Is Your Need To Achieve Actually Holding You Back?

You might not realize how much guilt holds you back until you recognize the signs in yourself. What to look out for and how to fix it.

Is Your Need To Achieve Actually Holding You Back?
[Image: Flickr user Julia Lamphear]

It’s the trait that propels us forward–the thing that lights the fire inside that says, “make a mark on the world,” and if you’re reading this, it’s likely a part of you: the desire to achieve.


To achieve literally means “to reach or attain a desired objective, level, or result by effort, skill, or courage.” But what happens when the achiever within starts to run our lives, trapping us in a state of never satisfied?

Ebbs of productivity can spark a specific kind of guilt, one that takes time away from work with internal negativity for not achieving in every moment–making it impossible to be present. That beautiful thing that drives us can quickly turn into a trap. Let’s call it what it is: achievers’ guilt.

Here are five signs that the need to achieve is actually holding you back.


  1. You set unrealistic expectations for how many hours you’re going to work that you continuously fail to meet.
  2. You have a desire to be seen as the first one in and the last one to sign off.
  3. You feel anxiety when your email or chat is turned off during “normal” working hours.
  4. You feel defeated on Sunday because you didn’t accomplish what you wanted to over the weekend.
  5. It’s hard for you to find an in-between state of on and off–in order to relax you have to find a way to block work from your mind. (ahem, alcohol)

This state of guilt not only steals the precious moments we have when we aren’t working, it holds us back from what’s possible in our work. It can abolish happiness and make life feel like a game of treading water.

Here are three ways to break out of achievers’ guilt:

1. Count Flow Sessions, Not Work Hours

We get so caught up in how much we’re working that we stop thinking about how much we’re actually accomplishing and how we’re accomplishing it. My life changed when I stopped making tactical to-do lists and creating parameters for specific work hours and started planning and counting the number of flow sessions I experience.


Flow, coined by Steven Kotler, is the state in which time slows down, the self vanishes, and action and awareness merge. It’s an optimal state of consciousness, described by many as “in the zone.” You’re fully immersed in whatever you’re doing. Hours can go by without you noticing. It’s when we feel our best and perform our best.

A McKinsey study reported that top executives were five times more productive when in flow state than they were on average. If workers experienced an increase of 20% more flow, it would double workplace productivity.

When you experience a state of flow, you’re more alert and paying a higher level of attention to the task at hand thanks to adrenaline. Extra dopamine in your brain triggers pattern recognition, which has you thinking, “Yes, I’m onto something. Keep going.” Endorphins decrease pain and give off a superhuman feeling. Anandamide increases lateral thinking. The bottom line? Not only are we more productive when we experience flow, we’re happier.


So, how do you get it?

Kolter identified 17 flow triggers. Key triggers include focused attention and solitude. That means multitasking is out, solo high-focused work is in. Clear goals and immediate feedback give you the foundation of why you’re doing what you’re doing, which enables you to reach a heightened sense of purpose. And, the challenge should be slightly greater than your skill level, so when picking projects work to find that sweet spot between boredom and fear.

2. Stop Planning And Thinking About Work And Create Small, Realistic Habits To Do Work

Have you ever said to yourself, “I’m going to work all weekend,” only to feel like a failure on Sunday evening when you realize you abandoned your goal entirely? It happens to the best of us. Then, we tell ourselves, “I’ll work late on Monday to make up for the weekend,” only to fail again when Monday night rolls around and we’re tired from kicking off the week.


This kind of behavior leaves us stuck in a cycle of planning and thinking about work more than actually doing it. More defeating, it leaves us in a perpetual state of failure. That’s why creating small, systematic habits and taking decision-making out of the process is key to long-lasting success.

For me, that means working two hours every morning, no matter what day of the week it is. I don’t promise myself that all of Saturday will be a workday, but I do make the commitment to work for two hours. It’s reasonable and doable. More importantly, it gets done.

Innovator, social scientist, and teacher BJ Fogg specializes in behavior design. This is the method that he advocates for, explaining that we can make lifelong changes by creating small habits that grow over time. “When you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever,” Fogg says.


Instead of setting yourself up for achieving something impossible, achieve something small with this process: Find a behavior that you already have and use it as a trigger. After that behavior, perform the same small action to create a new habit. Here’s the format:

  • After I [existing habit] . . .
  • I will [new tiny behavior].

Fogg’s go-to example is: After I go to the bathroom, I’ll do five push-ups. Before he knew it, he went from doing 0 pushups to 70-80 a day.

Creating small habits will not only help you create lasting change, you’ll get into a state of winning instead of a cycle of failing. When you’re winning, it comes naturally to do more.


3. Understand The Science Of The 6:1 Workweek Ratio

A constant state of doing is not beneficial to your work. Actually, the more you work, the less effective and productive you are going to become over both the short- and long-term.

The workweek status quo is something that’s in desperate need of questioning. Henry Ford established the five-day, 40-hour workweek in the 1920’s. He came up with the idea to reduce working hours so employees would have enough free time to go out and realize they needed to buy stuff (like cars).

If we’ve challenged the setup that Ford introduced, it’s been by adding work hours to evenings and weekends. I don’t know about you, but I have things going on seven days a week. If I don’t, I feel guilty. Too much time “off” and I’m under-stimulated and bored. When I do “work” all week, I notice that one of those days is usually made up of vanity work. You know, when you’re basically just spending time in front of your computer. You get burnt out.


That’s what happened to Joel Gascoigne, founder & CEO of Buffer, too. Gascoigne recently wrote about repeating his “workday” routine all seven days of the week. He challenged the status quo of working five days with two days off to see how it would affect his energy and productivity.

Even though overall he was working fewer hours in a day, he needed time to rest. “I felt like the seven-day work week failed because of lack of an extended period of renewal,” he said. At the end of the experiment, Gascoigne concluded that a single day of rest is the perfect amount, no more, no less.

The 6:1 ratio is a tradition that has been around for a long time. Think about the Sabbath and the concept of Uposatha in Buddhism, which is “the cleansing of the defiled mind.”


In Gascoigne’s post, he shares this incredible wisdom from Jim Rohn, “Maybe one of the reasons for 6:1: if you rest too long the weeds take the garden. Not to think so is naive. As soon as you’ve planted, the busy bugs and the noxious weeds are out to take it. So you can’t linger too long in the rest mode, you’ve got to go back to work. Six days of work, then rest.”

One day a week, you need to get your mind in a different mode. Every week, your brain–and your soul–needs to be reset. It’s not a luxury, it’s a productivity requirement.

Guilt can creep in anytime, showing up when we’re enjoying life’s moments the most. It can make us feel like we’re living a lesser version of ourselves. While it’s an incredible trait to want to do more, be more, and contribute more, we need to remember that’s only possible when we’re the healthiest version of ourselves.


About the author

Liz Presson is the creator of, which encourages workers and managers to think outside the traditional office. From revolutionizing the way large corporations communicate, to working as the founding employee of two successful digital media startups, Liz teaches companies to use community building, both internally and externally, to reach their fullest potential in environments that almost never include cubicles. You can say hi to Liz on Twitter here.