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Student getting feedback from an instructor
September 4, 2020
4 mins read

A chronic perfectionist's guide to managing expectations

When the coronavirus lockdown started in March, I made a list of all the things I was going to accomplish with the extra time I suddenly had.

According to this list, I was going to learn another language, whip myself into phenomenal shape, read a book a week, write a screenplay, and better educate myself on advanced philosophical principles. 

Shockingly, that didn’t happen. 

I bemoaned my lack of discipline during the most stressful event to happen in my lifetime. 

“Why have I not been using this time productively?” I wailed to myself as my fingers clicked Skip Intro of their own accord on the fourth episode of Fleabag I had watched that day—after I had taken a “break” to scroll through a barrage of tweets informing me that life as I had always known it had totally changed.

I’ve always struggled with having occasionally outrageous expectations for myself, and the time I’ve had alone with my thoughts during COVID-19 has brought them right back to the forefront.

Throughout the first several months of lockdown, I found myself continually making lists of a dozen things I wanted to accomplish by the end of the week, getting overwhelmed, tackling none of them, and then feeling terrible. 

I recently realized I was being ridiculously hard on myself. I’m always aiming for perfection, and if I can’t be perfect, then I often find myself totally giving up and doing a much worse job than if I had managed my expectations of myself a little better. 

This pattern definitely isn’t new for me. I had really high expectations of myself coming into UBC, and had to learn what it meant to manage those expectations as an undergrad.

Taking things a day at a time

Initially, I waltzed into my first year at UBC wanting to “succeed” in every arena I could.

“I’ll whip up a high GPA for law school, easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy,” I thought as I imagined myself as a Canadian Elle Woods. My expectation for myself was that I had to be perfect—perfect grades, perfect job, perfect social life. 

However, university—and life—isn’t about achieving perfection. This can be tough for UBC students (and alum, evidently), since a lot of us identify as high achievers, and we want to be better than our best.

I’ve learned again and again that focusing on the short term and the present can help a lot.

Especially when the future looks uncertain, it helps to have small, achievable short-term goals that you can feel good about accomplishing; they can take your mind off the more nebulous (and potentially paralyzing) “big picture.”

How can you do this?

For starters, try creating a weekly schedule of your entire term at the beginning, penciling in when you have commitments and assignments, and when you’ll need to start working on them. Then, put away the master schedule and focus on each week from there on out. 

That way, you’ll be ready when commitments come up, but there will be less pressure to think about long-term things you don’t have to worry about yet.

As an undergrad, taking things week by week forced me to focus on the things I was learning and doing each day, rather than worrying about vague, big-picture goals (or, as we’re all prone to doing these days, getting too caught up in overwhelming world events). 

Remembering how this tactic helped me focus on smaller, attainable goals, I’ve been readjusting what I consider “productive” during COVID. 

Instead of telling myself I’m going to read x number of books by a certain date or go for a 60 km bike ride by next Tuesday, I’m taking my goals one day at a time again. Nowadays, even going for a short bike ride or reading for 15 minutes feels like an accomplishment, and this is encouraging me to keep at it instead of giving up—because the end goal is no longer overwhelming. 

You don’t have to lose sight of long-term goals you have for yourself, but looking at your life day by day or week by week makes it easier to keep track of how you’re feeling, what you want, and what’s reasonable to expect from yourself. 

You are good enough

As you dive into this new, weird, school year, adjust your expectations of yourself just like you have to adjust your learning. 

Maybe this isn’t the year to expect yourself to get an A+ in biochem, but you could aim to set up a virtual study group. Maybe you won’t finish that novel you’re dreaming about, but you could aim to write a few short stories you’re proud of.

My biggest goal for the fall is to stay healthy and as positive as possible, and to keep remembering that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” 

It’s a saying that reminds me to slow down and to appreciate that progress takes time. Aiming for perfection often means I lose sight of the steps it takes to just be good—kind of like trying to build a teleportation device instead of learning how to drive. I don’t get to my destination, and I’m left really disappointed. 

Instead, by trying to do my best and focusing on the little steps it takes just to be good, I know I’ll reach where I want to be eventually.  

So, remember, you don’t have to be perfect. You may find that aiming for “good” is even better.