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Why We Achieve

4 tips to consider so you can master your need to achieve.

Colton Sturgeon/Unsplash
Source: Colton Sturgeon/Unsplash

It’s finally the weekend. This is your opportunity to rest and recharge your batteries from a hectic work week.

There is one problem, though: Unwinding is a chore in itself. You feel restless every time you sit down to take a break. But there's an irresistible urge to turn on the laptop and get a head start on Monday.

What is going on? How can you look forward to the weekend only to struggle to detach from work?

Unsatisfied Needs

To better understand this paradox, we need to explore a fundamental concept in psychology: Unsatisfied needs influence your thoughts and actions.

This is apparent with physical needs. Imagine you are hungry, thirsty, or need to use the bathroom but are stuck in traffic. Every second feels like an eternity as you ruminate on satisfying these needs.

The same holds true for emotional needs. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, needs are organized in a hierarchy with complex emotional needs emerging after basic physiological needs have been satisfied. These include the need to feel safe, to belong, earn respect, and reach our fullest potential.

Psychologist David McClelland contended that additional needs underpin human motivation including the need to achieve, which represents a drive to feel competent as you compete against a task, yourself, and others.

Take a moment to consider how your need to achieve developed from a young age. When you were in school, you worked hard to earn good grades, make the soccer team, or perform in the school play. Parental figures and teachers praised you for performing well. Receiving accolades and awards for a job well done only reinforced your need to achieve.


Your need to achieve is a chameleon that manifests differently based on your values. If you care about accumulating power, you will work tirelessly to climb the corporate ladder. If you care about wealth, then your goal will be to make a boatload of money and buy fancy stuff. If you are academically inclined, your focus is to boost your CV (resume) with publications and speaking engagements to stand apart from peers.

Sometimes the need to achieve is more subtle. If you are a homebody, you may care most about having the best-kept lawn in the neighborhood. As a parent, you may be invested in the success of your children by giving them opportunities to stand apart from their peers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with setting and achieving goals as long as you are mindful of your motives and not completely consumed by your pursuits. The problem occurs when your need to achieve becomes excessive and engulfs other parts of your life.


Any time a need becomes excessive, you will develop a problem. This is apparent with physical needs: If you need to consume a hot fudge sundae every night, it is only a matter of time before your health suffers. If you need 18 hours of sleep to have sufficient energy, then you are sleeping your life away.

The same holds true for emotional needs. If you are desperate to be in a relationship and ignore red flags, then you will settle for the wrong partner. If your need for safety is such that you are too afraid to leave your house or drive, again you have a problem.

As society becomes increasingly more competitive and achievement-focused, it is easy to be swept by the chase to achieve more. Don’t sacrifice your health and relationships at the altar of achievement. Work on having a healthy relationship with achievement.

Here are 4 steps to master your need to achieve:

1. Redefine Success. Society typically defines success based on external metrics that are easily viewed by many, such as fame and fortune. It idealizes those who excel in these areas. Go against the grain by focusing on internal, more intimate, metrics, such as spending quality time with loved ones, being a good person, and doing a kind deed for the day. These metrics may go unnoticed by most but have a positive impact in your life and the lives of those who matter most to you.

2. Avoid Social Comparisons. Social comparisons are a surefire way to feel the urge to do more. They are also a path to suffering. Comparing your real, messy life to someone’s idealized projection of their life does not serve you. Focus instead on your personal journey. Concentrate on where you have been, where you are, and where you are heading. After all, we are pursuing different goals to fulfill different emotional needs.

3. Ask Yourself Why. Before you reflexively embark on a journey toward a goal, press pause and reflect on your motives. Ask yourself why you are considering the pursuit of a particular goal. Make sure you have realistic expectations of its potential impact on you.

We often idealize success and overestimate its impact on happiness. The reality is that achievement comes with its fair share of challenges, such as increased responsibility, stress, and scrutiny. Having a complete picture will protect you from the trap of having unrealistic expectations.

4. Rest Is Part of the Process. Taking a break can be hard when you have so many tasks to achieve but so little time. The natural reflex is to push yourself beyond your limits by skipping exercise, having an extra cup of coffee to stay awake, and substituting fast food for nutritious meals.

It is only a matter of time before such trade-offs come back to bite you. Not taking care of yourself will make you less efficient and effective in the long run. Set healthy boundaries with yourself. You are human and need to honor your limits.

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