An overachiever’s guide to rest

Part 1: Overachievers are made

Some of us come by our overachieving ways through our schooling system: we’re rewarded for achieving, whether it be grades or sports or extracurricular activities. Some others come by it by internalizing family pressure (especially immigrant and POC families, which often place expectations — both spoken and unspoken — on the next generation to succeed, because parents and grandparents worked hard to give them opportunities they themselves never had). Even others see examples of success on various media sources (including social media), and internalize those goals for themselves. And others… well, they get the double- or triple-whammy of all of the above.

#1 Oriented toward completion

A grid paper notebook with a hand-written checklist. A hand holds a black pen as the person continues writing.

#2 Oriented toward quality

“This is spectacular!” Overachievers have been praised for going above and beyond in many facets of their lives. Maybe it was the school project that showed a level of detail and insight that teachers and peers weren’t expecting. Maybe it was holding up the family as a teen during a time of stress or trauma. In professional life, it’s crafting a narrative so strong, it blows everything else out of the water. It’s designing something so compelling, everyone nods instead of surfacing core questions about the approach. It’s submitting code that is elegant, optimized, will scale, and is well-documented.

#3 Oriented toward quantity

“How do you do so much?!” Hearing such statements are gratifying, particularly when you’re feeling tired or exhausted. It starts when we’re young, as children who are in a whole set of extracurriculars, and then in high school trying to prove your leadership so that you’ll have a compelling application to a top-name university. Fast forward a decade, and you’ll find that these same overachievers are also in high-demand jobs, living high-impact lives, and sharing the latest productivity tips with one another while polishing the humblebrag about how busy they are.

#4 Oriented toward reliability

“I know I can count on you.” Overachievers have been told, over and over again, that their ability to always deliver a lot, on time, and with quality, is a core part of their value to whatever context they currently are in. Furthermore, overachievers are typically very responsible people, and have come to understand that others trust them to hold up their end of an agreement.

#5 Oriented toward delayed gratification

Athletes and overachievers both have a superpower: they can ignore pain for a really long time. Whether you’re a marathon runner or a martial artist, you know how to continue to perform through pain, manage it, and continue to train through injury (hopefully, intelligently). And of course, there’s also the question of whether the Venn diagram between athletes and overachievers is just a circle.

Part 2: How to approach rest as an overachiever

If you’ve seen yourself in any or all of the statements I mentioned above, rest feels like a violation of your core values because your identity is enmeshed with your output and behavior. And at the same time, we probably all know that rest is absolutely essential to long-term sustainability. In the past few years, we’ve added a vast amount of uncertainty with a global pandemic, an unexpected war, supply chain challenges, inflation, and overall decreased economic stability. All of these increase the pressure on each of us, many to the point of breaking.

#1 Divest yourself of the belief that it all has to be done by you right now

Overachievers are hyper-responsible people who often put the onus of completion on themselves. As a result, we hold an unspoken belief (often due to poor experiences) that if something is on your plate, it has to be done by you, and it has to be done at quality, and it has to be done right now.

  • It’s rarely worth it for me to work past the point of diminishing returns
  • I have a fixed number of functional hours every day
  • Certain things can be delayed without repercussion
  • Certain things can be delegated without repercussion

#2 Frame your conversations around priorities

In my first year of product management, I ran myself ragged trying to get everything done. My manager, who also happened to be a good mentor, sat down and informed me that it was literally impossible to get everything done every day, and that my job was to instead ruthlessly prioritize.

#3 Change your internal yardstick

As someone who has always been goal-oriented, the shift from engineering to product management was a rough one when it came to internal expectations. A successful day as an engineer was different than success as a product manager, and I often ended days feeling like I’d failed.

  • Did I make progress, no matter how small, toward my stated goals?
  • Did I unblock someone who needed my specific, timely input?
  • Was there a greater priority that pulled me away from delivering on my plans? Did I intentionally make the decision to participate, or was I just swept up in the momentum?
  • Was I focused today?
  • Was I faithful to my charter today?
  • Was I intentional today in moving toward our team’s greater goals?

#4 See rest as an investment in your future self

“I don’t know why past me purchased 12 lbs of Epsom salt at Costco, but current me thanks past me for her insight.” This was a post I made in early 2016 after a particularly brutal martial arts workout sent me looking for a restorative soak. In this case, a small investment in a previous trip to Costco had given me the ability to accommodate this recovery activity when I most needed it.

Small glass jar of silver coins with a green plant peeking over the rim
Overhead view of a mug of tea, aa few flowers, and a page of poetry ripped from a book

#5 Regularly monitor for and immediately tend to personal distress

“Stiff upper lip” was one of those phrases that resonated with me as a teen. As a second-generation Asian immigrant young woman, such practices were fairly common; you just learned to bear with whatever discomfort was thrown your way. As a result, I grew up not learning my own personal signals of distress.

Overhead view of a woman’s hands writing in a journal with a pen. A creamy, iced drink with a straw is just above the journal.
I spend a lot of time journaling in order to discover what’s going on inside of me.
  • Difficulty being emotionally generous
  • Emotional exhaustion, even with physical rest
  • Emotions that are more extreme than the situation probably warrants (mostly anger)
  • Large personal inertia when trying to create
  • Strong relational withdrawal symptoms

#6 Be gentle with your own imperfection and failure

Perfectionism often rears its ugly head in the hearts of overachievers. If you miss one goal, no matter how small, there’s a tiny, self-critical voice that tells you that you could have done better. Driven by that guilt or shame, you wake up the next morning, teeth gritted and heart set on doing better than you did before. And if you don’t do well on a second day, well, the cycle continues, but at a higher pitch. This downward spiral compounds upon itself, adding to any additional external pressures you might already be feeling.

Bonus: Communicate your expectations that others will prioritize their own well-being

The thread that kicked off this entire blog post was a call to leaders to protect overachievers in their lives. The tools I’ve provided are useful for overachievers to manage both their own expectations and the expectations held for them. But one thing that I haven’t yet covered are the expectations you hold for others due to your expectations of yourself.

Bonus: A special note to those who are truly under great stress

In the midst of this pandemic, certain people have been hit particularly hard. The one nearest and dearest to me are parents of very young children, particularly when every single support structure normally available to these parents were stripped away in one fell swoop. I also know single parents, single parents of medically fragile and special needs children, parents going through chemo, people unable to work due to a variety of medical reasons, and a whole constellation of other situations, each one more stressful than the last.

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Elaine Chao

Elaine Chao

I work for Adobe on Adobe XD. Also a martial arts instructor, musician, writer, volunteerism advocate. Opinions mine.