Do you ever find yourself setting goals for yourself, only to worry about your next achievement once the goal has been reached? We live in a goal-oriented society. Inherently, not wrong. Hopes, dreams, aspirations—this is what makes life fun and joyful. We also live in a world that seems to prioritize goals for the sake of external achievement. Goals are seen as an endpoint to be achieved rather than a continual experience to be, well, experienced. This external search for validation through goal achievement often leads to burn-out and a lack of satisfaction once the goal is achieved. After all, there can always be another goal.

Students and early career professionals are often under so much pressure in our achievement-focused, goal-oriented society. This pressure can lead to unhealthy perfectionism— the idea that your work or the goals you achieve are never ‘good enough.’ Yet, what is the purpose of life if we don’t experience joy while working towards our goals?

The Perfectionism Challenge

I faced the challenge of balancing joy and goal-setting early in my college experience. My first semester of college, I was so nervous for my literary history midterm, I studied for 13 hours straight.

Yes, you read that right. I studied for 13. Hours. Straight.

The literary history professor was notoriously difficult. I was told your only chance of success was hoping everyone in the class failed so that the professor would give you a grade curve.

So I freaked out. I crammed my brain, with all the knowledge, the night before. There was a lot of coffee and sugar involved.

Two weeks later, after class, my literary history professor was handing out our graded midterms. Instead of giving me mine, she asked to see me after class.

Oh *insert favorite expletive here*, I thought, I failed my first college midterm!

After class, I waited for the room to clear and stood in front of my professor, doing my best to remain calm. She handed me my midterm, with a large 100% circled on the top of the page. Standing there somewhat bewildered, my professor looked me straight in the eyes.

“Do not tell anyone your grade,” she told me, “because now I can’t give anyone a curve. I don’t know how you did this.” Then, she packed up and walked away.

Redefining Success

You’d think I would have been thrilled. All my efforts, all my hard work had paid off. I had done perfectly. But I wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t feel very joyful at all. I felt exhausted as if I had somehow done well at the expense of all of my classmates even if I didn’t do it intentionally. I did not ‘gain joy’ from being the one to kill the curve.

As I was walking back to my dorm room, my friend passed by and stopped me. “Girl, you look terrible,” she said. Well, at least my looks matched my feelings, I thought. Something is finally in alignment.

I got back to my dorm room, flopped onto my bed, and stared at the ceiling (we all know what those ceiling-staring sessions are like, now don’t we?). I had reached that point of exhaustion where I was beyond sleep.

Why am I so miserable right now?

I sat with that question for a long time and I knew that my complete lack of sleep and unhealthy eating habits may, by chance, have contributed to my less-than-stellar feelings. But I knew there was something more to those feelings. It felt, dare I use the cliche, like an existential crisis.

I achieved a goal, but that goal did not bring me any joy. So what brings me joy?

After a great deal of contemplation, I realized that I didn’t feel joy because I was more concerned about external validation than actually learning anything. I was more concerned about the approval a good grade would get me (from my parents and peers). Literature was one of my favorite subjects, and as a child, reading had always brought me joy. But as a child, I didn’t read to get good grades or achieve a goal, I read because the activity, the experience of the process, brought me joy. 

Changing Habits and Finding Balance 

After this realization, I decided to change my habits. So for the rest of that literary history class, I committed myself to joyful learning. Instead of studying for hours (which really was not very productive), I would treat schoolwork as, well, work. I would also treat school work as a learning process to be (mostly) enjoyed, rather than an end-goal of external achievement via my grades.

Yes, I still put in a butt-load of work. But I took the following steps to ensure I didn’t work myself to a point of exhaustion:

  • I set limits on how much time I could spend studying or writing certain assignments. I stuck to my schedule and deadlines. I also added “flex time” into my schedule in case things took longer than I anticipated.
  • I told myself it was never the end of the world if I got a B or even a C. I still worked to be and do my best, but that did not mean I had to work myself to the point of exhaustion. The goal was excellence, not perfectionism. And I got to define what excellence meant to me.
  • I made sure to get 7 hours of sleep a night, and stopped working when it was time to get those 7 hours. What I had accomplished during the day was enough.
  • I cut down on coffee and sugar and did not use it as an external tool to push my body beyond its limits.

The above all took willpower and commitment, but it was worth it.

When the final for my literary history class came around, I did not study for 13 hours. I studied for 6 hours on and off. And guess what? I passed the class. All was well. I eventually graduated from college and would go on to graduate school. All while I actually treated my physical body and my mental health with the respect and sleep it well deserved.

So, strategy girls, always remember to do your best and enjoy the process of achieving your goals. Create action-plans to take care of your mind and health, and know you are always enough. Remember why you are working to achieve your goals, and approach it with almost child-like joy. Always take care of yourself by getting enough sleep and eating well, so you can be the most excellent version of you!