If we could figure out what' s going on internally when typical workday stress occurs, most of us would see that there' s a conflict between what we perceive, expect, or want and the actual circumstances.

For example, you might create stress for yourself when you set an unrealistically short deadline or when your standards for someone else's behavior don't match his actual behavior. Or you might create frustration for yourself when you avoid something you know you need to do, such as have a stern conversation with someone about unacceptable performance or voice a dissenting opinion. By failing to act when we know such action is required, we create anxiety and stress.

If you don' t resolve such conflict between your expectations and reality, you' ll expend time and energy anguishing about it. If you do take action when you're highly frustrated or stressed, it won' t be as thoughtful or productive. The blow to your morale, the poor quality of work, the wasted time and energy, and the unresolved issue are more than enough to encourage you to put the brakes on this pattern and looking at your perspective versus reality.

First aid for unrealistic expectations

When your expectations are clashing with what is real, you should pause and assess what you can control and what you' ll have to accept. Here are a few tips for observing and processing external information and managing internal conflicts that might occur:

  • First, take a pause. As soon as you feel the undertow caused by expectations colliding with reality, take a few minutes to do something that helps you remain calm and move into a mindful assessment mode. Such activities may include meditating, going for a walk, listening to music, taking a few deep breaths, or closing your office door and doodling.
  • Assess what' s going on. Reduce your internal conflict down to its actual reason. How are your perceptions different from the external cues that you are receiving? What factors or ideas are conflicting? What caused the conflict (inaction, a tone of voice that someone used, or a cultural norm in the company)? Why are you reacting to the external information in this way? Why do you expect more (or something different) than reality is delivering? For example, do you have a deadline that others aren't going to make? Do not leave this stage until you are confident that you have pinpointed the reason for the conflict.
  • Determine what' s your responsibility and under your control. From your assessment, identify the elements that are your responsibility or in your sphere of influence (you may be able to influence something you aren't directly responsible for). Are you really responsible for someone else' s reaction, for example? Is the IT department' s rollout schedule under your control? Have you shirked a responsibility that was required to meet your expectation? Is someone else's performance causing problems?
  • Concentrate your energy on things you can change. For many people, adopting a "live and let live" mentality is difficult, particularly in areas of behavior that challenge core beliefs and values. If you place a high value on personal responsibility, for example, you'll likely get frustrated when someone's behavior seems irresponsible or inconsiderate. Even in these tough scenarios, it's often best to ration your energy and response to situations where it can truly help. Marianne Williamson, in her book A Return to Love, asks the important question, Would you rather be happy or right? The need to be right and have everyone conform to your belief system expends a lot of energy and creates a lot of stress.
  • Plan and take appropriate action. One potential remedy for aligning expectations with reality is to plan and take action based on thoughtful assessment. Assign yourself activities that will help alleviate your internal conflict by aligning your expectations with what is realistically achievable. The first action must be a mechanism for ridding your mind of the perception that you can control what you can' t. Snap yourself into reality. Concentrate on what you can realistically change instead of dwelling on what is not your responsibility or under your control.

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization or situation. Please use it mindfully. The most effective communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get individualized assistance from a communication expert.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Coauthor Sarah Fenson is Ivy Sea's Guide to Client Services.