Last month, we discussed tips and tricks for managing others’ expectations in order to maximize collective productivity. Today, I’m getting a little more personal. I want to talk about ways we can best manage the expectations we set for ourselves. From being realistic with our goals, to maintaining the boundaries we need to execute our plans, managing our personal expectations is key to increasing our productivity.

Goal Setting: Self-Expectation Management 101

Recently, a friend of mine was lamenting over her teenage son’s bedroom, specifically detailing an “obscene” lack of organization. “I can’t stand it a minute longer,” she told me. “And the nagging is futile.” Reasoning her son needed a clean slate from which to start keeping things organized, she declared her intention to “clean out everything” the following day.

“If it’s as bad as you say,” I replied gently, “you’ll likely want to take the project in phases.” She wrinkled her brow, appearing disappointed with my apparent lack of much-desired empathy. “You work,” I continued. “Taking a day off for this project is going to put you behind.” The frown persisted.

“What’s more,” I offered, “this sounds like a project that will require more than one day’s time.”

So we talked about setting a manageable plan of attack, breaking up the larger task into bite-sized pieces. “Maybe you set the goal of one hour a day. Just one hour, so you don’t get behind,” I advised. “And you make specific intentions for each one-hour segment.” Her frown dissipated as we talked through ideas. And she walked away with something like this:

  • Day 1 – Find the floor and surfaces. Pick-up. Clean-up. Establish a needs list, i.e. trashcan, a drawer to house X, shelving space for Y, bins for items ABC, etc.
  • Day 2 – Procure necessary supplies.
  • Day 3 – Clean out the two large “junk” drawers containing old toys, abandoned craft and model projects, misplaced socks, and whatever else had/found no home.
  • Day 4 and Possibly 5 (Honoring the 1-hour limit) – Tackle the closet. Establish a receptacle for clothing and other items that will be donated. Purge as warranted. Arrange what is kept in an easy-to-maintain fashion.

Now I did suggest she clearly lay out her expectation that her son maintains her organization going forward, and suggested she walk him through any systems she developed. But, being a realist, I included the disclaimer of teenagers being teenagers. My primary focus was on her role in the dilemma, and I knew her original declaration to “knock it all out tomorrow” was akin to an unarmored knight rushing onto the battlefield woefully outnumbered. She’d hit resistance quickly, tire rapidly, and burn out before any real progress was made.

Like Any Successful Battle Plan, Self Expectations Need Manageable Steps

Chunky monkey. I’ve heard this term used for math students in elementary school when facing the dreaded two-step problem. “One step at a time,” they’re guided. “First the addition, then the multiplication.” It’s no different from our adult goals and responsibilities. When you come at something as one big problem, you’re putting headwinds in play right from the start.

I’m certainly not advising you to shy away from grand goals. I’m all for reaching and stretching. But we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish when we set our self-expectations. We’re naturally time-bound and even the most razor-focused have limits on their concentration.

Time Blocking and Expectations

This is where time management comes into play. You’ve got to “chunky monkey” out your self-expectation, realistically aligning your productivity with your available capacity. This is what I did with my friend when we laid out the plan of attack for the teenager’s room. Her final piece of the puzzle was to find the hour-a-day that made the most sense for her. So, you see, beyond protecting her from quick burnout in the face of an unsurmountable challenge, this one-hour-a-day plan protected her other, unrelated responsibilities.

Effective Time Blocking Demands Specificity

For more illustration and clarity, let’s say you’re writing a book. You set a goal of writing 500 words a day. A+ for you on adopting the chunky monkey approach. But don’t consider it a done deal by blockout off three hours for writing. For optimal productivity, you want to be specific with your intention for the time. In the book example, this might look like:

Related, you’ll want to be realistic with your time blocking. Honor your natural energy rhythm and keep in mind that you need to take breaks at least every 90 minutes to maintain focus. Don’t forget that all work and no play sets the stage for unhappiness and diminished productivity, and skipping meals will drag down your output. Schedule time for adequate rest and nutrition.

Maintain Your Boundaries

Lastly, let’s talk about boundaries. Time-blocking is, in reality, setting a boundary in order to fulfill an expectation we’ve set for ourselves. We’ve agreed to dedicate a specific amount of our time to a specific cause.

We may, in fact, have the best laid-out plan to meet an expectation we’ve set, but to execute said plan we’ll have to honor the time boundary we put in place. If my friend, for example, allows her son to usurp the 60 minutes she allotted for addressing his room one day, she’s not effectively managing the expectation she set for herself. She’s likely to get frustrated and will certainly delay achieving her desired goal of an organized room.

Disruptions come in all forms and flavors and maintaining your boundary is sometimes hard. Let’s take a professional hypothetical this time. A business meeting/lunch/social invite lands in your inbox. You see the event conflicts with the time you’ve scheduled for a vacation away from the office. Honoring your boundary, you decline, noting your reason for being absent, i.e., “Hate to miss the celebration, but I’ll be in Cabo!” or “We’ll have to catch up on this discussion when I return from my trip.” Most of us would probably say that honoring this boundary wasn’t that hard.

But now let’s say a meeting invite comes across and you realize it’s scheduled for an afternoon you’ve reserved to advance a personal project/goal or to complete an important independent work deliverable you have. Maybe you pause. Maybe guilt trickles in. The group needs you. You don’t have to take that afternoon off. Maybe you reluctantly accept the invitation. This may be ineffective expectation management.

To Properly Manage the Expectations You Set for Yourself, You Must Give Them the Respect They Deserve

It’s easy (well, at least easier) to decline an invitation when we have a clear/confirmed conflict, like a scheduled vacation or a conflicting meeting. But the truth is, if we’ve set aside time to work on any priority, we should honor the commitment we’ve made to ourselves. I know there will be times when you find it necessary to make exceptions, but this shouldn’t be the norm.

If you find you’re struggling to maintain your boundaries, you might try setting up rules to keep yourself accountable. Here’s what this might look like:

  • I’m willing to forego my daily exercise commitment twice per month, but no more.
  • If I move project X to accommodate project Y, I’ll cancel activity Z so I can catch up on X.
  • If I find so-and-so continually pushing on my boundaries, I’ll set aside some time to explain my personal goal/expectation to them, and will request their support in respecting my time commitment.
  • If I find I’m continually breaching the boundaries I’ve set for goal X, I’ll reevaluate the worthiness I’ve assigned to this expectation.

Expect Success When You Properly Manage the Expectations You Set for Yourself

Personal goals are self-expectations. These goals are born of the value we assign to tasks, projects, deliverables, an ideal, etc. We honor what we value when we protect the key resource — time — required to achieve it. This is how we manage the expectations we set for ourselves. Best of all, this process is full of inherent value. Think of a sense of accomplishment, personal autonomy, and greater productivity.

Sara Genrich is a Productivity Consultant, an Evernote Expert, and the creator of the Organizing@Work for Success Workshop.  She’s committed to providing real-life solutions so her clients have time to focus on the things that really matter.

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