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The Law of Achievement

For the most determined people, reaching one goal isn’t always enough.

Go-getters tend to set significant goals, value hard work, have a lot of motivation, and ultimately, they succeed, says Ariane Machin, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and member of the United States Olympic Committee’s sport psychology registry based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

To outsiders, it may seem like they excel consistently and without fail. But for those doing the work, accomplishing a feat of any kind—whether it’s a personal best, a long-awaited promotion, or a wedding years in the works—isn’t always an exclusively feel-good moment. Call it the law of achievement, the tendency for emotional highs to be followed by emotional lows. If you've experienced things like post-race blues, postpartum depression, or even post-coital dysphoria, you know the feeling.

In short, meeting a single goal (however big) isn’t necessarily satisfying enough because there are always more to work toward, Machin says. Here’s how psychologists counsel people through the ups and downs that often accompany success. 

Pre-achievement: Check your normal. 
To avoid getting too much in your own head, seek feedback about your self-imposed expectations from those around you, suggests Machin. “This can prevent your natural inclination to set higher and higher goals that may or may not be realistic,” she says. You might turn to a coach, colleague, friend, or even an exercise psychologist for their unbiased opinion.

Pre-achievement: Focus on effort. 
“When you place too much pressure on yourself, it can make achievement feel like a prison, where your expectations supersede the fun that would naturally come with success,” says Machin. Planning your wedding day, training for a marathon, or organizing a big vacation can quickly morph from a choice to an obligation in which you have to prove yourself.

Though visualizing future success is one strategy for reaching a goal, consider flipping conventional wisdom on its head and focus on effort instead of how an event will go or how a first-place finish would feel. Putting in an hour of event planning after work or pushing yourself during a sprint workout are aspects of life that you can control, Machin notes. Plus, solid effort will help you inch toward the preferred result and can relieve the pressure that might be associated with the outcome.
Post-achievement: Ride the high. 
You’ve done the hard work—now it’s time to ditch your high-speed-chase mentality for one that resembles something more like cruise control. Schedule a massage, plan a reunion with friends, and spend your Sunday mornings relaxing (instead of lacing up your shoes for a long run). In other words, enjoy all the obligation-free activities you didn’t have the hours or the energy for while you were focusing on your goal—and remember, they’re optional. 

Picking up your social life and making time for regeneration can help extend your high for a few weeks after you cross the finish line or say “I do,” says Angie Fifer, Ph.D., a Pittsburgh-based member of the executive board for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. 

Post-achievement: Challenge yourself in a different area of life. 
“When we’re in pursuit of a goal, we’re focused, driven, and we’re usually following a plan,” says Fifer. That plan provides structure. Once you achieve it, you lose that structure. (You don't have planned runs anymore so you might be at a loss when it comes to scheduling workouts, or the wedding passes and you have seemingly endless time on your hands.)

Once you have the energy and motivation to push yourself again, figure out what’s next by setting a new challenge of a different kind—a career-focused one if you just reached an athletic one, for example. High-performers tend to hone in on one area of life, so spreading the wealth can help you maintain a healthy balance and in the end, accomplish more, Fifer says.