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How to Escape the High-Performer Trap

We  can be held back from making our best contributions because we don’t choose the best of the best. We fall into the high-performer trap….

Summer is almost over. We know it because when we go to buy pens at the office supply store we see mounds of school supplies in all colours and varieties. As we see parents and children frantically scooting through the aisles with their lists of school supplies to purchase, and the leaves starting to turn from green to golden, we know that transition is coming.

Change is in the air.

And this change can come with excitement….or dread. We’re leaving behind the relaxed (dare I say “lazy” – if high-performers can ever be accused of such a thing!!) days of summer and, if we’re honest, we can already feel our stomachs tighten as we anticipate the ramping up that comes with fall.

Everyone has a fresh agenda. New projects are on the horizon. Goals are refurbished.  New plans are set in motion.

But here’s the reality: We can be held back from making our best contributions because we don’t choose the best of the best.

We fall into the high-performer trap….

  • Where we fear missing out on opportunities
  • Where we let our past successes drive us to say yes (out of obligation or flattery!)
  • Where we simply take on too many projects that call to us because they are slightly interesting, or engage our talents to a small degree

How Do You Know You’re Being Held Back by Succumbing to “Off-Center” Opportunities?

I see seven common experiences that are symptoms of being “off-center.” In other words, where you’ve taken opportunities that may even be considered good because they are somewhat interesting and use some of your talents. But, they lack that full luster commitment that “on-center” opportunities share.

  1. You feel stressed, frustrated and irritable, and it doesn’t go away with a good vacation
  2. You have a list of things you truly want to get to, but never do
  3. You live for aspirations and future achievements…that never happen
  4. You feel worse about your commitments now than you did six months ago
  5. You don’t feel “grounded” or “authentic”
  6. You feel frustrated because you know you have more to offer
  7. You don’t see yourself moving forward in a direction that ignites your enthusiasm, interest, and passion

Essentialism: Choosing the Vital Few Over the Trivial Many

So…how do we navigate the gap between what we would commit to if we were aligned with our talents, interests and passions, and what we actually commit to?

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown defines essentialism as

“not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

He calls our essential, most important commitments the vital few, and the rest – the trivial many. And he highlights the value of the trade-offs that must occur because the process forces us to weigh all options and make strategic choices about the best one for us to achieve the outcome we want.

Taking Steps to Choose the Vital Few Over the Trivial Many: The How

We can be held back from making our best contributions because we don’t choose the best of the best. We fall into the high-performer trap….

Here is a tool that can help you to sort through the vital few and the trivial many so that you can move forward to make your best contributions. It will help you to avoid the high-performers trap by identifying two key things:

  1. WHAT is absolutely so important that it should top your list of goals and be the major focus of your resources – time, energy, money
  2. HOW do I get those essential things to the top of my list?

The 4-part tool takes you through a series of questions that will give you clarity in these two areas. It can take as little as 5-7 minutes to do, or longer if you choose to reflect more deeply. It’s worth the effort!

Instructions: Carve out 5-7 minutes in your day. Take a sheet of paper or start a new computer file and jot down the answers to the questions in the tool. It will take you through a series of questions that will give you insight about how to move forward in the areas that matter most to you.

Part 1: About me….

The 5 things I am best at are:

The 5 things I most love doing or am most passionate about are:

The things that I am best at AND love doing are (all the things on both lists**) are:

[**Note. These are the areas where your talents and passions intersect = your sweet spot]

Part 2: Imagine

Imagine that it is one year from now, and you could be doing anything you wanted. You are in the place (the environment) you most want to be in. You are connected to the people you most want to be with. You can picture yourself doing what you most love. You are experiencing what you most want to experience.

  • What does a day in that life look like?
  • What are you doing?
  • Who are you with?
  • Where are you?
  • What do you notice about yourself?
  • What most stands out to you about that imagined experience?
  • How does it make you feel to imagine that ideal day, one year from now?

Part 3: Looking at today….

Now bring your focus back to today. I’d like to invite you to think about what your day looks like today.

  • What things are on your calendar? Who are you meeting with today? What goals have you set for today?
  • Does this day reflect your sweet spot? Are most of the things you have committed to today (meetings; projects; goals) in line with your talents, passions and interests. Are they what you’re best at? Are they what you love? Do they hold your interest?
  • What do you notice about the difference between your imagined ideal day and your day today?
  • What could you bring back from that imagined ideal day, one year from now, into today?
  • What would you do differently today?

Part 4: Drilling down to next steps….

  1. Take a step of courage and review the commitments you have over the next day, week, and month. Ask yourself:
  • How do these commitments align with what I’m best at AND what I most want to do? Don’t go easy on yourself. Make hard calls about those things that really don’t align.
  • What obstacles are getting in my way of doing what I’m best at AND what I most want to do?
  • What commitments do I need to eliminate in order to open up other opportunities that are more in line with what I’m best at AND most want to do? What commitments are really hindering me from moving forward to do what I’m best at AND want to do?
  1. Ditch the maybe’s
  • Decisions come with two options: yes and no. Greg McKeown asserts that “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” The maybe’s are where we get into trouble, because we tend to interpret and act on them as if they are strong Yes’s. I love this quote from Essentialism:

“The Latin root of the word decision – cis or cid – literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”

3.Create narrow criteria to inform your decision

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown describes a “non-essentialist” as one who makes decisions on opportunities based on broad criteria, such as “If so-and-so is doing it, I should do it too.” He highlights a more ideal approach of using narrow, explicit criteria, set out in a question like, “Is this exactly what I am looking for?” He speaks of an even more detailed strategy in his book, comprising three questions. Here they are:

  • What is the opportunity before you?
  • What are the three minimum criteria for this option to be considered? If the opportunity meets all three criteria, carry on to the next question. If not, I think you know your answer!
  • What are the three extreme, ideal criteria for this option to be considered? If the opportunity meets two out of three criteria, feel free to move ahead with it, knowing that it is in line with your talents and wants.

4.Say No thoughtfully. See our recent blog post on how to say no with gravitas.

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I’d love to hear how this tool has been useful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know!

How to Escape the High-Performer Trap

Dawn Kingston

Dr. Dawn Kingston is an associate professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and holder of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women Cross-Provincial Chair in Perinatal Mental Health. Her work centers on helping pregnant women take care of their mental and emotional well-being. Dr. Kingston has been doing research on prenatal mental health for the past 10 years. She became interested in women’s mental health during pregnancy as a nurse caring for sick infants in a neonatal intensive care unit. At the time, the medical field was focused on physical pregnancy problems, but new research was linking prenatal stress, anxiety and depression to preterm birth and other health problems in children whose mothers suffered with prenatal anxiety or depression. Since then, studies have shown that mental health problems are among the most common health problems in pregnancy. Her goal is to set up systems to provide support for emotional and mental health during pregnancy, especially in areas where it is unavailable, to improve pregnancy outcomes and prevent postnatal depression.

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APA Reference
Kingston, D. (2016). How to Escape the High-Performer Trap. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/womens-mental-health/2016/08/how-to-escape-the-high-performer-trap/


Last updated: 18 Aug 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Aug 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.