Are You Bogged Down on a Big Project?

How to stop sabotaging yourself.

Posted May 15, 2019

Jan Vašek . Girl biting pencil while looking at laptop. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jan Vašek . Girl biting pencil while looking at laptop. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Have you been working hard on a long-term project but getting bogged down and frustrated?

You could be getting in your own way—by overusing your highest strengths.

A few years ago, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson (2004) discovered 24 character strengths common to humankind: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, fairness, leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. Although using our top character strengths can make us healthier, happier, and more successful, psychologist Ryan Niemiec (2018) has found that overuse of these strengths can sabotage us.

​We all possess these strengths in varying degrees. Your top five strengths, or “signature strengths,” influence the way you think, feel, and relate to the world, including working on your long-term projects.

You can discover your signature strengths by taking the short VIA Survey, a free online self-assessment. As you review the results, you’ll find your top five signature strengths. These strengths could be supporting you in this project, but they could also be hindering you. If one of your top strengths is “love of learning,” this strength may be helping you discover new insights as you work. But if “love of learning” is distracting you into taking fascinating detours away from your project, then your overuse of this strength is sabotaging your progress.

​Now it’s time for some personal detective work. Are you sabotaging yourself by overusing some of your key strengths. For example:

Prudence: being planful, responsible, and conscientious.   

  • Overuse=overthinking, excessive planning that keeps you from taking action.
  • Has excessive planning kept you from beginning the next stage of your project? If so, what can you do to propel yourself forward?          

Perseverance: persistence, industriousness.

  • Overuse=imbalance, not being able to stop working when you reach a point of diminishing returns.
  • Do you think about your project all the time, neglecting adequate time for meals, exercise, companionship, and sleep? Overuse of perseverance can undermine your work/life balance and exhaust your brain. Research has shown that taking breaks may actually lead to creative insights (Dijkterhuis & Nordgren, 2006).

Zest: vitality, energy, aliveness.

  • Overuse: hyperactive, can’t sit still.
  • Is it hard to remain sitting down when working on your project? Do you find all kinds of distractions? What can you do to get your energies to work for you instead of against you?  Can you make time for regular exercise or get up and walk around to think about the next stage of your work?

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: esthetic sensitivity, wonder, awe.

  • Overuse=perfectionism, getting stuck working on your project, afraid it’s not good enough.
  • What can you do to remind yourself that this is a learning process, affirming what psychologist Carol Dweck (2007) calls a “growth mindset”?

If you’ve been overusing one of your strengths, you can begin breaking this habit by using the “if-then” plan developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen (2014). First choose a positive alternative behavior to get back on track, and if you find yourself overusing this strength, then shift to the alternative behavior. For example:

Prudence: If I’ve been overplanning, afraid to take the next step in my project, then I will discuss my work with a colleague or mentor to make sure I’m ready.

Perseverance: If I’ve been pushing myself too hard, then I will give myself a break to restore my balance.

Zest: If I’ve found it hard to sit still, then I will get up and walk around to think about my project before returning to my desk.

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: If I’ve been afraid the first draft of my project is not good enough, then I will tell myself, “It’s just a beginning—I’m learning and growing in the process.”

Now it’s your turn. Where have you been overusing a top strength and what’s your "if-then” plan?

This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


Photo: Jan Vasek. Girl Biting Pencil. Wikimedia Commons

Dijksterhuis, A., & Nordgren, L. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 95-109.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset. New York, NY: Ballentine.

Niemiec, R. M. (2018).Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.

Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. New York, NY: Penguin Current.

Peterson, C.  & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C.  (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.

For further information about strengths, including assessments, reports, resources, and courses, see