The 3 Things Holding You Back at Work

Most of us spend half of our waking hours at work, five days a week—sometimes more! Yet so many of us name work as the most stressful aspect of our lives. The good news is that with a few tweaks to your environment and brain, you can increase your productivity, decrease your stress, and advance faster than you’d expect. Based on cognitive science from a feminist POV, here are the top three ways you’re holding yourself back at work—and three solutions to start implementing today.

1. You’re underselling yourself—to your colleagues and yourself.

Imposter syndrome is no joke. It’s also not an accident.

Women are socialized to constantly doubt themselves, underestimate their abilities, and believe that others are more qualified and talented than they are. Studies show that when women are primed with stereotypes about their abilities, they perform more poorly on cognitive and skill-based tests.

The insidious thing about this socialization is that it gets absorbed into your brain and then floats up into your consciousness as if it’s your own thoughts. So you don’t think, “Women aren’t good at project management, so I must be bad at my job.” Instead you think things like, “I’m not as organized as I should be and don’t think I’m doing a good job.” You think that because the thought came into your brain, it must be true.

Once you have that belief, your brain is constantly looking for evidence to justify it—which means you don’t show up as a confident badass who’s happy to take credit for her work, promote herself, and volunteer for new responsibilities. If you’re not going to kick ass at work, what’s the point of spending all your time there?! The cure for imposter syndrome is to learn how to notice, evaluate, and change your negative thoughts about yourself. This free worksheet will help.

2. You aren’t using your calendar correctly.

What’s on your calendar? Personal appointments, holidays, birthdays? Some of you are feeling advanced because you have work deadlines on there, too, and think that’s what I’m going to recommend.


Here’s how you should be using your calendar: schedule out every bit of work you have to do, from now until forever.

Did you just pass out? It’s OK, get the smelling salts. I’ll wait.

Here’s what I’ve discovered from coaching hundreds of high-powered women of all professions: 99.9% of us have no idea how we spend our time.

Knowing how much time you have and what you’re using it on is crucial for two reasons:

First, it helps your brain relax. When you just have a long to-do list and some deadlines on your calendar, what your brain thinks is, “I have a lot to do, and I don’t know when I’m going to do it.” That thought is stressful. So your brain keeps thinking that over and over and never gets an answer.

Second, it’s miraculously the cure for both doing too little and trying to do too much. When you block out the time you’re going to spend on every element of your work, you’ll quickly learn when you’re wasting time on social media, gossiping, or napping under your desk. You’ll also learn when you’re setting unrealistic deadlines and goals. Calendaring is where the delusions of perfectionism and the “I’m too busy” lie run into a concrete picture of reality. Want more info? I have a podcast about my organizational system you can find here.

3. You think multitasking is a thing (alternative: Your phone is running your life)

Do you take pride in being a great multi-tasker? Here’s the truth: You’re taking pride in not really ever getting anything done. Multitasking is a myth. It’s your brain’s way of distracting itself on the regular. Studies show “multitasking” makes your short-term memory worse, makes you less productive, and causes more mistakes. Imagine you’re trying to find a path through a forest, but you kept blacking out every 3 minutes and coming back into consciousness 3 minutes later. Do you think you’d get through that forest as quickly as if you were conscious and working on getting out the whole time?

The number one multi-tasking enabler right now is electronic notifications. Imagine trying to get something done while a toddler pokes you every 45 seconds yelling, “PAY ATTENTION TO ME.” That’s what’s happening when you have your email, Slack, text messages, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat all pinging away at you on your computer and phone all the time. It’s impossible to focus when you’re giving yourself constant stimulation and reasons to look at a different part of your device.

The solution is simple to explain but challenging to do: TURN THAT SH*T OFF. Remember in #2 when we decided to schedule out work? That should include scheduling time for Slack, email, and social media. Even if you work in a fast-paced comms-driven environment, you truly can go 15 minutes without checking your devices. Start there. Close out every notification on your computer, mute your phone, and work on one thing at a time for 15 minutes. Then check all your notifications for 15 minutes, then back to working on one thing. Slowly increase the periods you’re able to focus working, and decrease the frequency of notification checking until you’re actually making progress on your real work. Don’t believe your brain when it tells you it’s part of your job to check your email every 30 seconds. Your brain is a dopamine addict, and notifications are its drug of choice. Like any addiction, it’s uncomfortable to go through withdrawal, but you’ll be amazed at how much your life improves on the other side!


Kara Loewentheil is a Certified Master Coach, speaker, and author who left a career defending women’s rights in the courtroom to empower women where it all starts: In their own minds. Using cognitive science and a feminist perspective, she teaches women how to literally rewire their brains to get patriarchy out and self-confidence in. Her podcast, UnF*ck Your Brain, has been downloaded 3 million times and teaches concrete brain-change strategies to women all over the world.