How to Set High Goals Without Burning Out, According to Science

A woman looks overwhelmed with stress.
(Image credit: PathDoc/

People who aim high in life may risk burning out, but a new study shows that those with ambitious goals who also avoid taking failure too seriously may not suffer as much emotionally.

Researchers analyzed 43 studies on perfectionism and burnout, and found that holding high expectations — whether for academic achievements, career goals or athletic pursuits — isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, people with perfectionistic tendencies tend to pair their high expectations with what are called "perfectionist concerns." This means they are extremely self-critical, and take it personally when they fail to reach their very challenging goals.

It is this aspect of perfectionism that leads to burnout, said study co-author Andrew Hill, a sports psychologist at York St. John University in England.

"You can fail as many times as you like, as long as you don't feel like that reflects on your self-worth," Hill said. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad for You]

Perfectionism and burnout

Hill and his co-author, Thomas Curran, a sport psychology lecturer at the University of Bath in England, combed through studies on perfectionism and burnout, and analyzed only those that used gold-standard measurements to evaluate the relationship.

"We noted that, while a lot of studies have examined the perfectionism/burnout relationship, no one has attempted to collate the research," Hill said. He and Curran wanted to know how perfectionism and burnout are related across fields — from school to jobs to sports.

Burnout has three symptoms, Hill said: physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment or cynicism around the work, and the feeling of not reaching one's goals.

"The initial research focused on whether burnout was different from depression," Hill said. "So that gives you a sense of how severe it can be."

Stopping the stress

Perfectionism is a common trait, Hill said — one study found that fewer than 10 percent of people say they're not perfectionists in any area of life. In other words, perfectionism isn't just the territory of the elite.

The researchers' new analysis of the studies revealed that the trick to making perfectionism work in a healthy way is to set goals high but also not beat yourself up if you don't meet them. Unfortunately, that can be very difficult. Most people who strive for perfection also exhibit the perfectionistic concerns that can lead directly to burnout, Hill said.

For that reason, perfectionism has been linked to mental and physical health problems, and even the risk of early death. Perfectionism also has been linked to postpartum depression, perhaps made worse because perfectionist moms tend to hide their struggles.

But people who work hard and also take failure in stride do exist, Hill said, citing athletes Michael Jordan and Roger Federer as examples. To find that balance, it might help to set goals that are flexible, he said.

Perfectionists "tend to be rigid," Hill said. If they set their goals too high, they may burn out or bow out at the first sign of failure. Thinking of achievements in degrees, rather than as pure success or failure, can help reduce the stress that causes burnout, Hill said.

The new analysis appeared July 31 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.