Fire Your Inner Taskmaster

Want to work for someone who pushes you relentlessly, criticizes your efforts and makes your entire life miserable? Of course not. So why are you doing it to yourself?

Sarah was raised by her parents to “be all that she could be.” That meant that as a college senior she was determined never to let her 4.0 grade-point average slip. There was no excuse for a B-plus. So she always studied more than required; her papers were encyclopedias of footnotes. Any socializing with friends was put on hold until she had perfected her assignments and tests.

Tom’s drive to excel has always manifested itself in the workplace, where his ability to chain himself to his desk long after everyone has left for the day has helped him rack up a series of impressive promotions. In his scarce free time, Tom hits the gym, pedaling and pumping at levels that most 45-year-old men would find impressive, but that he views as merely mediocre.

To the outside world, Sarah and Tom may appear to be “superstars,” those exemplary achievers who always reach for – and grasp – the brass ring. But what the outside world doesn’t see is that both Sarah and Tom are physically and emotionally exhausted from their ceaseless pounding on the achievement treadmill. Sarah is always anxious that if she delivers a merely satisfactory performance, she will be exposed as the fraud she secretly believes she is. Tom keeps himself so busy that those kinds of doubts rarely enter his mind, but he does find that much of his home life revolves around missed family dinners and on-the-fly conversations with his wife and two teenage kids.

Do Sarah’s and Tom’s plights sound familiar? Do you know someone else who, like them, endures an existence under the iron-fisted rule of an inner taskmaster who rarely commends him or her for a job well done? More likely, you can think of several such long-suffering individuals. Perhaps you are one of them.

In Search of Adequacy

According to Monica Ramirez Basco, PhD, a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and author of Never Good Enough (Free Press, 2000), roughly one-half of Americans believe they have to buy into the unforgiving Protestant work-work-work ethic of our forebears. While most people can easily identify taskmastering behavior at the workplace, in truth, it’s rarely confined to the office.

If you’re the kind of person who can’t stop remodeling your home or upgrading your computer, or who feels compelled to say “yes” to every P.T.A. volunteer opportunity, there’s a good chance you have an internal taskmaster running at least some part of your show. It’s this slave driver who may be responsible for the bags under your eyes, the tightness in your smile, the edge in your voice and the heavy spot where your heart used to be.

But before you rush off to solve this – just another problem – be aware that your inner taskmaster can even elbow his or her way into seemingly benign places, such as those all-too-rare reflective zones where you actually commit to improving your well-being. Or when you buy six self-help books at a time and then push yourself to complete all the assignments in one week. Or when you decide to get in shape and jump right into aggressively training for a marathon. (For more signs that your inner taskmaster is on a rampage, see “Is Your Taskmaster Working Overtime?” below.)

So just for a moment, without doing anything for a change, let’s stop to consider what is really going on here. Why do so many of us feel compelled to achieve more and more in every area of our lives, even when no one else is looking?

Part of the answer is that striving for greatness is part of the American dream. To be ambitious and passionate about your goals is a healthy, laudable desire. But today the bar on those goals has been raised to nearly impossible levels.

“We’re sitting at the epicenter of ‘never enough,'” says Laura Nash, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). “Our natural American optimism, and our faith in the scientific assumption that the world can be continually improved, have pushed our benchmarks out to maximized measures. We get a light product, then an ultralight product. We pump up the celebrity of successful corporate icons like Donald Trump and Jack Welch and credit them with superhuman abilities that we somehow also believe to be the norm.”

Nash says that the end result of all this success idolatry is that we have lost our ability to derive any satisfaction from the process of pursuing our own goals. “We never arrive at an endpoint,” she says. “For many of us, setting any limits means we are settling for second best.”

This feeling of inadequacy can become even more exaggerated during a shaky economy, when job performance is evaluated on a constant basis. “The workplace is extremely competitive,” says Basco. “In an atmosphere of downsizing and promotions based on performance, people naturally feel they have to work harder.”

