What Do You Expect of Yourself?

by Annie

in ruthless productivity

Dog Lying By Empty Food Bowl

Does this picture fill you with a vague sense of self-disappointment or guilt?

I mean look at that face. How could you not feed the puppy?! Do you want it to starve?!  

What’s wrong with you anyway?!


Now, quick — go look in the mirror.

The way you’re looking at yourself right now is a perfect reflection of how you treat yourself when you don’t meet the most important expectations of all: your expectations of yourself.

Disappointing Yourself: The First Symptom You’re Off-Mission

One concept from the self-help industry that I’ve found very helpful is this notion:

Emotions – of ALL kinds – are there to send us a message. 
Processing those emotions means getting the right message —
and acting appropriately on it.

 And if you’re feeling disappointed in yourself — not just once in awhile, or after a particularly rough day, but routinely, more days than not — it’s worth your time to examine why you’re feeling that way.

Most often, when I’m working with clients who report this frequent, vague sense of dissatisfaction with their efforts, the root cause is that they’re holding expectations of themselves that they’re not meeting.

Those expectations can be about any aspect of life: work, your business, your art, family, the home environment, or some combination of any of these life/work areas. And surprisingly, in many cases, the individual isn’t even aware that they held those expectations in the first place.

So if this sounds familiar to you, block out a half-hour with a pen and a journal or notebook, and start writing down how you’d complete this sentence:

“I expect myself to ____________.” 

Sometimes those expectations will be reasonable. We can all expect ourselves to brush our teeth twice a day, to feed the kids (and the dog) on time, to keep our living environment at some degree of cleanliness and order.

But often, we find our expectations are unreasonable. Is it really reasonable to expect yourself to put in 30 hours of work on your art when you already have a full-time W2 job? Is it really reasonable to demand that the house be kept spic-and-span when you’re already spending fifty hours a week on your business, taking care of three kids, and have no help?

Getting aware of those expectations is the first step. Then you can start telling yourself a more realistic story, and act accordingly.

That’s the first step. But you can go a step further and use minimum expectations in a positive sense, to help you produce the stuff that’s truly important to you.

Setting Minimum Expectations Helps You Get More Done

“Productivity” and “getting-things-done” don’t always mean the very same thing.

Often, when we say we need to manage our time better, we really mean “I didn’t make the right choices today.” Sure, you might have “gotten stuff done,” but were they the right things?

The answer to this kind of productivity problem is to set minimum expectations of yourself.

Here’s a simple 1-2-3 approach to start working with minimum expectations:

  1. Take out or look at your List.
  2. Ask yourself “What three things on this list are most important for me to do today?”
  3. Circle, highlight, or star those three things. There are your minimum expectations for the day.

One good way to approach this process is what I call The HOP Test. It stands for “Head On Pillow,” and it’s all about the end of the day, that moment when you finally put your head on your pillow, and imagining at that moment, what will have made you feel good about your day?

Or, put another way, at that moment, if you didn’t do something on your List, will you still be able to sleep? Or will you freak out silently in your bed, chastising yourself for the failure?

Those items that will keep you awake tonight — they’re your minimum expectations for the day ahead.

Establishing a Set of Ongoing Minimum Expectations

You can also work with minimum expectations in a more habitual context.

For instance, you can start by asking yourself “What are my minimum expectations for keeping the house clean?”

Let’s use that example to further illustrate the concept. Let’s say I’m struggling to “find time” to clean the house. Clutter, disarray, dirty dishes, unwashed clothing … these things are crowding into my subconscious and making it hard to concentrate on all my couch-warrior, solopreneur, biz-running obligations.

I have a choice here. I can go with:

  • Option A: Frantically run around the house whenever I have a few spare minutes, tackling this, then that, getting nothing done, leaving me to clean the whole house on Saturday, which leaves me cranky because – hello, that sucks.

OR …

  • Option B: Set minimum expectations for house-cleaning — say, “dishes done, counters wiped, no clothes on the floor” — and schedule 20-30 minutes a day, every day, to meet those expectations, and then spend a few hours on Saturday taking care of the extra stuff.

Choosing that second option — figuring out the least amount of work that I’m comfortable with and can accept as an ongoing condition, then doing just that — actually results in greater productivity.

Why? Well, for one thing, I have made the goal realistic and reasonable. Instead of the overwhelming idea of “clean house,” I now have three tasks that are much more manageable.

For another, those specific tasks clarify my expectations. “Clean house” is not only overwhelming, but also terribly vague. “Wash the dishes,” “wipe the counters,” and “pick up the clothes on the floor” are very specific.

And then there’s this: When my goal is small and do-able, I’m much more likely to keep going when that’s been accomplished. I’ll do more housework, because those few, sharply-defined tasks were so easily finished.

Bottom Line: Get Clear On Your Expectations and Use Them to Boost Your Success

The takeaway here:

  • We all have expectations of ourselves.
  • Get clear on the expectations you hold of yourself, both consciously and subconsciously.
  • Decide on the three or four most important expectations before you start work every single day. Concentrate your efforts on those.
  • Think about your overall expectations in each life/biz area: actual creative work, marketing, finance, home environment, physical needs, child care/rearing, spirituality, social relationships. Actually write those expectations down, and make sure they’re reasonable for you and your needs.
  • Aim first to meet your minimum expectations — and when life makes it impossible to go further, give yourself a break.

How about you? Are your self-expectations unrealistic or making you a little crazy? Have you tried this approach to planning your day? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: © Chalabala | Dreamstime.com

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Someone July 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Good advice. It really helps when I’m writing to say “write 3 pages” instead of “finish entire work”. When you complete a goal you set for yourself, it gives you enthusiasm and determination to continue, and then you get more done. That’s why you’re more likely to finish if you take it one step at a time.

Commenting once again,

P.S. you really need to get the comments set up with disqus.


Annie July 26, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Hey, welcome back SO! Actually, I’m running an evaluation on Disqus & Livefyre on two other sites – once that’s done, I’ll install one or the other, most likely, but I’m honestly not completely crazy about either (though right now, Livefyre’s got a slight edge).


Lori Cain July 28, 2012 at 1:07 am

Good grief – your advice is always so spot on! I finish reading and think, “well, I could try this!” You totally rock!
Lori Cain recently posted..Tulsa Condo for Sale – near Riverparks and Brookside!


Annie July 28, 2012 at 10:48 am

Thanks, Lori! I’m glad you’re finding some useful stuff here. 🙂


Trish Sammer Johnston November 15, 2012 at 3:07 am

So useful. Love it. Going to share on Facebook.


Kate August 9, 2013 at 3:47 am

Wow- this is great! I can’t wait to use it!


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