The Difference Between Realistic and Unrealistic Expectations

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When setting goals, you’ll often wonder whether or not what you’re aiming for is attainable. That’s why you need to know the difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations, which is what this article is all about.

Realistic expectations are attainable goals that are based on an accurate view of a situation, while unrealistic expectations are not achievable under the given circumstances. Realistic expectations consider the available resources and limitations. Unrealistic expectations ignore constraints and are a recipe for failure.

Today we’re just getting into the definitions and differences between these concepts. You can learn more about them in these articles:

Unrealistic Goals: What They Are and How to Stop Setting Them

3 Signs You Might Have Unrealistic Goals and Expectations

How to Reach Unrealistic Goals by Making Them Realistic

3 Reasons You Have Unrealistic Expectations of Yourself

Now let’s dive into this a little more by looking at the definitions and some synonyms of each of these words!

Realistic vs Unrealistic Expectations – Word Math

Have you ever looked at a word and thought you knew what it meant only to realize you can’t define it?

I noticed that this was happening to me a lot a few years ago so I began the habit of looking up definitions and synonyms to understand better. I call it word math and you can learn more about it here.

All definitions and synonyms come from Oxford Languages.

Realistic: having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected.

Synonyms: practical, doable, rational, sensible

Unrealistic: not realistic

Synonyms: impractical, illogical, unreasonable 

Expectations: a belief that someone will or should achieve something.

Synonyms: outlook, hopes, prospects

Now we combine the definitions and synonyms, just as we would if we were entering values for variables in an equation:

Realistic Expectations = a sensible and practical belief of what can be achieved or expected and the belief that someone will achieve those goals.

Unrealistic Expectations = impractical, illogical, or unreasonable beliefs that someone will or should achieve something.

In simpler terms, realistic expectations are seeing things as they really are, including what you or another person can accomplish in a certain time frame. Unrealistic expectations are over-optimistic and don’t account for limitations.

Examples of Unrealistic vs Realistic Expectations 

Let’s get into some examples to understand further:

  1. Unrealistic: Expecting that you can gain expert-level skills in an area within a week.
    Realistic: Working to achieve excellence in your desired skill one year from now by focusing on consistent progress and gradual improvement.
  2. Unrealistic: Expecting your spouse to take care of all of your needs immediately and that you’ll never have any disagreements.
    Realistic: Recognizing that a successful marriage requires communication, compromise, and accepting imperfections.
  3. Unrealistic: Expecting your boss to give you a raise when you’ve only been there a couple of months and you haven’t gone above and beyond in your job.
    Realistic: Setting a goal to work hard, improve your productivity metrics, take on additional responsibilities, and improve the company to increase your chances of advancement.
  4. Unrealistic: Assuming that it’s normal to always have perfect work-life balance.
    Realistic: Working to have work-life balance by managing your time and energy, setting boundaries, and recognizing that sometimes certain areas of life require more attention than others.
  5. Unrealistic: Trying to lose 20 lbs in two weeks without changing your diet or exercise much.
    Realistic: Working toward losing a healthier 1-2 lbs per week through exercise, healthy eating, and rest.

Unrealistic & Realistic Expectations Used in a Sentence

Let’s look at a few ways that you might see these concepts used in a sentence. Starting with unrealistic expectations:

  • In Amy’s new job, she had the unrealistic expectation to be promoted within just a month even though she was new to the field.
  • The movie’s marketing campaign set unrealistic expectations which left many disappointed viewers and negative ratings.
  • John had a hard time finding a wife because of his unrealistic expectations that she had to be perfect.
  • The team lost the championship because their unrealistic expectations that they would win every match led to a lack of preparation.
  • The company had higher turnover rates, stressed-out employees, and dozens of other issues because of the CEO’s unrealistic expectations for rapid growth and profit.

Now here are some ways you might see the phrase “realistic expectations used in a sentence::

  • Emily’s realistic expectations that she had to study hard to pass the class led to her to ace the final exam.
  • The project manager outlined realistic expectations for the team, considering the scope, timeline, and available resources for the project.
  • Because he knew how to have realistic expectations about the housing market, Alex patiently waited for the right time to purchase a home.
  • The coach taught her team the importance of setting realistic expectations for their performance.
  • Sarah’s realistic expectations for her first solo trip helped her plan effectively and be ready for unexpected setbacks.

How to Turn Unrealistic Expectations Into Realistic Ones

Earlier I mentioned an article I’ve already written on this subject, which you can take a look at here. To quickly review, here are a few ways to turn an unrealistic goal into a realistic one:

  • Have fewer goals
  • Focus on the process
  • Review your progress weekly
  • Reduce the scope of your goals
  • Do what it takes to stay consistent
  • Hire a coach or work with an expert
  • Break your goals down into smaller milestones
  • Embrace failures as an opportunity to learn and adjust
  • Surround yourself with people who have the same goal 

In my experience, there are really only three of these that you need to focus on:

  1. Cut your goals in half or double your timeline. Instead of trying to train for a marathon in a year, do it in two. Or go for running a 5K this month instead of a 10K.
  2. Set fewer but better goals. There are only a few areas where you can make a massive impact in life. Ask yourself what one thing, that if you did it consistently for a year, would nearly guarantee success.
  3. Make your goals intrinsically motivated. If you hate running, don’t have a goal to run a few times per week. Find something you love, like hiking or dancing, and do that for exercise instead.

Whatever you do, make sure you avoid unrealistic goals by considering your current circumstances. And whether or not what you want to accomplish is achievable in your given timeline.

If you find that you’ve got unrealistic goals, account for your situation and just begin. You can always continue to adjust as you go.

Let’s Wrap This Up

To summarize what we’ve gone over:

  • Realistic expectations are goals that you set that properly account for your current circumstances. They are achievable within the timeframe you’ve given yourself.
  • Unrealistic expectations are when you ignore your limitations and set overly ambitious goals. They often lead to overwhelm, frustration, and failure.
  • Set fewer goals and break your goals down into smaller chunks if you want to make sure that they are realistic.