling the ease and joy we want, and often that has the tension that’s there fall away.

  6. When you think about investing all your energy into a particular project, you want to be sure that you will be successful. It is so much easier to not start and not be a failure than to try and find that things don’t work out as you wished them to. You end up doing things just to distract you from your real goal.

    1. Hi Varrla — yes, I think that mindset that “I’ve got to be sure of success” ends up actually being the biggest stumbling block a lot of people run into. Because it’s impossible to be certain of success, holding back until we know we’ll succeed leaves us holding back forever.

  7. I love the question “what’s the worst that can happen?” Many of us get paralyzed into not doing anything. We need to keep trying even if the novel we turn out is not groundbreaking. There is no failure except for feedback!

    1. Hi Evelyn — yes, I think looking right at that question of what everyone’s really going to think, or say, or in what way we’ll be “ruined,” is definitely valuable and tends to put things in perspective.

  8. Hi Chris,

    While I am aware of that I procrastinate almost everything that I think of or plan to do or doing – whether big or small, but its interesting to know that almost everybody do it. This habit of mine usually puts me in an embarassing situation where I have to slogg at workplace, make hurried decisions due to time crunch, and other things like that… may be you can provide sometips to avoid procrastination in not just the important things but in every day tasks as well…

    Anuj

    1. Hi Anuj — I cover these issues extensively in my book and my courses, but I think a good first step is to notice what thoughts and sensations are coming up right before you’re about to put off doing something. There’s some experience, I think you’ll notice, that you’re avoiding by procrastinating. Just becoming aware of that experience often helps to put it in perspective. The next step is to practice allowing the experience — to sit there and just let it be, without running away from it by messing around on Facebook or playing FreeCell. The ultimate goal, from my perspective, is to become able to move forward in the project you’re doing even when that experience — that feeling or sensation — is coming up. I hope that is helpful.

      1. HI Chris,

        Yes, indeed it is helpful. I will try to capture my thoughts and be present to my experience, when I tend to procrastinate. While I would definitely like to read your book, I would like to be in touch with you and read more from you. Thanks for the valuable inputs!

        Cheers,
        Anuj

  9. What a great article Chris!
    I have been aware of this same trait in my own work. I try to remember that “I am not my work” that my value as a Human Being and my success at work are not one and the same.
    I’m going to focus on staying more grounded with my work and see how that helps.
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Jenny — “I am not my work” sounds like a great way to put it. In our culture, we tend to assume we perform at our best when we base our self-worth on how well our projects go, but in fact, I think, the opposite is true — when our ego is completely riding on our performance, work becomes painful and difficult.

  10. So true, Chris, about ego and procrastination. Plus we can throw perfectionism in there too. One of the most memorable workshops I ever attended was about the psychology of creativity, and the facilitator talked a lot about this. After that I could really see this dynamic in myself. I’m also a big fan of worst case scenarios, even though on the face it they may seem negative. But my experience with clients is that it usually turns out to be quite positive.

    1. Hi Patty — I can definitely relate to what you said about having a positive experience with playing out worst-case scenarios — actually contemplating the scenario itself, I’ve found, is a lot easier than shying away from it and suffering over what it might look like.

  11. Hi Chris. My mind can lie, ‘what procrastination, I am thinking about it first’. Yeah right. But when you steer my attention to my body I notice I am holding my breath and I am tense. Ha, busted.
    To then ground myself with my body that doesn’t lie helps me tremendously, but you already know that. Great to see you spreading your wisdom here. xox Wilma

    1. Hi Wilma — I like that way of putting it — that the body never lies. The way I like to think about it is that that body gives us perspective — in my experience, when it comes to putting off work, it actually makes it easier to move forward when we see that what’s having us procrastinate is really just a sensation in the body, and the mental catastrophizing we do is just a way of trying not to experience that sensation.

  12. Chris,
    As I mentioned on your blog, I don’t have any trouble getting to a project that is important to me. But after reading this post I do know that I will start to procrastinate after I have got into the project. I just experienced this while journalling and will be writing about it soon.

    The ego will either stop you or entice you to push ahead. We make the mistake of stopping a lot, but even if we continue and aren’t happy with the result, we’ve broke ground and increased our odds to succeed the next time. Just like writing; the first draft is only the beginning.

    1. Hi Davina — that’s interesting — it sounds like the pressure or anxiety or whatever the sensation is that you don’t like starts to build up as you’re working on the “important” project, and eventually it gets to a point where you decide to avoid it. Most of us seem to have a threshold that limits how much of that pressure we’ll accept — for some people, the threshold is very low, and even thinking about the project they’re deeply invested in has them turn away from it. For others, I think, they can make some forward motion before feeling overwhelmed.

  13. This statement touched me “I think, is to seriously ask yourself what would happen if the project you’ve been putting off doesn’t work out.”. To be sincere have never thought of the above. you have really touched me and i feel like am free now from wrong thinking. Thanks a lot Chris. Look forward for the next post.

    1. Hi Hesbon — I’m glad to have been helpful to you. I’ve seen this with a lot of people — that actually looking that worst-case scenario square in the face, rather than allowing it to lurk in the background as most of us do, helps to release a lot of the kind of anxiety that has us put our projects off.

