The merits of setting low expectations 2

Remember that time you finally took that short vacation you’ve been looking forward to for months, only to find it a little underwhelming, perhaps even stressful? Or trying to cook an exotic new dish, painstakingly following the recipe line by line, only to have it come out completely botched? Do you still feel the sting of bitterness after watching the latest hyped movie in theatres and finding it come a bit short of expectations? What about the other week when you asked a friend to buy you an extra concert ticket, and finding out that they forgot?

Getting disappointed sucks. Distinct though they may be, disappointment is the binding element that connects all the examples above in a common web of shittyness. The unpleasant burn of being let down by a friend, colleague, external event or other circumstance can be painful, upsetting, or even demoralizing. In fact, if it happens often enough, it’s a guaranteed one-way ticket to the slow train of becoming a bitter old misanthrope. And we already have plenty of those.

It’s fairly uncontroversial to say, then, that any attempt at reducing the amount of collective disappointment we face in our lives is a worthwhile pursuit. How to go about it? Simple. Set lower expectations.

Battling disappointment


“But aren’t high expectations the only way we progress, push ourselves and strive to be better human beings?!!??” Not exactly.

The problem is that most people conflate high expectations with high standards. They’re not the same, and believing they are will hurt you. It’s totally fine, ideal even, to hold high standards for yourself in certain areas of your life. Owning a high standard for the way you behave, present yourself and interact with people are all wonderful and beneficial things. These are all controllable and require an accumulated discipline and a conscious effort. I’d go as far to say as dominating them is the true hallmark of successful maturity.

Holding on to high expectations, on the other hand, is the preventable evil that we’re after. High expectations come in various forms, shapes and sizes, but it usually boils down to this: assigning an expected emotional response to an outcome—good or bad—to something, someone, or somewhere before actually living said outcome. Why is this problematic?

High expectations will result in one of two binary scenarios:

|Scenario 1| Said outcome (vacation being awesome, recipe tasting amazing, movie becoming a favourite, friend coming through) can deliver the emotional high that you were convinced you’d experience.

|Scenario 2| Said outcome can fall short—or sometimes be outright disastrous—due to one of the million unpredictable reasons that life likes to hurl our way.

Scenario 1’s are awesome. But, as anyone with more than two decades of experience living as a human being on our planet will readily tell you… you better get damn good at dealing with plenty of scenario 2’s. Scenario 2’s are precisely the kind of mental states we strive to reduce in our lives.

Now let’s have a look at what happens when you change the initial assumption. What happens when you set deliberately low expectations? You also get two binary scenarios, but this time they look a little something like this:


|Scenario A| Said outcome (vacation being awesome, recipe tasting amazing, movie becoming a favourite, friend coming through) can deliver surpass the emotional high that you were convinced you’d experience.

|Scenario B| Said outcome can fall short be predictably banal/pedestrian/ordinary/dull, due to one of the million unpredictable reasons that life likes to hurl our way.


Scenario A leaves you feeling even happier, since we know that unexpectedly surpassing expectations is inherently rewarding.
Scenario B leaves you feeling indifferent, perhaps a little weary, but certainly not disappointed.

Thus, it’s fair to say that scenario A (low expectations) is preferable to scenario 1. (high expectations).



…and that scenario B (low expectations) is preferable to scenario 2 (high expectations).



What’s the most reliable way, then, to experience more scenario A’s and Scenario B’s in your life? Change the initial assumption. Set lower expectations.


Putting Words into Action


Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 hour work week, has coined a similar idea and was one of the main inspirations for this blog post. An avid writer, experimenter, podcaster, investor, learner, you-name-it, the man is under tremendous pressure to produce regular writing for his massive amassed audience of blog followers. Being a type-A personality, he often feels unaccomplished when producing material anything less than exceptional on an average working day.

His solution for dealing with feelings of unproductivity was introducing the Minimal Effective Dose (MED) in his life. The MED is the smallest possible amount of work/effort you can put into something, without having it feel like a wasted session/day. Rather than setting unrealistic, exigent targets of 3000 words, Tim’s daily MED was one page a day. No more, no less. That means roughly 500 words, with absolutely no pressure to write more. Ask any writer: 500 words, even on an absolutely dreadful day, is more than manageable.

Tim’s artificially low MED of 500 words made anything higher than 500 a ‘win.’ And guess what? He was able to hit way more than 500 on the vast majority of his days. Unlike before, he started having the majority of his working days feeling like a ‘win,’ since surpassing his low MED every single day ensured never going to bed feeling frustrated.

Living in Spain has compelled me to become the Buddha of lower expectations. Any bureaucratic process here, ranging from obtaining your foreigner’s card to something as commonplace as contracting Wi-Fi at home is inconvenient at best and exhausting at worst. I’m talking showing up to a place without having stapled 2 documents together, and being refused service and told to come back because the place isn’t equipped with a stapler. Trivial sounding, sure, but it exemplifies the general nature of an unaccommodating/inflexible system that draws out the most ordinary requests into lengthy ordeals. I wish I was joking about the stapler part.

I’ve experienced the Spanish ‘run-around’ a multitude of times, and have found the best way to deal with it all is to go into every interaction assuming absolute incompetence, seeing anything other than complete failure to handle my request as a win. Setting low expectations has saved me countless aneurisms, grey hairs and eye twitches.


Final Thoughts


The benefits of lower expectations are manifold. You’ll find yourself surprised and happy when things actually go your way, rather than rattled when they don’t. You’ll be less invested in shitty outcomes. It’ll be easier to walk away from toxic situations and people, since their inability to leave lasting imprint on your emotional state—should they fail some sort of ‘expectation’ you set out for them—will diminish. It’ll be harder to phase you, and you’ll feel less stressed when shit inevitably hit the proverbial fan.

Exercising my sworn duties as the OneLobotomyPlease sommelier/curator, consider pairing the advice in this article with the the cosmic imperative to behave better. Combined together, you’ll be kick-ass, bullet-proof, free-from-disappointment human, impenetrable to the quotidian nastiness of unexpected outcomes.

Getting hit by small, intrusive pangs of frustration is the reality of modern 21st century life. So why not try to diminish their effect on us? Getting there is as simple as following 3 magic words:
Set. Lower. Expectations.


  • Dan

    I guess I am a biased reader, or have already inherited your traits, so I agree with this article as well. However, with the twist : I found that quite often the best way to stay out of frustration is to not set expectations at all. Maybe it is just another name for low expectations, I didn’t dig deeper into my ‘no expectations’ approach.

    • This is more of a semantic choice than a fundamental difference of opinion–I think we share the same idea here.