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How to Dial It Back When You’re a Chronic Overachiever (HBR)

Build better habits in the early stages of your career for balance and well being.

(Originally published in HBR. Image: HBR Staff/Getty Images/Andreas Mann/EyeEm)


Who doesn’t love to achieve their goals? Accomplishments can be a source of energy and strength. With drive and determination, people who are motivated by success often deliver great results and are exceptional in their fields.


But there is also a dark side to achievement. Over time, a relentless drive to excel can create substantial imbalance in your life, cause you to neglect the needs of you or your loved ones, and lead to physical and mental health problems. In leadership roles, overachievers often command and coerce, stifling subordinates, and deflating team morale and performance. If you don’t want to burn out — or end up an overachieving boss — you need to start building better habits now. Finding balance is imperative — and the sooner you can do it, the better.


Begin here.

To be clear: Your need or desire to achieve is not the problem. It has likely helped you get to where you are today — and perhaps you’re happy and fulfilled with continually striving for the next goal. However, a time may come when the costs are too high.


For many, overachievement stems from feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. In a job market fraught with competition, task accomplishment offers a sense of self-worth and relief, and so rather than savoring achievements, you immediately move on to the next task and raise the bar higher. This creates a vicious cycle of insatiable striving with little sense of purpose. And it may be why, despite feeling burned out, you continue to grind away while enviously watching others enjoy a more balanced existence.


It can be hard to unwind this chronic cycle and regain balance and wellbeing. But the tendency to overachieve is made, not inherent. It’s imminently possible to shift ­– so long as you’re willing to look under the hood.


Take time for self-reflection.

Overachievement often starts as early as childhood, through experiencing psychological, physical, or financial insecurity. Take my client Ellen, partner at a private equity firm, who remembers basking in the sunshine of her parents’ pride only when she arrived home with perfect marks on her report card. Or Sean, a technology executive, who carved out a place for himself in his big family by stacking up one swimming medal after another.


Do some self-reflection. Ponder when your pattern of overachievement began. How did you attain love and attention when you were young? Was it through high performance in school, sports, or your community?


As we grow up, we develop our identity and beliefs. When you’ve been consistently rewarded for stellar performance and accomplishment, it’s easy for your identity and self-worth to get hooked on that.


The fact is that your behaviors were adaptive and served a purpose. So, be patient and self-compassionate as you now work to overturn decades of programming.


Challenge your assumptions.

Efforts to change our habits and patterns may elicit uncertainty and discomfort. Our emotions are often triggered to protect us from the unknown.


Have you previously set goals around greater work-life balance or self-care, but failed to attain them? Thirty years of research by Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggests that we often fail to attain our goals due to an internal conflict between our intention to change and our unconscious thoughts and desires. To overcome this immunity to change, you have to examine and free yourself of limiting assumptions.


Let’s do a quick exercise. Take a paper and a pen and answer this question:


Instead of continually striving, what if I were to take my foot off the gas?

What are you afraid might happen? Are you worried you might fail? Let people down? Look weak or incompetent?


Now let’s uncover the assumptions you’re making. For each worry you listed, ask yourself: If my fear comes to pass, what will be the dreadful consequence? What’s at risk? List out all the bad conclusions you think will happen. Circle or underline the two or three most powerful assumptions you’ve uncovered — the ones where you feel a sense of “aha, now I see why I’m stuck,” even if you can see that your belief is flawed or questionable.


For example, Sean feared he would fail at work if he downshifted. He identified several big assumptions beneath his fear, including: “If I don’t work this hard, I’ll fall behind in my career,” “My team will slack off, and we won’t hit our numbers,” and “My value will decrease.”


It’s human instinct to protect ourselves from our fears. But our fears are typically based on faulty assumptions. Left unexamined, these assumptions can keep us stuck.


Your assumptions are hypotheses. Some of your assumptions might be valid, others may not be, so it’s essential to test them. Starting with your most powerful assumption, conduct a simple, safe experiment to gather data and determine its validity. For example, Sean’s first test involved shutting down an hour earlier in the evening. He was surprised to learn that his team was relieved to receive fewer late-night emails and, counter to his expectation, continued to perform at high levels.


Only by challenging your assumptions can you determine whether your self-protective behaviors are actually helpful — or counterproductive.


Redefine success.

What does success mean to you? For example, in addition to advancing in your career, do you want to nurture a strong relationship with a significant other? Travel the world? Dedicate time to your favorite hobby?


Growing up, you internalized a definition of success based on your family, schooling, and culture. But it’s likely narrow, and importantly, not wholly yours.


Write your definition of success by pushing away fear of judgment and answering these questions in as much detail as possible:

  • What does meaningful work look like for you?

  • What is success in terms of your health and wellbeing, your family, and your social life?

  • How about in terms of hobbies, finances, and community?

The top regrets of the dying include living a life that wasn’t true to themselves and working too hard. After nearly 20 years of willingly sacrificing everything to advance her career, Ellen realized that success also now meant taking care of her health and family.


Look at your answers. What shifts do you need to make so that you don’t feel this end-of-life regret? Channel this potential regret into productive action now by setting a couple reasonable goals and actions that will move you in the direction of your vision of success.


Start small.

The most effective way to create change or new habits is to start with behavior changes that are so small they’re easily accomplished.


Based on your definition of success, for each area that you detailed, choose one small and simple action that will help you move towards that more holistic version of success. For example, if you want to improve your fitness, commit to exercise 10 minutes per day. If your actions aren’t laughably easy, lower the bar.


Once you’re on a roll and consistently completing your initial action, you can build up the intensity. Plan when and where you’ll take your next step and set a reminder.


Celebrate.

When you knock down one task or goal, don’t move straight to the next one. Research shows that pausing to celebrate progress and small wins boosts mood, relationship quality, and motivation ­— for you and the people you work with.


At the end of every week and month, look back individually and with your team. What went well? What was particularly satisfying? Apply this reflection to both your progress at work and the actions you chose to rebalance your life.


Did your team make progress towards an important milestone? Did you complete those five-minute yoga sessions three times last week? Yes, celebrate that! Celebration wires in the changes you want to make.


Dialing back your achievement motive isn’t about delivering subpar performance or changing your personality. It’s about slowly but surely pushing your internal tyrant out of the driver’s seat and grabbing the wheel. Burn the midnight oil when you need or want to — deliberately, for a limited time or to achieve a specific goal — but not because you can’t recall how to live or work any other way.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina