How to achieve a better work life balance by managing expectations

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An optimal work life balance is a challenge. The road to success is often difficult and full of stress. Your work as a PhD student is of great importance but you also want to spend time with your partner (and children), family and friends. And is this all drenched in spending time on social media? Do you want to be the best version of yourself in all these roles, but find yourself in desperate need of extra hours in your day? Most of you will recognize all, or some of the above. But do you realize that the underlying factor of the stress and shortage in time is strongly influenced by our own expectations and the expectations of others? This is not just an informative article about self-improvement. Along with some theoretical background, I will give real life examples and helpful exercises to evaluate and improve your current lifestyle and way of working. The focus lies on the expectations that are holding you back, so an improvement in your work life balance can be made.

How my own expectations influenced my study

In September 2006, studying at the UNSW in Sydney, my girlfriend was rushed to the hospital. She could not walk anymore, and had problems with her vision. Three months prior to this we boarded at Amsterdam Airport on our adventure. Accompanied with a master degree, her goal: international working experience. I was doing an exchange program studying Social Science. Settled down, working and studying my girlfriend developed symptoms of MS. Her being hospitalized for two months was a major external stress factor. She tried her best to stay positive and I continued my study. Looking back, we were both driven by our own expectations, that actually conflicted with reality. I could not go back home, this felt like failing. I wanted to finish the semester with good grades. What would people say, if we returned back home early. I studied hard to make her proud. She wanted to get back on her feet for her own career and to support me… Because we both expected to much off ourselves, and did not know what to expect from each other, we put way too much pressure upon ourselves, which caused my grades to lower and hindered her process of rehabilitation. For those curious how the story ended. We eventually went home, I finished my study, we are now married and have three children.

What are internal and external expectations?

An expectation is defined as believing that something is going to happen or believing that something should be a certain way. An example of an expectation is a belief that you will be getting promoted. Another example of an expectation is a belief that you should behave a certain way, for example as a proper husband, student, sister, etc.

There are two different types of expectations that work hand in hand to shape our lives. These are internal and external expectations. Internal expectations are ones set by the subject to her/himself, and external expectations are the complete opposite, they are goals and standards set by others.

Some examples of expectations that influence people in a negative way are:

I always need to be the best. Taking a break is actually being lazy. I need to be the perfect partner. I need to attend every social event. What will people say when…?

So, the challenge is that we have internal expectations to fulfill and external expectations to overcome. How to manage these expectations in our lives will be discussed in the final paragraph.

Internal expectations

The Internal expectations are what we expect from ourselves – our wishes and our desires. When we get trapped in our own expectations, we tend do to too much and not take enough rest. The result is internal conflict, which leads to stress, poor work results, and can even lead to a burn-out. Internal conflict is mainly caused by working beyond your capacity. You cannot meet internal expectations; you may think you have to do more to stand out, or you are accepting the roles that are beyond your capacity. Below is an example of this scenario illustrated by the story of Angela.

The pressure of a PhD student in the hospital

Angela is a PhD student in the hospital, she has to work long hours. She feels responsible for her patients. She doesn’t know everything yet, so she has to check, and double check, which takes a lot of time. In some specialties, it is difficult to find jobs. She really feels like she has to stand out by doing extra research or broad functions. She does all of this in her free time during the evenings and weekends.

How about you?

1. Is there enough time in your schedule for leisure? This doesn’t mean a walk on the beach while thinking about your thesis. This means being completely disconnected from issues that occupy your mind, this can be both work related or personal.

2. Do you dare to leave the office early? Or to not attend meetings that are not relevant to you?

3. Can you skip a birthday without feeling guilty?

4. Do feel the urge to instantly reply to e-mails or social media messages, or are you able to do important work or have quality time first, before replying?

External expectations

External expectations are what others expect from us – their perceptions and their wants. These external expectations impact our identities by changing us. If everyone expects something specific from you, then you act like what they want you to be, to impress them. You end up not being yourself and who you want to be. You try to impress so much that sometimes you don’t even know who you are anymore. And to make it even more complicated, the question is: Are the expectations of others real, or do we fabricate these external expectations in our minds out of insecurity and fear?

External expectations can be divided into three categories. The first option is that you do not agree with the expectation. For example, do you agree with the assessment criteria of your PhD thesis? Or do you expect something different from yourself? Secondly, there is a possibility that you cannot keep up with the workload or pressure. Third, the assessment or research criteria are not clear. You might have problems in figuring out what is actually expected from you as a PhD student.

How about you?

1. Do you know the criteria of your PhD thesis?

2. How many articles do you have to write, and in which journals?

Off course, external expectations also play a big role in private life. Your parents might assume you will return home when your PhD thesis is finished. What is your role at home, does your partner expect you to be home for diner, how about the kids (daycare / school / sports), groceries, cleaning, quality time together? Does this collide with working hours? Is there less time to go out with friends? Do they still expect you to stay out late?

Excercise in managing internal and external expectations

Foto bij Privé-individueel-artike

In this last paragraph I will give you an exercise on how to manage your expectations. So, grab your pen and a piece of paper. Managing expectations can mean lowering, adjusting or getting rid of beliefs that are holding you back! This doesn’t mean being lazy, not being devoted to your work or not reaching your goals. This actually means becoming more focused, lowering stress levels and becoming more productive.

As said before, the effect of all the challenges (rest versus being busy) we have to deal with, can result in internal conflict. So, what you are going to do is evaluate yourself, your behavior, observe your situation/life, and write down what you expect from yourself as a PhD student, partner, daughter, son, sister, brother, friend etc., and what others expect from you.

Take a blank piece of paper and a pen.

1 Write down or draw circles for all the roles you play in your life.

(work, partner, kids, sport/hobbies, family, partner, friends, self/me, leisure, etc.).

Try to leave nothing out. How is the 100% of your weekly time spent?

2. Be honest, is it realistic? Are there enough hours in one day?

3. For each role, write what you expect from yourself.

4. Again, be honest, which expectation about yourself is causing stress and holding you back?

5.Write down the name(s) of the person(s) connected to the specific roles.

6. For each name, write what (you think) is expected from you.

7. Which person hinders you in expectations? (in any role)

Now that you have written this all down on paper and thought it through, there are two basic solutions I want to suggest.

First, for some people writing “their life” down on paper can be an eye opener. Once you are aware of a situation or behavior that is holding you back, you can begin making changes for the better.

Second, and this goes especially for the external expectations, make them explicit! Open up, discuss with the people involved. Say what is on your mind, let them know how you feel. Ask them how they feel, how they see you, what do they expect from you. We humans are great in making up stories in our head, about what other people might think, this can be very far from reality.

Good luck! I am sure by opening up and discussing what is on your mind, it will be easier for you and your surroundings to change for the better. Good luck!

For questions about this subject or inquiries on individual or group training sessions feel free to contact me.