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Ever feel like you’re on one of those runaway trains in the movies? The bad guy has disabled the brakes and the train just seems to hurtle faster and faster towards impending doom?

Whether you’re a business owner or minimum-wage employee, it can be easy to feel like you’re in a similar situation at work.

You work hard and do your best, but things don’t seem to be getting better. In fact, they seem to be getting worse. You’re overworked, underpaid…and no one seems to notice.

Well, you aren’t alone. More than half of the working population feels underappreciated. Around 40% feel underpaid. A third are “overworked”.

It’s even worse if you’re a business owner.

The good news is, your coworkers or your employees aren’t the ones sending you hurtling towards a nervous breakdown. You are.

While it might feel like your life is out of control and there’s nothing you can do about it, most people have way more control than they think they do. The key is learning how to properly manage expectations.

Headed for Disaster?

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen firsthand how mismanaged expectations can get you into trouble.

Soon after I graduated from college, I was hired by Adobe to work on their web analytics consulting team. I was highly motivated, but to be honest, I wasn’t the smartest or most skilled member of our group.

As a result, a task that might take my more senior teammates 15 minutes could take me hours, which meant I was working harder and making less money than almost all of my peers.

My client list kept growing and so did all of the expectations I had to juggle. Pretty soon, I was on a runaway train…and there was no obvious way off.


Eventually, I realized that I was focusing on the wrong things. I was so busy being “busy” that I wasn’t taking the time to figure out what the actual problem was.

In essence, I was so focused on trying to keep the train on the tracks that I didn’t realize I had repair tools for the brake sitting right in front of me!

So, instead of trying to figure out how to do more in less time, I asked myself a very important question: What are my clients’ actual expectations of me?

I grabbed a copy of the client agreement our sales team was using and started reading through the terms and conditions. To my surprise, everyone on the consulting team was doing a ton more work for our clients than the sales team was pitching during the sales process.

Why? Well, our clients needed specific projects completed and the sales team was telling them that those projects would take a certain number of billable hours. However, those billable hours were usually in excess of the actual number of hours it took to complete the project.

Since our team was all about creating value for our clients, we usually told the clients that we would be able to get their project done early and use the extra billable hours to complete additional projects for them.

On the surface, that seemed like a great idea…but it was backfiring.

You see, because we were telling the clients upfront about the extra things we were going to do for them, those extra things became an expectation. Now, if we didn’t manage to do the extra work, we weren’t meeting the client’s expectations anymore.

Do you see the problem here? By inflating our clients’ expectations, we were creating extra work for ourselves!

Taking Control

Once I made this discovery, it occurred to me that it might work better to approach things differently. I still wanted to provide extra value, but what if I didn’t tell the client about that extra value until after I had done the work?

Instead, I decided to focus first on finishing the project the client was paying us to do. Then, once the project was complete, I would use any extra billable hours to surprise the client by completing additional projects.

This changed things in two important ways.

First, my clients were no longer expecting me to do extra work. That meant my base workload was much lighter and I could actually meet everyone’s expectations.

Second, when I went above and beyond for a client, they actually felt like I was going above and beyond. Instead of increasing my client’s expectations, I was exceeding them.

Suddenly, my train was back on the tracks. And, to make things even better, my clients weren’t just satisfied with my results, they were thrilled!

Was I producing better results than the other consultants? Not really, but whose clients’ do you think called to rave about their consultant?

Getting Things Back on Track

So, if you’re tired of work feeling like a runaway train, ask yourself: What are the actual expectations for someone in my position?

If you’re an employee, take a look at your job description. I’d be willing to be that a lot of the work you’re currently doing isn’t in that job description.

If you’re a business owner, take a look at what you’re doing and compare it with what you truly need to do. There’s a good chance that many of the things you are doing could be capably handled by someone else, freeing you up to focus on the tasks that really matter.

In either case, just because you can do more doesn’t mean that you should let doing more become an expectation. If you don’t make it clear that you expect to earn additional compensation for doing more (entrepreneurs, this applies to clients and investors, too), it’s the work equivalent of hopping on a downhill train and yanking out the brakes.

To reset others’ expectations of you, you will need to have some frank conversations.

Write down everything that you are currently doing and estimate how much time each task takes. Take that list to your boss, coworkers or employees and talk about what your actual expectations should be.

This might not be the easiest conversation to have, but it’s the only way to get your runaway train back under control. Most of the time, if you’re overextending yourself to the point where you need to have this sort of conversation, you contribute enough to the company that people should be willing to work with you.

As a quick aside, when estimating how long a task will take, it’s usually a good idea to work in some buffer time. That way, if something doesn’t work out perfectly, you can still meet expectations.

And, when things do work out perfectly, you have extra time to exceed expectations!


Work might feel like a runaway train, but it really doesn’t have to. Remember, you’re the conductor on your own train. That means you have the power to control your speed and direction.

The trick is managing expectations.

Regardless of the reason, if you create unrealistic expectations at work, don’t be surprised if your train ends up going off the rails.