  14. Chris,
    The break through novel…I’ll bet your right. I never looked at it that way. And procrastination? I’ve been wanting to start a women’s group off line for a few months now. My fear is no one will show up. Shhh don’t tell anyone and we won’t mention the name of my blog..LOL

    1. Hi Tess — thanks for sharing that — I wonder if admitting that helped bring it into perspective. I’m also curious about what you think would happen if no one showed up to the meeting. I know that, when some people think about a “worst-case scenario” like that, what they notice is a feeling rather than a mental scenario coming up — maybe a feeling of loneliness because no one else is around, for example. I think being able to allow that feeling is key to moving forward in what seems like a difficult project to start.

  15. Hi Chris .. so true – if we just do it .. to the best of our ability – then it’s done .. we can be humble and ask for feedback before we send it out, or we can accept that not everyone will like it – that’s life ..

    Not everything will work – it never does, but we learn as we go through the process .. may be the process changes into something else – something better ..

    It’s getting on with it .. and moving forward is the main thing .. Hilary

    1. Hi Hilary — I think that’s a good observation — we tend to have a fixed end goal in mind for each project, but often we end up departing from that goal and creating something we hadn’t imagined possible at the beginning. I know that, for example, when I started my blog, I never anticipated I would ultimately write a book based on some of the content I created, but it was a “happy accident” that resulted from just continuing to move forward in the blog, without knowing where it would lead me.

      1. Thanks Chris .. it seems to be so true – even with an offline/ out in the street business it can morph somewhat .. though on the net – there are a lot more opportunities that can spill back into your locality and be an off line addition to promoting your work .. book, talks, consultations, conferences etc etc etc ..

        Happy accidents indeed! Enjoy the rest of the week – Hilary

  16. Early on in my career, after a particularly difficult project had knocked me down a few pegs, a good friend (and mentor) gave me some good advice: “You can fail many times without being a failure.”

    If you really feel that in your bones, then I think you’ve got a good inner foundation. I still struggle with it at times.

    Tim D
    http://www.momentary.org
    free mobile gratitude journal
    what are you grateful for today?

    1. Hi Tim — yes, I think remembering that failing doesn’t make you a failure can be useful — and, if progress in your work is still difficult despite that mindset, it may also be helpful to dive right in and imagine what would happen if you actually were a failure — and notice that the sensations that come up when you think about that possibility don’t actually destroy or harm you.

  17. Slappy Walker

    This is so true. I was in grad school twice and found that the deeper into my studies I got, the more I would sabotage myself. It was almost like I was paralyzed because I was so scared that my work wouldn’t live up to my own high standards. The more I worried about it, the less I got done. My projects ended up being late or just not very good at all.

    In the long run, my perfectionism ended up causing me to turn in things that were far from perfect.

    1. Hi Slappy — I think that’s a common experience — that the more we need something we’re doing to be perfect, or the more deeply our ego is invested in the outcome, the less we’re able to accomplish. I think it’s helpful, when we’re feeling held back by the sense that what we’re doing has to be perfect, to notice where that fear is coming up in our bodies, and practice allowing it to be there and run its course rather than running off to play Minesweeper.

  18. Great post, and so true!
    I don’t know anyone who doesn’t procrastinate. But I also find that a little procrastination isn’t so bad.

    For example, if I have a great idea for a painting or a piece of writing, I don’t necessarily like to rush into it. I like to give my big idea some space to breathe. To get more acquainted with it. To let it grow. But I give myself a reasonable time limit. After that, I often find myself itching to start.

    To avoid the fear of failure, I try to keep my big ideas to myself. Sometimes, they’re so precious, they have to be guarded until they bloom.

    1. Hi Ivee — it sounds like you’re making a conscious choice to allow your idea to breathe before moving into the project, and that’s working for you. I think that’s wonderful — the ideas I present here are more geared toward people who don’t feel like they can choose to start a project immediately, because the sensations that come up when they try to do that seem overwhelming. We get the sense of ease and flow we want in our work, I think, when we become able to consciously choose what to do with our time, as opposed to running away from the thoughts and feelings that come up while we’re working.

  19. I am SO not into self combusting and disintegrating. And glad to be reminded that won’t really happen. And also to breathe into the anxiousness.

    Great as always to see you, Chris.

    I like The Change Blog a lot!

    1. Great to see you too Janster. It’s amazing how the fear of combustion or disintegration or some other form of annihilation can lurk in the background and hamper our work until we acknowledge that it’s there.

  20. I have a developed a great business plan… it took me a while to develop… but i never really execute it….

    It is somthing that helps overcome some important issues and its very very cheap like a dollar cheap. I knw it can be a success.. but my ego is at stake!

    1. Hi Tom — it sounds like you’re having difficulty putting your business plan into practice because it seems to you like there’s so much riding on the outcome. I wonder: what exactly is riding on the outcome? In other words, what would happen if you didn’t get the result you want with your business idea? I’d invite you to ask that question and pay attention to the sensations that come up when you contemplate the possibility of “failure,” whatever that means to you.

  21. Hello Chris. Great post I must say. It very well did shift my paradigm a bit in why procrastination occurs, and very true. It coincides with a post I’ve published related to the subject (http://www.paradigmaxioms.com/lack-of-time-lack-of-priorities). You had a nice observation on how fear relates to the causes. Again, there’s that same variable (fear) that pops up when coming across obstacles in life.
    Nice reading.

    Keems
    http://www.paradigmaxioms.com
    THE SHIFT BLOGSPOT

  22. I recommend the book “Too Perfect: when being in control gets out of control”. Very good. Short and to the point. I find it much more useful than any of these thousand articles in different blogs.

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