I have spent the majority of my life having high expectations for myself. I’ve wanted to live my life in a way that I felt was ideal. I remember at one point, I was performing spectacularly at work, in class, still trying to fit in social outings on the weekends and some weekdays, and was averaging about 3-4 hours of sleep per night. At one point, I hit insomnia, started getting very physically sick and experienced an overload of stress. I started thinking about my behavior and asked myself what am I doing? What am I trying to prove to myself? Am I trying to prove that I am super woman or something… that I can do it all and be successful? Was I truly happy?
These questions plagued my mind. I came to the conclusion that I was not happy with this lifestyle. I was living a life that had a lot of goals, many of which I successfully accomplished, but one where I was not spending enough time doing things that really mattered.
I still deal with this to some degree but here are some steps that I have taken that have done wonders for my life. I’m not as overworked trying to accomplish unrealistic expectations and I’ve learned to chill out a bit. This is my life, and I don’t want to spend the majority of it punishing myself for not being perfect and not receiving enough sleep just because I want to do so many things at once.
You will be surprised at how many things people don’t really notice or care about in regards to your life. It’s very easy for us to get wrapped up in our own worlds and think that people actually care about what is going on in your life. Some of our expectations are so high because we think it will really make a difference to people. Many times it does not. Everyone is dealing with their own life, and although your life is important to people close to you, in general people are not noting down every single activity you are doing and timing how fast or well you achieve that task. People have expectations of us but not to the degree we think it does. Lower your expectations for yourself because perfection is not what people expect of us and it will likely go unnoticed by many.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Good Work
People who have high expectations want to give A+ quality work. They don’t want to do well, they want to do great! Doing excellent work is possible, but remember that there is so much stress that will result from always wanting to perform the best you can. In graduate school, I once got caught up in that. I wanted to go over and beyond with everything. I wanted to do more than what was asked. I wanted to provide work that was high quality and exceeded the expectations of my colleagues. In undergrad I did this, and although it did result in some benefits, I found that I was setting a bar for myself that I always had to maintain. If I did good work, it felt like I was underachieving and disappointing others. I set that standard and had to keep meeting that standard.
Fortunately after a semester in graduate school, I stopped this cycle. I decided that it’s great to go over and beyond but not always. I took it down a couple of notches. I was honest and told my colleagues when I was too busy to complete a task. Normally, I would sacrifice my sleep and weekend, but this time, I just said, “I’m too busy, I’ll work on it next week”. This technique worked out well. I made deadlines, but still received time to relax and my colleagues were happy with my work.
In the past I might have gone over and beyond when writing a research paper for a conference. I wanted to avoid negative feedback and really wanted to convey that I was a spectacular writer. Now, I still do a good job, but I’m not striving for perfection. In the end, I’ll get some feedback and a few extra days to get the paper together, but with less stress.
If you fall in this trap, learn that there is nothing wrong with doing just good work. Make your deadlines and turn in quality stuff but you don’t need to always be in this cycle of over-performing.
Enjoy The Present
High expectations tend to come from focusing too much on the future. Enjoy the time you have now. Aiming for perfection can result in you missing out on wonderful relationships, losing friendships, not taking advantage of fun opportunities, having more stress, and being unhappy. At an interview for graduate school, I remember a particular overachieving prospective student who had quite a bit of questions for the enrolled graduate students. She asked, “Will I have time to really pursue a relationship in graduate school? In undergrad I was always busy and never made time for dating. Will I finally be able to do this in grad school or do I need to hold off?” She was admitting that she had stalled opportunities for meaningful relationships so she could go over and beyond in school. Again, it’s great to do well in school, but you must consider if it’s worth opportunities to make lasting friendships and relationships.
This was a lesson I learned as well. Once I learned to let go of the high expectations I had for myself, I ended up having a higher quality of life. I feel happier, more rested, less stressed and more appreciative of the world around me. I learned that happiness is a gift and I want to enjoy it, and not miss it because of distant dreams.
Be Rational About Your Situation
A common thought that occurs for most overachievers is that life is terrible if you are not aiming high. The world will suddenly end if you do not keep performing high. Be rational! Think honestly about your situation. Consider some of the worse case scenarios that could happen. You’ll be surprised that your life is far from that and you’ll be just fine if you lower your expectations a bit.
Be Nice To Yourself
You will not always perform at your best. You will not always make every goal you set yourself. And you know what? That’s fine! Just do what you reasonably can to achieve what you want, and give yourself realistic goals. Remember that failure and mistakes are a part of life that everyone endures. Many of the tasks we give ourselves may be incredibly tough. It’s fine if we don’t end up completing those tasks in the way we expect to, or with the deadlines we create for ourselves.
Also, take time to do something nice for you. If you are feeling overworked, then go out and enjoy life. Treat yourself to a mini shopping spree. Go out to dinner with loved ones tonight. Leave work an hour early. Take a nap. Instead of working on stuff for tomorrow, open up an entertaining book and spend your evening reading and enjoying yourself.