Goal setting is an important part of achieving the things we want to in life; both personally and professionally. Having realistic, achievable goals can be motivating, inspiring and gives us a sense of purpose. But if the expectations we set of ourselves are too high it can actually have the opposite effect. So how do we get the balance right between optimism and ambition on the one hand and reality on the other?

Where do unrealistic expectations come from?

From parenting to job titles and the way we look, we form many of our expectations by comparing ourselves to others around us. Social media in particular makes it all too easy to see idealised and distorted snapshots of other people's lives. By measuring ourselves against this perceived perfection we set unrealistic expectations for our own lives.

We also tend to set ourselves very narrow perimeters for success. Perfection or nothing at all. Putting pressure on ourselves to achieve nothing but the best prevents us from seeing the opportunities and potential in other outcomes.

Isn't it a good thing to have high hopes and expectations?

Your goals and expectations have a huge impact on your overall happiness and life satisfaction. High expectations can be encouraging but without realistic goals, you are unlikely to experience a sense of achievement or fulfilment. Not everything is under your control, so by putting pressure on yourself to achieve perfection, you are setting yourself up to fail.

If you consistently feel disappointed in yourself or others around you, it may be time to reconsider your expectations.

How to set realistic expectations

1. Know your values

Start by identifying what's important to you. What will truly make you happy? That way you'll be able to focus your energy and ambition on the things that matter, rather than chasing after what you think should make you happy.

2. Set SMART goals

For each broad expectation or life goal you have, develop a set of tangible actions that you will need to take to achieve them and focus on these.

For example, your expectation might be to be better with your money. But what does that look like? How will you know when you've achieved it?

A more realistic, achievable and measurable expectation would be to save £100 each month.

3. Regularly review your expectations

Check in with your goals and expectations on a regular basis and re-evaluate whether they are still relevant or appropriate. As you grow and change, so will your hopes and goals. Are you wasting time on something that no longer applies to you or is no longer realistic?

4. Stay present

If you're constantly thinking about the future and how to get there you will miss out on the opportunities for success and happiness that are right in front of you. Try to find the value in each situation as it is, not for what you think it could or should be.

An easy way to train your brain to think in these terms is to start a gratitude journal. Each day or week, write down as many things as you can think of that have gone well or have made you happy. By focusing on the positives of the here and now, you'll have a greater sense of fulfilment and happiness.

CABA can help

We're here whenever you need help, support or information that could help improve your wellbeing. Our services are free and are available to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, past and present ICAEW staff, and their families.

If you're re-evaluating your goals and expectations, telephone life coaching could help. Working with our professional coaches can empower you to stand back and really understand your personal and professional motivations. You'll come away with clear goals and an action plan to help you achieve them.

If you would like to speak to a member of CABA's support team, contact us on +44 (0) 1788 556 366, email enquiries@caba.org.uk or chat to an advisor online 24 hours a day.

Was this article useful?