Have you ever felt anxious about your job, but you don’t know why?
Everything is going well, or at least according to plan, and there is nothing obvious that should be causing anxiety. Yet, when bedtime rolls around, you struggle to get to sleep, and you have a perpetual sense that you’re falling behind.
Falling behind? Behind what?
That’s the question I was recently asking myself. I’m on the mark to have a record year. Things have been going great, and I’ve been able to help more people and teams and see more impact from my work this year than I ever have. By all accounts, I should be on cloud nine. Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I noticed anxiety creeping into my thoughts, my planning, and the writing I am doing for my next book. At the exact moment that I should have felt peace and space I was experiencing the opposite.
That’s when I realized that I was keeping score.
This is an old habit, and one that dies hard. I was paying attention to a lot of little markers that have nothing whatsoever to do with my core work, or my effectiveness, or the impact that I’m trying to have with my clients or the people who read my books and listen to my podcasts. Instead, I was paying attention to things outside of my lane, and allowing them to pull me off-course and rob me of the joy and satisfaction that I should have been experiencing.
Here are a few of the unhealthy ways I keep score:
How THEY Are Scoring
When someone else gets something – a contract, an offer, an endorsement – that I wanted, it bothers me. It’s as if there is only so much of it to go around. As much as I encourage my clients to focus on their own lane, I have to admit that it’s easy for me to let my peripheral vision distract me. I’ve had to develop the discipline of reminding myself that they are not responsible for my body of work, and I am not responsible for theirs. Stay. In. Your. Lane.
I’ve seen this play out in teams when someone gets a coveted promotion, or is celebrated for a project, or gets more than their share of esteem for the amount of contribution they truly made. It pulls the team apart, and people begin to withhold because they feel as if they aren’t being treated fairly.
Business isn’t fair, just like life isn’t fair. There will be things that you get that you don’t deserve, and things you deserve that go to someone else. There’s probably someone else right now keeping score on what you’re getting that they’re not. The sooner you learn to embrace the inherent unfairness of the workplace, the sooner you can simply focus on bringing your best every day and letting the chips fall where they may. I love this quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.”
Things I Can’t Control
This is another one. I tend to track things I can’t control, and get anxious about things that I couldn’t change if I wanted to. It’s one of the curses of being a systemic thinker – I always worry about the governing dynamics, even when they are well beyond my ability to influence.
Inside of organizations, I see this play out as a general fear about market trends, or about the new company leadership (seven or eight levels above), or about the person on the team who simply doesn’t like you. There is nothing that can be done about any of these things – aside from diligently doing the work in front of you – yet they rob many people of valuable creative cycles that could be spent actually creating something meaningful.
Are you tracking the score of things you can’t control? Are there forces “out there” that are causing you to spin your wheels or worry about tomorrow?
My Own Expectations
This one is tough. There are certain expectations that I set for myself, and when I miss the mark on one of them, it bothers me. This is true even if I far exceed a dozen other expectations. There could be really good reasons why I didn’t meet my own expectations, but that doesn’t matter. I could still stew on it for weeks. Often, I don’t even realize how this is affecting me until I stop and really consider what’s causing my anxiety. Sometimes I realize that it is an errant comment I made in a talk the month before, or a bad client call, or something that no one else even noticed – let alone remembers – but me.
This is one of the reasons I start feeling like I’m “falling behind.” Behind on what? My own expectations. No one else even knows they exist.
It’s fine – great, even – to push yourself to excel. It’s necessary if you want to do work you’ll be proud of in ten years. However, you can’t allow the arbitrary scoreboard you’ve established to drag you down. It should fuel you, not kill your drive.
Are there ways in which you are setting expectations that you could never possibly live up to? Have you allowed expectation escalation to push your idea of success to an overly stressful and unreachable level?
I’m curious if I’m alone (I suspect not), or if there are arbitrary scores that you keep in your own work, on your team, or in other areas of your life that affect you. Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Last modified: December 1, 2022
You always bring such great insight, and thank you. I am my own worst critic, and I’m constantly looking for something to improve – even in my success. I simply make perfection my benchmark. I will even try to find a critic to prove that I missed the mark somewhere. I’ll ask someone if they thought my smoked pulled pork was dry, if I missed the mark on a presentation, or simply blurt out something I thought went wrong in my own work.
I try to please everyone, and I am reminded of a comment that you often share from Seth Godin. So far, I have not been able to figure out the freedom from saying “this isn’t for you”. I know this is important, but it has been elusive.
This will be the best year for my production and income ever, though I have that nagging feeling like it was an accident. Maybe next year I will be “found out” as a fake. You have given me the encouragement to celebrate this year – like it’s a party!
Thanks for that great punchy article!
I’m on creative sabbatical at the moment and even though my theme for 2016 is “Curiousity without Expectations” I find myself constantly dealing with expectations both of a certain place that I’m visiting here in Asia and how much work I had expected to get out of a 6 month “free-time” trip.
Keeping score with myself is tough as I have the problem of wanting to take on too much. Going to try Tim Ferriss’s “6 Bullet” concept next year and limit the amount of important projects I take on and hopefully saying ‘no’ to more will allow me the time to get out what I do expect out of the few things I do choose to take on. Keen to hear your thoughts and thanks again for all your amazing content.
No you’re not alone. I share a lot of these which make up the bulk of my anxiety. “Things I cannot control” is a big one, since my job involves a lot of managing third parties, and catering to the demand of head office that does not realistically fit these third parties’ schedules.
I probably haven’t been keeping up with a GTD system because it drains me rather than fuels me. I heard from somewhere else that it may be better to keep a “have done” list instead of a “to do” list.
By the way I’ve been reading your articles and newsletters. This one particularly stands out because you’re being honest with your fears that we do share, likely more than just us who commented here. You’re setting a great example that admitting struggle is the first step to improving one self.
I appreciate your honesty and openness. It’s true. You continuously don’t get what you want or get what you don’t want. That’s samsara. Thanks for the reminder and how important it is to systematically rid ourselves of these anxious feelings. What a relief to know you can!
Wow this is exactly what I needed to hear today. I was sitting in my studio beating myself up about how none of my press release submissions to gift guides panned out and how I missed the deadline for craft fairs. My husband told me I was placing my expectations too high. I expected that in my current situation (relocating across country, selling our house) that I would still have my most successful Christmas season for leather purse company. When I made my manifesto, I wanted to be fair to myself, but it is so hard to when your expectations of yourself are so high. Thanks for sharing.
Great piece Todd! I never realized that until I read your article. I have been using my own metrics against myself. Even when I hit my mark, I still feel that I should have set a higher goal while it the goal reached seemed impossible at the beginning.
It’s very important to be aware of the reasons why we feel anxious. When we know the why, we are able to have an honest conversation with ourself.
Recently I have been asking myself this following question every time I feel the need to have, do or be more : more for what?
As a young actor, I have felt this all my life. “I’m not good enough yet,” “That guy is getting the parts I should be getting,” “I should have been famous by now.”
I’ve always considered these thoughts to be inherent to some defect in me — that my overly self-critical, overly analytical mind was just doomed to think this way.
I can’t expect this fruit, but I am hopeful at the prospect of using your tools to start controlling these anxieties. The same rational that lead me there can lead me back, to ease.