Are you suffering from ‘achiever’ syndrome?

As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of goals; I always have been. I like to imagine the future, to think about what’s next, and to draw up plans to get there. Setting goals gives you a sense of purpose, it focuses your limited time and energy on what’s really important, and it motivates you to achieve something that is really meaningful to you.

It’s easy to get caught up in all these goals, however. Many of us – and I’m definitely including myself here – have a manic urge to DO stuff, to be busy, to ACHIEVE. We feel an afternoon in front of the TV is a wasted afternoon, we can’t possibly ‘just’ read a novel when there are so many business books to learn from, we find it impossible to relax. This can be especially dangerous when you’re working for yourself as there are no longer any fixed office hours, no physical office even to leave at the end of the day, and there’s always something else that can be done. Especially for us self-motivated, conscientious ‘good girls’ (and boys), we just keep going and going.

Until, that is, our bodies say STOP and we’re finally forced to do so.

The body may choose to speak to us in different ways. In my case, it’s via a killer migraine. My first came in the middle of my undergraduate finals, when I collapsed in an unconscious heap on the floor and was eventually diagnosed and given proper medication. Since then, I’ve had many of these migraines ‘with aura’ – when lights start blinking in my eyes and I become partially blind, after which all I can do is lie down in a dark room until it passes – and they have all come at the worst possible time.

Wouldn’t it be great, though, if you could choose yourself when to take a break, to plan this intentionally, rather than hand over this control to your body?

Signs that you’re suffering from ‘achiever’ syndrome

So, other than collapsing in a heap, what might be the signs that you suffer from this ‘doing’ epidemic, this ‘achiever’ syndrome? See how many of the following sound familiar to you…

☐ You have high standards for yourself and for other people, and you get annoyed if these are not met
☐ You’re constantly looking to the next big thing, raising the bar and launching into the next challenge
☐ You’re terrified of failure and compare yourself to others to sense-check how you’re doing
☐ You get a buzz from ticking things off your to-do list
☐ You can’t sit still for a few minutes without picking up your smartphone or your laptop
☐ You’re always signing up to some course or class, entering a sporting event like a marathon or a triathlon, making a note of exhibitions and plays that you want to see…
☐ You fill every evening, every weekend, with some activity
☐ You impose your own deadlines, putting pressure on yourself to complete things in less time than is really necessary
☐ You keep yourself going with coffee, Red Bull, or whatever it takes so that you don’t drop the ball
☐ You get a migraine – or a cold, flu, whatever your poison – when you really can’t afford to take any time off to recover

If you’ve ticked more than 6 or 7 boxes, it may be time to take a look at whether this behaviour is actually serving you.

So what’s the solution?

If you decide that this way of living and working is not how you’d like to live your life, then of course the natural next step is to write a list of all the things you need to do to change this behaviour. Do more yoga, start meditating, review your to-do lists, eat the frog, work smarter not harder…

But, wait, aren’t we just adding more things to your to-do list? Aren’t we making the problem even worse by adding feelings of guilt along with a whole host of new things that you should be doing?

Tony Robbins has talked about the difference between achievement and movement. Doing and achieving is not an end in itself. Ticking things off our to-do lists is not the ultimate goal! There has to be some bigger purpose, some why for the things we are doing; and those things should be moving us towards that bigger why.

I often quote Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
“It doesn’t really matter how fast you’re going if you’re heading in the wrong direction.”

What’s the point of doing, doing, doing, if you’re not even sure that what you’re doing really matters? What’s the point of doing, doing, doing, if you don’t stop to enjoy what you’ve already done?

So I’m not going to give you a list of top tips for getting rid of achiever syndrome. I’m not going to tell you that you need to do this, or stop doing that. What I am going to do is encourage you to pause for a moment and think about what it is you’re really working towards, and why.

And I’m going to do the same.


5 Responses

  1. Oh I’m a definite 6 out of 7’er, but have taken time to define direction with coaching and self reflection …. Great article as always! Going to go read a book now 🙂

  2. Yes, I can identify with this. You may know of the Strengthsfinder book and course. Well out of something like 34 possible top strengths, mine is “Achiever”. And I come to think of it as a kind of a curse and not a blessing. Good article. For me the antidote is to remember that my worth is not in what I do, but in who I am. You and I are worthy simply because we have been uniquely created.

    1. Yes I believe I had ‘achiever’ as my top strength in the Strengthsfinder test when I first took the test in the early days of my career. I took it again last year and achiever was still there, but it had moved to the bottom 🙂

      Have you tried the Enneagram test too? I was quite high on the Achiever type 3 ( but I’m in fact higher on the Enthusiast type 7. In any case as you say it’s important to recognise that we have worth independently of what we do. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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