How to Break Free of Being Trapped By Your Own Low Expectations

08/22/2014 05:29 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2014
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We're all in this together...

I worked with a client named Phil on his successful graduate school application process and on setting the trajectory so he could have a more fulfilling life. This has included everything from tackling work projects as an IT professional to reading his backlog of books.

My time coaching has helped Phil, but he also has taught me things -- like sending me an exercise I could share with you about how to get out of being trapped by our own low expectations....

How to Free Yourself From Limiting Expectations

Step 0: Set aside some YOU time during the day where you can be alone and pensive. Schedule it in so you don't feel guilty that you aren't working on something else or forget to do it, or so you can just make sure your immediate to-dos are done and you won't be interrupted.

Step 1: Discover Your Joy

Think about the kind of person you would like to be. What would you like to change? What do you want to keep the same? (Also, capture these things positively. Don't say, "I don't want to dread swimsuit season," or "I wish I wasn't an MIA dad," or "I wish I didn't have a total lack of will power." Instead, how about, "I wish I was more fit" or "I want to spend more time with my son," or "I'd like to be a better person.") If your heart sings at the idea of being an astronaut, but a voice tells you that you can't do it -- ignore the voice. Get it out there for show. Even if you can't be an astronaut, it may be a clue to a direction that will lead to job/life satisfaction/passion, etc.

When you're done, you'll likely have a huge chunk of unordered, subconscious detritus floating across several pages... so, now what?

Step 2: Find Your Focus

Pour over your ideas and rank them. Put a star or a 0 next to the things that are ultra important to you. This is your list, so feel free to be honest and open with yourself. It's not your mom's, your dad's, your significant other's, your boss', your kids'... it's not even MY list! Don't feel guilty for wanting something, and don't ignore it because, "Well, my dad said I shouldn't waste my time," or "I'm afraid that people won't respect my life long dream to become the first clown at the Olympics," or "The government will come after me if I admit that I want to create my own island nation!" If you can't be honest with yourself, this whole process will fail.

Putting thought into this ranking is important, but don't agonize over it yet. If you're super stuck, dig out a six-sided die or a random number generator, roll it and add that to an item you KNOW is more important to you than your current quagmire.

Finally, separate the ultra important items (henceforth referred to as 'star-priorities') and condense them into a form that you can quickly reference: A poster, a list on a 3x5 card -- whatever works for you. Just be certain to create it with a reverence that belies your desire for these things. You are creating a shrine to your ideals and your inner you - this is the first step of showing dedication to your self improvement.

Step 3: Determine Next Actions
For each star-priority, figure out what actions, changes to your routine, habits, etc. are necessary to achieve that quality or result. Don't count any idea out yet, just get a feel for all of the different paths there are to your goal.

Example: Find/develop a passion/interest, particularly one that can be shared with others, or that you perceive as "respected by others" (and that you actually dig): Join a club, browse meet up groups, check out local college classes, look for events at your favorite local hang outs, find time to read books about the topic, etc.

[Side note -- It's worth considering the source of these desired changes. Sometimes we want something just because we want it. Sometimes we want it because really we want people to respect us or to spend more time with people of type-x or to live a particular lifestyle and think that such a thing is requisite, etc. If there are some things we "wish we had, but somehow feel opposite" maybe our "true selves," just waiting to shine through...?]

Step 4a: Note Connections

Go through non-stars to find possible correlation with stars.

After all, while you may have ranked, "Become King of Mafia Wars" as a 9 and "Volunteer for the Girl Scouts" as 213, but if "Spend more time with my daughter" is a star-priority... 213 might be a better way of doing that than 9.

Step 4b: Think about People

Throw 'people' into the mix by noting 'star' people and what changes they link with, and 'non-star' people and what items THEY link with. Feel free to do this with other 'aspects of life' that are important to you, too, like personal values, current education/investment, current obligations, groups/communities, career direction, place you want to live, etc.

Create a matrix to view areas of density.

Step 5: Start Whittling Away

At this point, start looking at combinations. Don't just go for the densest area of links. Focus on the star-priorities, star-people, etc.

You'll know what might feel best at this time. Feel free to just try things out, and don't worry too much about, "Oh this will be too much to do, but I want it all so much!"

Break the requirements into projects and habits/routines.

Step 6: Design the ULTIMATE Routine

Assume you were a robot who could self re-program itself to be a new it. If you could change all of your habits at once, what would your routine look like?

Step 7: Unfortunately, You're Not a Robot. Trim.

I've been told that people should only try to change one thing at a time or 'no more than 2-3. But I wouldn't doubt if some people out there are just better off doing a full-on, cold turkey switch. Intuition tells me that if you're the last type, though, you'd know.

Reflect on the projects you want to accomplish to get to where you want to be, chronological relationships among them, the habits needed to be changed, your current life situation/schedule, and 'realism." Then choose a number of things in your routine to change, and a number of projects to commit to.

I feel like it's best to start with a criteria of the things that seem easiest to change to get the ball rolling with a few easy victories. Alternatively, if you only want to focus on ONE, you might want to make it a tough one.

Either way, start with what feels comfortable for you. If that's more than one, prioritize them and begin with an understanding/outlook that you may have to trim, and if you can only do one at a time, that's fine.

Step 8: Measure & Reward

Create a measuring stick for progress/dedication/interest. Then ask:

  • Did I achieve the desired results?
  • If yes, what's my prize?
  • If no, what's up?
Step 9: Review

  • Are the results what you thought they would be?
  • Are you happier?
  • Re-evaluate your list based on your answers.
  • If you like you're new habits and have them established as routines, add more to lead you toward a life beyond your expectations!

Thanks so much for that great exercise Phil! (much appreciated!)
I've really seen for myself and others that this month is a critical time to take stock of what's happened since the first of the year and to decide how we'll move forward.
I hope this re-energizes you to tackle that process!