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How to Tell if You’re a Super-Achiever (and 5 Tips for Staying Sane)

It’s good — even great — to be productive. But beware of trying to be Superhuman. Here’s how to know when it’s going too far and some tips for staying on the healthy side of the line.

Karen Nimmo
Jun 18, 2019 · 5 min read

A stressed-out young woman charted her activities for one week.

The result was a snake pit of work, family and personal activity, all worthy but not all of it necessary. Just looking at it wound me up.

She’d been asked to take on more responsibility at work. “NO!” I wanted to scream. “Your life is already crazy. One glitch (like a sick child) will throw the switch.” But I kept my mouth shut. Just.

Interestingly, she knew she should say “no”. But she described herself as a “super-achiever” — and even that was barely enough for her. She rated herself by how much she got done — and how well she did it. She was reluctant to let a chance go by — for herself, and her kids. She said yes to everything. Even when stretched to the max she was wrestling with the feeling she could — should — pack more into her life.

But — physically and emotionally — she was at her limit. Should she pull back?

Are You a Super-Achiever?

The term “overachiever” is well known and used to mean just what it indicated: delivering more than expected. But in a revved up world, it has morphed into a kind of superhuman status: a belief that you can do it all (perfectly) and have it all, and keep at it even when your mind and body are screaming for a break.

The key indicators:

  • You’re obsessed with doing well (and secretly scared of being average).
  • You have an enviable work ethic and capacity — others are often in awe of your energy.
  • You’re highly self-critical (and struggle to give yourself praise even when it’s well deserved).
  • You have trouble letting go or tuning out from all you have to do.
  • You worry a lot. Low-level anxiety is a constant companion, you never feel entirely relaxed.
  • When doing “nothing much”, you struggle with a nagging feeling you could be using time better.
  • You’re happiest when pursuing a Big Goal (and lost or anxious when you’re not).
  • You’re constantly assessing whether you are making good use of time.
  • You’re only satisfied when you’ve had a Productive day.
  • You have very little spare time and neglect creating time for yourself (put yourself last)
  • You frequently feel overwhelmed, and always feel like so much to do.
  • You only like to do things you can shine at — if you can’t you quickly get frustrated and tend to move to something else.

Results

If you find yourself nodding at many of these points, hit pause. If you like things just as they are (and you like yourself for doing them) no-one has any right to disrupt it. But it’s also worth knowing this approach to life may rob you of peace — no matter how many calming pictures of dripping rain you watch while rushing between all those Must-Dos.

We live in a world that rates, and celebrates, achievement over contribution. People who Get Things Done over People who Do Good Things. It’s the same world that doesn’t give a sh*t about whether we’re driving ourselves into the ground, compromising our health or wrecking our relationships. It will spin on its axis regardless.

So question your focus on achievement. And think carefully before you pile something extra into the mix. Do you really need it? Will “saying no” define you as a person? Here are some ideas to help.

A Guide for Super-Achievers: 5 Tips for Staying Sane

1. Put a line through the dross.

Chart your activities for a week. Tick all of your Must Must-Dos. Cross out anything that is unnecessary or that doesn’t make you feel happy or excited and resolve to let go of all that you can. (Note: if nothing gives you those positive feelings, and hasn’t for a while, check you’re not depressed or burnt out).

2. Separate your beasts.

Super-achievement and high performance are different beasts so don’t confuse them. Super-achievement is an excessive focus on doing things and producing certain outcomes; high performance is a focus on the process of improving or doing things well and letting the outcomes take care of themselves. No prizes for figuring out which is the healthier approach.

3. Get your heart rate down.

Make sure you can “relax” alone and with others without getting anxious. If you’re entering superhuman territory you will find it hard to have a lazy day, or even a lazy hour or two: the guilt of doing nothing will chip away at you. So start by breaking off small chunks and leisure time and practise frittering it on yourself and your own interests (AND enjoying it).

4. Ask who you are outside work or what you get done?

Can you answer this question? And are you happy with your answer? If this is a challenging question, consider how your friends would describe you in one word. Note: This can be quite confronting so only use your close friends for this exercise; the rest will slay you anyway.

5. Check the quality of your relationships.

Our relationships are a reflection of the state of our lives, and often our inner turmoil. If your favourite people are frustrated with you, think you’re busy or grumpy all the time, complain they never get to hang out and relax with you, it’s a warning sign. You don’t have to be a slave to their needs (it’s better if you’re not) but you might want to think about changing your focus.

The world is geared up now to hail productivity and achievement as superpowers, everything else means you are falling short, not living up to your capacity or whatever dream you have for yourself.

But the feelings you get when drive yourself too hard will turn you inside out. So pay attention to the warning signs in your mind and body. Remember, there’s no gain in being a superhuman — unless you can fly.

You might like my new book Busy as F*ck , a DIY approach to therapy in a stressed-out world? Available as an ebook or in paperback at Australian and New Zealand bookstores. Other territories coming soon.

Join my email list here for and receive a free gift: Seeing Someone: a brief guide to psychology, therapy and coaching. Enjoy!

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Karen Nimmo

Written by

Clinical psychologist, writer. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for everyday life. karen@onthecouch.co.nz

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Karen Nimmo

Written by

Clinical psychologist, writer. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for everyday life. karen@onthecouch.co.nz

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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