Learned Behavior

There are also personal reasons some people are more susceptible to believing the nasty voice whispering that “enough” is never, ever satisfactory. While Basco believes that there are people who are naturally hardwired to achieve, she asserts that the majority of individuals who are ruled by an inner taskmaster are probably manifesting psychological issues from childhood.

“Kids learn by observation,” says Basco. “If your parents were driven by their inner taskmasters, chances are that you will be as well. If you fear failure and worry about being criticized or rejected, it’s likely you were criticized a lot as a youngster.”

But high childhood expectations aren’t the only prerequisites. Some people grow into taskmastering by living with someone who is ruled by their own inner taskmaster and is incredibly picky about everything their significant other does, according to Basco. “You start going that extra mile just to avoid their wrath.”

Going in Cycles

While it might seem that pushing yourself to be smarter, faster, richer, thinner and more popular is the surefire way to achieve your desires, the reality is that the drive-drive-drive approach can actually work against you, particularly if you don’t balance it with quality downtime, self-care and opportunities for reflection.

“Ceaselessly pushing yourself down the same road won’t get you what you want,” says Jack Groppel, PhD, author of The Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). “That’s because nature works in cycles, with every ‘up’ time followed by necessary periods of rest and renewal.

“Everything about a human being oscillates,” he adds. “When you look at an EKG readout, you’ll see that a normal heart rate moves in a wavelike pattern, up and down. People sleep in five sleep cycles. And all those cycles allow us to move forward and then refuel. When you are a linear hard-charger, you never have the opportunity to recapture the energy you need to keep going.”

To demonstrate his point, Groppel uses an example from the sports world. “About 25 to 30 years ago, athletes thought the only way to increase performance was to create more stress on their bodies,” he says. “Today, we know that the most important part of training is recovery. If you work your biceps on Wednesday, you don’t work them again until Friday because the muscle needs time to rebuild and grow.” In other words, when you don’t take the time to recover, you end up getting burned out, or injured, or both.

Setting New Standards

So how can you find the time and headspace to rejuvenate yourself? How can you hand this demanding inner boss his or her walking papers while still honoring your commitment to excellence and love of striving for more?

First, know that there is nothing wrong with wanting to stand out at work, or to achieve something special and extraordinary in any part of your life. The key is to make sure that no single area of your life sucks up all of your resources, and that you are not trying to give too many things your all – all at once.

As with most things, the answer here involves finding a proper, sustainable balance. Ready to give it a try? Start with the suggestions here:

Ask Yourself: Why am I pushing myself so hard? Maybe you have an immediate goal, such as a promotion or a marathon. Maybe you are facing some sort of seasonal imbalance that requires extra effort. Maybe you feel a big dream is suddenly within reach. Giving it all you’ve got in short bursts is a healthy, productive thing to do. But if you are constantly pushing yourself because you’re petrified that you will be exposed as inferior if you ease up, it’s time to step back and question whether you really need to go full force in each and every situation.

“It’s important to be able to pick and choose when to turn the drive on and when to turn it off,” says Basco. But stepping back like this can be hard for people who are driven by an inner taskmaster. If that’s the case for you, Nash suggests taking baby steps to help you relax and get in touch with your thoughts. “Decide that for five minutes you are going to stop what you are doing and listen to music instead. Use this time to lie back and take a break from your focus on achievement.” Realize that stopping to rest is a normal, and in fact essential, thing to do.

Find other ways to accomplish your goals. Consider which of your tasks you can delegate. If you can’t think of a single one, you aren’t trying hard enough. Or if your goal is to make a lot of money so that you can afford a house worthy of the cover of Architectural Digest, but you find that achieving that dream house is draining all your energy, contemplate changing your standards. “Maybe what you really want is comfort, not perfection,” says Basco.

