One rainy day, a couple of years ago, I sat at a table of eight children and seven mothers at a parent-child class. Amid working with private coaching clients, writing my first book, and having a two-year-old and a newborn at home, I was barely functional. The mix of adrenaline and fatigue made my insides feel like I was on an unstoppable hamster wheel. My high self-expectations left me with low energy and low satisfaction. I was trying to do everything, believing I could do it all without compromising. I hear that many mothers feel the same as they adjust to being a parent. I leaned over to the mother of three next to me and asked, “How do you do it?” She smiled and said, “I had to lower my expectations.”
The comment resonated deeply and I nodded my head as this truth washed over me. I sensed I had just been initiated into the inner circle of an age-old secret. Since that day I have experienced the power of this wisdom, but it has served me far beyond parenting and keeping the house clean.
I didn’t take this comment to mean you should expect nothing of yourself and sit on the couch waiting for life to come to you. Most people I know have a tendency to end up on the opposite end of the spectrum. They expect so much of themselves that they are in a constant state of stress in a race to an imaginary finish line. We live fast-paced lives. The bar has been raised to the point that we expect everything to be done now. The joy and true essence of living (being), is replaced by the incessant tasks of daily life (doing). We have traded the recuperative benefits of slowing down for a quick trip to the corner of Starbucks and Subway.
Most of us tend to spend too much time comparing ourselves to others and feeling badly about who we aren’t and what we haven’t accomplished. We only see what is not and completely miss all that is.What would happen if you lowered your expectations for yourself? Would your life fall apart? Would all the things you consciously and unconsciously think you control unravel?
If you feel exhausted from running on the hamster wheel, remember this: unrealistic expectations add unnecessary and unwanted pressure to your life. Take those “uns” out of your life lowering expectations to elevate happiness. 3 ways to help do this are:
1. Shift your expectations into the realistic category
When you expect more than is possible to deliver, you will inevitably miss the mark. Lowering self-expectations to a realistic level will let you see how much you really accomplish day-to-day, instead of only seeing what you don’t.
2. Filter your To Do list to what is necessary
Concentrating on two or three “top priority” tasks per day makes it easier to accomplish what’s important. When you try to focus on too many tasks, you may accidentally leave high-priority or time-sensitive tasks unfinished, leading to more stress.
3. Focus your efforts on what you really want for your life
Often it’s too easy to confuse all the things we “should” do for things that we actually want or need to do. You “should” get your hair cut every 4-6 weeks. You “should” read the Terms of Agreement on your email. But these things can sometimes be unnecessary tasks that add stress and fail to bring us joy.
You’ll find that lowering expectations makes you happier. You are taking pressure off yourself, calming your nervous system, freeing up time to become more present, and revealing the truly important parts of life.
Ask yourself if your expectations fit with what you really want and what is most important to you at your core. Always start with how you want to feel, rather than what you want to do. Often, what you’re actually after is the state of being more than the thing being done. In other words, you might be after more you time as opposed to a quick vacation only to come right back to your normal pattern of stress. Knowing how you want to feel as a result of the experiences you have can help bring into focus what matters most. When you become clear about how you want to feel, you no longer have to do everything or be everyone.
Since relieving myself of the expectation that I was responsible for keeping the world afloat around me, the hamster wheel has slowed enough for me to step off and enter the world in a new way. When I was able to do that, something really interesting happened: Lowering expectations actually made me much more efficient. I seemed to work on what was most important and as a result, get much more done. I became a more present father. I disentangled my stressed and knotted insides—trading that for a sense of peace and calm. The important elements of life started floating to the surface enabling me to focus more intentionally.
Take a few moments to focus on what matters to you most substantively in your life and set your expectations there. Ironically, lowering the bar might actually raise how high you can jump. One thing is certain: consciously resetting your expectations to match what matters most to you will allow you to enjoy jumping, whether or not you crash into the bar, or soar right over it.
Until next time,