Read This If You’re Feeling Behind
Expectations of availability and output are out of alignment with being human.
“Why can’t I get everything done? Why am I so behind? Will I ever catch up?”
A few years ago, I was talking to a senior leader at an aerospace engineering firm. Much of his work involved calculating advanced risk and probability at the highest levels of math.
At one point, an adjacent team asked him to compute all the possible likelihoods and outcomes. While I don’t know the exact equations, I do remember the punchline.
“No, we can’t do that,” the aerospace engineer said.
“What do you mean, no?” the team replied. “We have to know all the risks.”
“It’s not possible,” the engineer replied.
“That math problem, if we run it, will take six hundred and thirty four years.”
Therein lies the absurdity.
Today’s work expectations are absurd
Much of our expectations about life and work surpass the boundaries of time and reason, yet we still operate as though we might be able do it if we just push a little harder. These impossible ideals can be explained as three myths that “animate much of American life,” according to Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian, two professors who research social innovation and informatics, respectively.
In an interview with Joe Pinsker, Mazmanian describes these three myths of work and life that are impossible to fulfill: be an ideal worker, while also a perfect parent, and have an ultimate body.
The first myth, they explain in their recent book, Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age, is that of the “ideal worker,” who “has no competing obligations that might get in the way of total devotion to the workplace.” The second is that of the “perfect parent,” who “always puts family first.” And the third is that of the “ultimate body,” which is cultivated through diligent dieting and exercise, and doesn’t deteriorate with age. “Achieving even one of these myths would be impossible,” Mazmanian told me in an interview, “but achieving all three is ludicrous.”
The spiral of expectations turns into a trap
How it works:
At first, new technology or tools do help us, or make us feel better. Faster communication, responsiveness, and being able to keep a phone in our pockets initially did make people feel better at their jobs.
But then, the tool turns into a basic expectation — you’re now expected to be available at all times, and that you’ll have your devices on you.
As time passes, not doing this becomes a negative mark. Not responding quickly means you’re not as dedicated, or you’re a bad colleague.
What used to help us work faster, now traps us in an expectation of always being fast. So we reach for new tools, spiraling into more of the absurd.
How to push back against the spiral?
The first step out of the trap is to remember that it’s a trap. The faster you run on the hamster wheel the more likely you’ll forget that you’re on the wheel in the first place.
1. Acknowledge the absurdity, reject the game.
You’ll never be able to perform as an ideal worker, a perfect parent, or have the ultimate body. This is a fantasy. Plus, the game is not actually designed to benefit you. The carrot of “being perfect” is to entice you to keep trying so you don’t look around at anything else. Remember:
The idea of the Ideal Worker is an idea that decidedly benefits your employers—not you. Even if you run your own company, it won’t survive if you run yourself into the ground.
The Perfect Parent idea keeps mothers feeling guilty, which encourages moms to run around performing huge amounts of unpaid invisible labor for society. Someone else is getting leisure time right now because you’re racing.
The Ultimate Body is an idea of control and conformity that teaches you to dislike and fight against your very being, stealing presence and joy out from under you.
2. Name all of the worries out loud—yes, write them down.
Much of our expectations are driven by worry—ask yourself exactly what you’re afraid of. Are you afraid that you’re signaling to someone that they aren’t that important? Are you worried about looking like a bad parent, or that you’re not dedicated enough?
Worry lives in an unfinished loop. Worry claims a story about what others think about you, or an idea about the kind of person you would be if this happened. A feeling of concern, anxiety, agitation, or fear begins to creep in, and we’ll spring to action (like checking email, or racing around) as a way to whack-a-mole against the creep of feelings.
To short-circuit this endless loop, worry needs to be a complete sentence. Finish the worry sentence and write down all of the imagined outcomes and consequences. Yes—you’re going to declare them and write them down in front of you.
