I had my fourth kid in January. Having a baby is generally not an event that increases a person’s productivity. Yet I felt shockingly accomplished in the weeks afterward.
The reason? I had zero expectations. I didn’t expect to get anything beyond basic life maintenance done, and so when I did, I felt on top of the world. Look at me! I sent an email! Feeling satisfied is a great way to go through life. It’s much better than the nagging feeling you should be doing more or doing something better.
I’m not the only person to discover this. Peter Bregman, author of the new book Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want, argues that “there are a bunch of upsides to lowering expectations.” Indeed: “A tremendous amount of stress happens because we have expectations that are unrealistically high.”
For starters, in our technologically advanced universe, we lose sight of the fact that nothing is guaranteed to go right. In his book, Bregman recounts a friend feeling deeply stressed when he couldn’t get cell reception on a fishing boat in the Bahamas. Twenty years ago, he would have had no expectation that he’d be able to make a work call from that boat. He would have been blissfully happy, as one should be on a sunny day in the Bahamas. It is the expectation, not the situation, that caused his stress.
The second reason to lower expectations is that perfectionism is not only paralyzing, it’s counterproductive. “The world rewards productivity, not perfection,” Bregman says. If you try to create the perfect product, the perfect speech, the perfect book, you’ll never put anything out there. “Slightly lower expectations allow us to put stuff out there in the world that we can learn from,” he says.
You get feedback on your imperfect product. You make improvements, try again, and produce iterations that will give you a far better result than any desire to be perfect on the first try will produce.
Finally, the big reason to lower expectations is that then “they’re often met,” Bregman says. One manager he knows worked for a company whose expectations were unrealistic enough that he faced telling his team for a third year in a row why they wouldn’t be getting bonuses. This wasn’t exactly motivational. He elected to quit instead. He took his skills to an organization that understood incentives only work if people can hit their targets with reasonable frequency. Small wins build momentum. Progress makes people happy.
That’s not to say goals are wrong, or that we shouldn’t do good work, or aim to achieve new things. But when you keep your expectations low, you can be pleasantly surprised by the universe.
You expect your friend who’s always 30 minutes late to be 30 minutes late. Then, when he’s only 15 minutes late, you’re happy rather than annoyed. It feels better to be happy than unhappy. Lower expectations often lead to the former.