unsustainable precedents

When we don’t realistically manage expectations, we end up disappointing others—or even worse ourselves.

unsustainable precedents

prec•e•dent (pres’ə dənt) n. earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.

Today I want to talk about setting precedents. Cumbersome, inconveniencing, unsustainable precedents. The ones we bring upon ourselves by always trying to be better, quicker, and more accommodating to those around us. The ones that we set unintentionally, by not thinking about our best yes. The things people come to expect of us that are unrealistic, impossible to maintain, and quite frankly—just plain unfair.

We inadvertently set these unsustainable precedents in all areas of our lives: marriage, relationships, client interactions, finances, self-improvement, meal planning...unsustainable precedents are creeping around us everywhere. And we have to get a hold of them, because when we don’t realistically manage expectations, we end up disappointing others—or even worse ourselves.

Since 2010, I’ve been working as a government contractor with the same colleagues for the same client. And for the majority of those almost 8 years, I’ve been working as a remote employee. When I first made this request, teleworking was a relatively green concept. It took some convincing and a lot of paperwork, but I have always been grateful that my company had the confidence and trust in me to allow the transition from an onsite employee to working from home from another state. But when you work where you live, people start to think that you are always available. Just because I’m home doesn’t mean I have to be working.

This whole concept of expectation management first hit me a few years ago when I realized that I had set some seriously unsustainable precedents at work.

I received an email at 7:28 AM.

I was busy and hadn’t had a chance to respond by 8:12 AM, when I received a phone call regarding the email sent 44 minutes prior.

Still working on another task, I let the call go to voicemail.

I replied to the email at 8:18 AM stating that I was tied up at the moment but would take care of the request just as soon as I could.

I got a response at 8:22 AM that read, “I wasn’t sure if I still had good contact info when I didn’t hear from you (since you’ve always been punctual).”

WTF. Seriously—What. The. F?!?

It had been 1 hour and 6 minutes since the original email had been sent and all of the sudden, I’m not punctual.

Working from home is a privilege and one that I am confident that I have earned, but it is all about maintaining a delicate balance.

  • A balance between being available and not being “on call” just because I’m home.
  • A balance between staying relevant without face-to-face interaction and not becoming “out of sight out of mind.”
  • A balance between maintaining my reputation for being a hard worker and not being taken for granted. 

Rebalancing your expectation management isn’t easy and it isn’t always simple. Sometimes changing a precedent that you have already set takes time. After this incident, I started resisting the urge to answer the phone if wasn’t during my work hours and I started turning off my work emails after 5 PM. And you know what—things didn’t change overnight, but here we are almost 3 years later and they are much improved. My boundaries between work and home are more clear, to both myself and my colleagues.

But sometimes you can just quit, cold-turkey, doing the things that aren’t sustainable for you, your family, your work-life balance, or your time. Like if you don’t have time to keep printing your weekly meals on a cute little menu you designed to coordinate with your kitchen—STOP doing it. Just stop. The meals will taste the same coming from a scratch piece of paper.

If you don’t want to pack your husband’s lunch every day, don’t ever start.

If you don’t have time to fold the 300 white shirts he somehow wears in a 7-day period, separate your clothes into their respective piles and have him fold his own laundry.

If you know that you are not going to go to the gym EVERY DAY this week, don’t write it in your planner on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, AND Friday and then end up disappointed in yourself.

And I think most importantly, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to let go of previously set precedents. You need to be realistic about what you can do—and want to do—in a given day (week, month, year); and start setting your goals based on more realistic expectations. It doesn’t make you any less of a friend/sister/daughter if you decide that keeping up with every single birthday and anniversary is no longer sustainable for your life (consider this my apology tour, friends and family 🙈). I promise they will still love you.

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