If what you crave is acceptance from your colleagues, instead of working until 2 a.m. every night to craft the perfect presentation, try inviting an office mate for coffee instead. You can forge a more intimate connection without having to push yourself to the extreme, and it’s quite possible that a shift in perspective will help get your creative juices flowing.

Set limits on work hours. “If you’re constantly working until midnight and you’re being paid from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you’re in an unworkable situation,” says Basco. “Your boss needs to know this isn’t the job of one person.” Perhaps more important, you need to realize that this is not the job of one person. Ask yourself: Do you really prefer being seen as superhuman to enjoying a full and satisfying life? If not, it’s time you owned up to your boundary-setting responsibilities.

Claim your downtime. “If you’re exhausted and burned out, there is no way you can bring talent and skill to any area of your life,” says Groppel. Schedule regular breaks into your day, and make sure you stick to them. “You need to give your mind a rest. If you’re working on travel expenses and are tired of crunching numbers, get your mind to work in a new way: Do some journaling or a crossword puzzle,” Groppel suggests. Make a commitment to sleeping well every night. Take each and every vacation day your company offers. Don’t buy into what Nash says is a “silent cover-up” – the tendency in busy workplaces toward shaming people into not taking their vacations.

Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. Try being quiet and disengaged from what’s going on around you. If you are the kind of person who compulsively checks your email from home, try giving up that habit for an evening. Resist the urge to power up your cell phone the minute your airplane docks at the gate. Take the long way home for a change. Chances are you’ll find that being out of the loop for a while dooms neither your career nor your social life.

If the idea of not doing anything makes you uncomfortable, that’s the whole point: You need to relearn that skill. Likewise, if you are having a hard time staying focused on the task at hand, if thoughts of a messy house or a mile-high inbox make it impossible to enjoy playing with your children, ask yourself why you are so edgy. But don’t give in to the call of your inner taskmaster if it’s taking you away from a more meaningful priority.

Ask: Who do I want to be? “Only when you see the disconnect between who you want to be and what your behavior says you are can you come up with an effective action plan,” says Groppel. If you want to be a better friend or more devoted partner, ask yourself why you haven’t been able to make room for that. What changes can you effect to make your desire and your reality more consistent?

Face the Truth. “Don’t lie to yourself to shield yourself from pain,” says Groppel. “Don’t say ‘I’m fine’ if you really aren’t. Likewise, if you say that your family and your faith are the most important things in your life and you don’t give them much quality time, notice that. Denial will only give your inner taskmaster license to take greater control.

Understand that you are multidimensional. “Have a template for your life that honors a diversity of goals,” suggests Nash. She notes that her definition of the good life includes a solid distribution of the following: happiness (feelings of pleasure about your life); achievement (accomplishments); significance (a positive impact on the people you care about); and legacy (establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success). With a template in hand, you’ll be more likely to distribute your focus and energy in a way that represents your highest choices, and not just your taskmaster’s tendency to force your nose to the grindstone.

Most important, understand that you can’t put these strategies into practice simply by working harder. “This isn’t the kind of adjustment you can make purely with self discipline and willpower,” says Groppel. “That’s like overtraining an already worn-out muscle. Instead, you need to set up new rituals that will become habits over time.”

Those rituals might include turning off your computer at a particular time, sitting down for daily meditation or simply regularly asking the question: “Is this the very best use of my time and energy, and does it represent who I want to be – now, or five years from now?”

Remember, no matter what your inner taskmaster might like you to believe, you do have the right to enjoy a beautiful, balanced, rewarding life. With practice and patience, you’ll find that you can strive for success in ways that work for you, not against you. You’ll see that relaxing a little doesn’t mean your life is going to wilt and die. More likely, it will begin to bloom.

Over time, you’ll find that your inner taskmaster is getting quieter, and leaving you to your own devices more often. And you know what? You’re not going to miss him or her one tiny little bit.

Elizabeth Larsen is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

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