June 28th, 2022

Setting Realistic Expectations

One of the most common mental hang-ups I work with is feeling discouraged due to having unrealistic expectations. This can take a lot of forms, and is a tricky problem because most of us were never taught how to set expectations. Rather, we have an accumulation of life experiences and cultural “norms” that leave us with loose, amorphous ideas of what we *should* be doing. *Should* is an asterisk word for me, along with “always” and “never” as words that require mental work to dig in to, as they often are skewed by cognitive biases or, in the case of always and never, are often hyperboles that get taken as fact. Always or never rarely happen, they are words we use to exaggerate a point, often in an argument. Should is a little different, still in that it requires a mental double take, but to find out where that idea of *should* comes from. Maybe we feel that we *should* have gotten more work done today, or that we *should* be in a relationship at this point in our life. Perhaps we *should* be making more money, or we *should* lose weight/add muscle/have perfect skin/any other beauty standard. Sometimes these thoughts are helpful. Perhaps we are being underpaid or undervalued in our employment, and so we *should* be making more money leads to asking for a raise or moving to a healthier workplace. But that same example, *should* be making more, might also be based on some idea that money means success and success means people will love us, and those thoughts are loosely based on intermittent feedback we got from our parents in our school days that have next to no value in our current life situation. That same *should* can lead to dissatisfaction or malcontent based on comparing ourselves to friends, family, or neighbors in a never-ending cycle of capitalistic cannibalism, the proverbial keeping up with the Joneses. 

The *should* issue highlights one of the first cognitive traps, that being a false comparison. We *should* have a cleaner house because our friends down the road always have such a clean house, or our family member always has such an immaculate space when they have social gatherings. These comparisons are so flawed as to be beyond useless, but we get trapped in them because our brain loves to create categories and compare. My house might not be as clean as the neighbors’ because I have little kids, or maybe they pay for a regular cleaning service. We make these comparisons without having all the information needed to draw an accurate conclusion, and based on all the variables that go into the comparison, it is just comparing apples and oranges. And we can compare apples and oranges! We just need to look at them as two separate things that will have limited overlap, but our brain likes to skip that step and compare our neighbors to us without highlighting it as a flawed comparison from the start. When we slow down, acknowledge our comparisons are flawed, and find which parts of the comparison work, we allow our brain to see what we can actually work on, and what is reasonable and realistic given the different circumstances. Control your controllables, one of my favorite mantras, is a quick, easy way to remind your brain to only focus on things you can actually influence, and let those things outside of your control go.

The other main contributing factor to unrealistic expectations is not being realistic with time management. Far too many people put a whole week’s worth of work on their to-do list, then live in constant frustration that they didn’t get everything done.  If you want to clean the house, but that entails not only cleaning but also laundry and yard work, then those all need to be separate tasks. Cleaning itself is composed of many smaller tasks. Take time to note how many tasks you are actually completing, rather than having an amorphous idea of “clean” that your brain does not ever feel satisfied with because there is always more to do. If you mopped, vacuumed, and organized three rooms, let your brain celebrate those accomplishments rather than just focusing on what didn’t get done. When you are realistic with all the separate tasks you do, your brain feels more motivated because it gets a hit of feel-good drugs for each task accomplished, rather than feeling drained by only looking at what remains. By approaching your to-do list this way, you also learn about what your limits are for setting more realistic goals in the future. If you keep putting 15 tasks on your list, but only accomplish 7, you feel like a failure continually. But if you have learned you can typically knock out 7 things a day, and then complete all 7, you feel more accomplished! Then you can sit back and take note of all you have done, or you can do more things if you are feeling motivated. What you can get done in a day may not change drastically, but over time the positive feeling of accomplishment, rather than self-defeat, will lead to better results. One last little note here: if you call your BFF for 30 minutes a day, or you scroll social media for 20 minutes after work, or have a 20 minute drive, you need to account for that time in your daily plans! Setting realistic expectations isn’t just about being better with goals to complete, but also about being real with yourself about where you will spend your time. If you skip 30 minutes to an hour of planning each day by ignoring your stress relief or recreation time, you will continually set yourself up to fall short of completing all your tasks. Realistic expectations require you to be real with what is most likely to happen on a typical day.

As with most topics I write about, this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully is helpful as a starting point. As always, if you’re feeling stuck, reach out and ask for help!