10 warning signs you’re underachieving in life

As someone who prides herself on being ambitious—and dare I say even something of a hustler—one of my worst fears is not living up to my potential. 

In my opinion, there is no high like the one where you accomplish something you thought was too challenging or even impossible, and see it come to fruition. 

But many of us have a sneaking suspicion that we are underachieving in our lives—believe me, I’ve been through this phase and it is not fun. 

So how do you know you’re not making the mark you could be?

Here are ten telltale signs that you’re underachieving in life—and how to turn things around.

1) You’re coasting along

If you’re not able to maintain your usual effort and drive, or feeling like you’re checked out mentally could mean you’re emotionally coasting. 

Coasting can be a good thing as it can be a coping mechanism and can help reduce heightened emotions and overwhelm, as well as stress and anxiety, according to therapist and coach Bobbi Banks.

“Coasting, however, can become unhealthy when it becomes a person’s way of life and their go-to coping mechanism,” she says. 

If you’re consistently avoiding taking action or living off the momentum of past efforts, then this might be a problem—particularly if you’re being pushed or pulled along by other people. 

Check in with yourself: have you been sailing through life and just going with the flow? Have you forgotten about moving towards your goals and your dreams? 

Lifestyle writer Nwando Ebeledike says there are a few things you can do if you’ve become complacent: for one thing, remember your “why”. 

“This should always be your greatest motivation when you feel stuck,” she says. “I write because I want to use the gift of words to help people in similar situations, to inspire people to be more and to remind people that they have everything they need to succeed in life within them.”

2) You have an excuse for everything 

Excuses can be your enemy. 

“I’ll go back to school when I don’t have so much on my plate.”

“I don’t have all the qualifications for my dream job, so why bother applying?”

“I’ll go on my dream vacation when I’ve lost 20 pounds.”

And the excuses go on…and on. 

Entrepreneur Jim Rohn on excuses: “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.”

Inspirational writer Neel Raman says to avoid falling back on excuses, we need to invest in ourselves and in our personal growth. He also says not to compare yourself to other people.  

“[It’s also important to] take personal responsibility for your actions,” he says. This avoids scapegoating—which is also an excuse. 

3) You’re distracted by drama

You might think you’re the kind of person who thrives in chaos, but if there’s always some kind of drama that you have to tend to at every turn, it could very well be getting in the way of your goals. 

This could come in the form of lending an evolving ear to your sister’s latest boyfriend dilemma, or picking a fight with your partner and then numbing your mind with Netflix to soothe your sullen mood. 

If this kind of thing is the norm, they could be passive aggressive ways to avoid paying attention to your own passions. 

Lose the drama, limit the screen time, and start doing what you believe is your destiny. 

4) Time keeps getting away from you

warning signs a man has low self esteem 10 warning signs you’re underachieving in life

This one is similar to the above. Are you always complaining that you never have enough time for your own pursuits because of endless errands, chores, and you know, life?

The issue might not be time but your commitment. 

Time poverty—which is the idea that while we would love to achieve the things you want in life but that we just don’t have enough time, is a real thing,” says lifestyle writer Linda Smith

“It’s almost become a status-symbol of sorts. It makes us feel important to think our lives are so busy and full that there’s just not enough time in the day to do what needs to be done,” she says. 

Smith points out that the problem is that this makes it seem like our life is out of our hands and that’s the reason why we’re not reaching our potential. “[This] also takes away our power.”

“Usually, when I say I’m lacking time, what I really mean is I lack clear and straightforward priorities.”

Smith isn’t saying to do it all: “Those who claim they can are fooling themselves.” But she emphasizes that having clear priorities is paramount to breaking the “never enough time” cycle. 

“We make hundreds of choices a day pertaining to how we spend our time. Now, you have a benchmark. Is this commitment or activity going to bring me closer to my goals? If the answer isn’t “yes,” then move on.”

5) You’re relying on your wits rather than your research

If you’re not putting in the prep work before a meeting or presentation, and figure you know enough about the subject to wing it, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. 

Even if you don’t think it’s a big deal to do the bare minimum, you might be missing opportunities such as being recommended for a promotion or to represent the company in a higher capacity. 

I like to think of charm as a kind of dessert: it’s nice to have but at the end of the day, it’s really not all that necessary.  

6) You’re afraid you’ll succeed if you apply yourself 

This one is more common than many of us realize. 

A lot of us are afraid of our greatness. The fear could be coming from imposter syndrome or the worry of the change it could bring to our lives. 

“Fear of success is the concern that once we achieve something new, we’ll be incapable of sustaining it or may suffer because of it,” says BetterUp writer, Kristine Moe. 

We might not even be aware that we have this fear. We subconsciously keep ourselves in line with the status quo. 

Have trust and faith in yourself that you can handle any success—and whatever comes with it—that comes your way. Feel the fear and do it anyway—because the alternative would be never to take any chances. 

7) It could be boredom

If you’re having trouble focusing and are chronically distracted, it may be that your work isn’t engaging you fully, says Deep Patel at Entrepreneur.com.

“You might feel like you’re working hard all day, but it could be that your mind is fighting boredom and looking to fill the time with something more interesting.”

It might be worthwhile to ask for more challenging tasks at work, or it could be time to think about finding something more suited to who you are at this point in your life. 

As a journalist, I know that I need to be covering engaging stories that stimulate and excite me. 

You might be underachieving in this area of your life because you’re in a rut and are in need of more of a challenge. 

8) Perseverance puts you off

people who never let failure get them down 10 warning signs you’re underachieving in life

Does the idea of perseverance weigh you down before you even get started on the path to your goals?

I have a personal formula for this one: don’t think about it!

When you’re doing what you love, the motivation comes—not always naturally and enthusiastically—but it comes. 

I think the best plan is simply to focus on the step or project ahead of you. If you keep doing this, looking back you’ll see how you persevered in the face of challenge and didn’t even realize it at the time. 

9) You have an inferiority complex

We mentioned imposter syndrome as a reason for being afraid to pursue your dreams. Inferiority complex is another term associated with imposter syndrome.

Our own mental limitations—such as feelings of being less than or unfavorable comparisons can have us not living up to our potential, according to  The Hague Psychologist

These could have something to do with “social disadvantages and discriminations—family, alleged race, sex, sexual orientation, economic status, or religion.”

You may feel that you don’t have “social approval” to pursue your goals so you limit yourself to achieving only what’s accepted. This can apply to anyone, but it particularly affects women, trans people, and people of color. 

For example, let’s say you always wanted to be a doctor but your conservative family felt that a nurse was more appropriate to your gender. So instead of going to medical school, you became a nurse. 

Even though you have a lot of satisfaction at your job, deep down you wonder if you could have made it as a doctor. 

10) You could do with more confidence 

One reason you’re underachieving could very well have to do with a lack of confidence, something that’s very common. 

When I took a journalism course years ago, I didn’t really think I could publish one article let alone have work featured in many esteemed mainstream publications like ELLE, for example. 

But my professor told me that I had the makings of a writer, and he gave me the confidence to pursue my first story. 

We can gain confidence when we seek out mentors who can help us hone our craft. I also gained confidence from myself: every story I wrote strengthened my resolve in myself. 

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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