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How to break the high achiever’s curse

Start with boundary setting — with yourself, tracking crystal clear priorities, and ruthlessly questioning your beliefs.

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

You’re known for being a consistent performer. You can always be counted on to deliver your commitments. And people rely on you.

Being a high achiever often goes hand in hand with tendencies toward perfectionism and people pleasing (otherwise known as ‘Goodist’ traits, as defined by Mind-Body Physician John Sarno M.D.

Being this way inclined is a recipe for overwhelm on its own.

And yet, the problem compounds, because when you’re known for delivering high-quality work on time, others can’t help but stack more work on you.

Whether it’s the quick emails from colleagues requesting information they could probably find elsewhere, being asked to take on extra projects, or being nominated for extra tasks because you’re usually so agreeable, the work quickly stacks up.

So too does the overwhelm.

Such is the high achiever’s curse.


How do we break this curse, while staying true to our deepest values of integrity and follow-through?

Here are three strategies to help you do just that.

1. Practice setting boundaries

In a nutshell, boundaries are the limits we set about standards of behaviour we will and won’t accept. There is some truth to the idea that you teach people how to treat you by what you allow.

In a nutshell, boundaries are the limits we set about standards of behaviour we will and won’t accept. There is some truth to the idea that you teach people how to treat you by what you allow.

Although boundaries usually relate to others behaviour, it can be helpful to first practice setting boundaries with yourself.

For example, if you’re struggling to get through a particular task because your phone keeps ringing, try testing out a boundary where you commit to silencing your phone for a full hour while you tackle the task.

Then it’s time to practice setting boundaries with others.

Start with something small and relatively unthreatening.

What do you find yourself saying yes to, only to regret afterward?

What are the types of tasks you regularly find yourself doing for others?

What consumes a disproportionate amount of your time, but contributes little to your own objectives?

Perhaps one of your team routinely interrupts to ask questions that they could easily solve themselves.

What boundary could you put in place here?

Perhaps you explain to your team that if your headphones are in, you’d like them not to interrupt you. You encourage them to find their own solutions before asking others.  

Choose one of your own after answering the questions above — and commit to addressing it.

Treat it as a learning process that you don’t have to get right on the first go.

Once you’ve practiced setting smallish boundaries for a while, use what you’ve learned to tackle an issue that feels a bit more challenging.

2. Get crystal clear on your priorities

We all have the same 24 hours to use in any given day. Start monitoring how you spend your time in order to make more conscious decisions.

Schedule a weekly date with yourself to identify your priorities for the week ahead. How much time does each priority require of you? (and be realistic).

Next, start tracking how you’re actually spending your time.

Start by categorising the types of tasks you do – like admin, team related, planning, and different projects.

Then keep a daily record of time spent on each category. Approximates will do – there’s no need to get it perfect. If you prefer, use one of the many time tracker apps that are available.

At each weekly date, compare how your time was actually spent versus your original priorities. What were the biggest time stealers outside these priorities?

The benefits of this are twofold.

Firstly, you have a clear picture of where you’re spending time in a way that conflicts with your top priorities. Armed with this information, you can take action. What can be delegated, deferred or dropped entirely? Put this into practice for the coming week.

Secondly, it provides an objective picture of your workload that can be shared with others. Let’s say your manager asks you to take on another project that you really don’t have capacity for. Sharing this picture allows you to have a data-informed conversation about how your time is currently being spent and the specific impact of taking on a new project.

3. Listen to the stories you’re telling yourself

The first two strategies are useful, but can only take you so far without some inner exploration. As you start to practice them, you may uncover a set of stubborn beliefs (which will at first appear like truths).

These might sound like:

  • I can’t set boundaries with my boss – I have to be available for her 24/7.
  • I can’t delegate my admin tasks because they won’t do them up to my standards.
  • I have to say yes when someone asks me to take on an extra project.

Start noticing your own. You might need to ask ‘why’ a few more times to get to the heart of the matter.

(Why can’t I set boundaries with my boss? Well, I might lose my job…).

This is your opportunity to question whether these beliefs are really true, and whether or not they’re serving you. Look for evidence of the opposite of this belief. Look at others for inspiration. What would you prefer to believe instead?

Bring awareness to your beliefs, and they start to loosen their grip.

Couple this with practicing your boundaries, and being ruthless about your priorities, and soon enough, you may just find yourself starting to shrug off the high achiever’s curse.

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