Finish the worry sentence:
I’m worried that if I don’t respond to this email quickly, my boss will think …
I’m worried that if I don’t sign up for the bake sale, the parents will think…
I’m worried that if I don’t have my phone with me, I’ll be a person who…
For a good number of the worries that take place in our brain, they are unfounded. People won’t think you’re a bad parent if you don’t take something to the bake sale. (They’re too tired.) If someone is judging you for having an imperfect body, then they’re not that great of a friend.
No, it’s actually not possible for me to be online 24/7 to respond to you at all hours. No, it’s not possible for me to whip my body into shape through extreme dieting and exercise. No, it’s not actually possible for me to be at my kiddo’s school in the middle of the day and also get work done. No, I can’t clean for three hours, write for three hours, and commute for three hours all at the same time, despite trying voice-to-text and audio transcription services and hiring and all the things. It’s too much.
Writing it down completes the loop and allows you to see the pieces in front of you. For many worries—much like the aerospace engineer asked to do an impossible math problem—there is an absurd comedy in the performance happening in front of us.
Say it out loud. Write it down. Sometimes just saying it out loud is enough to create relief. But if it’s not—then use the next step.
3. Flip it and reverse it.
This is a mental mindset exercise that takes a minute to get behind. You’re going to write down the opposite of what you wrote above. For example, “I’m not doing the bake sale, and that is why I am a good enough parent.” Change the story from one of deficit (“not doing this” = “I’m bad.”) and write down the opposite sentence. (“not doing this” = “I’m good.”)
But wait, what if the fear you’re looking at is real? Perhaps you’re worried about losing your job. Toxic bosses can be real jerks, and this is a real fear. That’s where the real magic trick comes in.
First, separate the fear from the behavior. If the fear is “losing my job,” and the behavior is “answering emails until midnight,” we’re going to stretch those out and put space between them.
“Losing my job,” « « « « « « « « « « » » » » » » » » » » “Answering messages”
Then, flip it and reverse it. Re-write the story to yourself (and your boss) that the thing you need will make you BETTER at your job. For example, you can tell your boss, “I’m dedicated to my job and proud of my work, and I want to do the best job possible. I need a firm cut-off time at the end of the day to put the phone away. This will make me even better at my job.”
State the boundary you need and use it to remind yourself that this is actually an essential reason WHY you are good at XYZ. Being available and responsive does not mean that you are doing your best work. Being lean and thin does not mean you feel amazing about yourself or life. Being a good parent is not about perfection or unfettered achievement.
Sometimes it helps to state the obvious out loud, especially if you’re dealing with a challenging boss or colleague, I find that naming the asks and consequences in simple language to be extraordinarily powerful.
“What I’m hearing is that there’s an expectation is that I’ll be on my phone from 6am until 11pm every day, responding to every message over a 16 hour window—is that what I’m hearing? If not, what are the alternatives?” You can propose swapping days with people, or setting more reasonable boundaries. “Going forward, when I leave work at 7pm, I turn my phone off unless we’ve agreed otherwise. I can work late one evening per week, so please let me know which one is the best night for me to be on call.”
It creates some real cognitive dissonance when we tell two different stories about the same behaviors in our brains. The more we write the reverse statement, the more we can un-hook from the unconscious beliefs that have seeped into our brains from years of accumulation.
Today’s work and life expectations are absurd.
The three myths of work and life that are impossible to fulfill: (1) be an ideal worker, while also (2) a perfect parent, and (3) have an ultimate body.
The spiral of expectations explains how new technologies only make things better temporarily.
Here’s a way to fight back:
Acknowledge the absurdity and reject the game.
Name all of the worries out loud—yes, write them down.
Flip it and reverse it: Turn not doing it all into the reason why you’re actually a good person, a great parent, an excellent employee/boss, and a wonderful caretaker of your gloriously squishy, absolutely wonderfully-real human body.
Turn not doing it all into the reason why you’re actually a good person, a great parent, an excellent employee/boss, and a wonderful caretaker of your gloriously squishy, absolutely wonderfully-real human body.
— Sarah Peck
CEO & Founder
Love this one! For me, I always go to the ‘worst case scenario’ if I don’t accomplish something or check off my to-do list on time. This is a good reminder ❤️