Are You Deadline Obsessed?

Are your self-imposed deadlines for marriage, kids and career ruining your life?

Photo by Anthea Simms

When Torontonian Kate Lang fell in love with a cute Australian guy during a semester abroad, she did what most of us only dream of. She followed her heart and moved across the world to be with him. That was in 2008 and in just two and a half years Lang has created a lust-worthy life for herself in Oz: cool job in advertising, amazing apartment, close friends and a relationship that’s still going strong. And yet, the 24-year-old is dreading her next birthday. Why? Because she has yet to meet a long-standing, self-imposed deadline: to travel the world by 25.

Deadline-obsessed women like Lang aren’t as rare as you might think. In fact, you probably know one. We all have that friend who, during brunch with the girls, is so fixated on her next career move that she can’t just enjoy her lazy-Sunday eggs. Or the one in yoga class who’s fretting over her biological clock when she should be focused on her child’s pose. It’s those people who plan out their lives to a tee—dream job by 27, married by 30, kids by 32—who are so consumed with meeting cut-off dates that they can’t live in the moment.

Are you living for the present, or for the future?

Designer and stylist Rita Liefhebber, 27, knows that feeling all too well. “I’m obsessed with the future…I have it mapped out like a grid,” she says, adding that she often gets grief from her parents and boyfriend for not embracing the present. Liefhebber, whose goal is to make a lasting mark on the fashion industry, began modelling at age 15—a job that took her around the globe.  (Her first international gig was in Tokyo, for revered label Comme des Garçons.) She fast-tracked through high school, skipped her graduation ceremony and instead hopped on the first plane out of Toronto to New York. Liefhebber was living the life of a model, travelling to cities like Paris and Milan, and hobnobbing with some truly remarkable designers and photographers. Still, she was focused on the future.

“There are girls who can model into their 30s, 40s, 50s, but not everyone can,” Liefhebber says. And so she quit. In quick succession, she went from international model to Toronto-based fashion editor to New York-based celebrity stylist to her current lot: designing an eponymous line, out of Toronto, that launched in 2009 to critical acclaim. (A typical collection consists of soft silks, body-hugging knits, racer-back jersey dresses and draped silhouettes.)

Most people would look at Liefhebber as having accomplished a lifetime’s worth of experiences in just 27 years. But for someone as deadline-obsessed as her, that nagging question of what’s next never really goes away. “It takes years to build up a serious foundation for a [fashion] line. I want to be somewhere by the time I hit 30… It’s really a now-or-never situation,” she says of her goal to establish and expand the label. (Her latest upcoming project is a collaboration with artist Roland Jean on limited-edition pieces.) In the deep recesses of her mind, Liefhebber considers moving back to New York and, like any serious planner, she’s already thinking forward to when she’ll have children: “When I was a teen looking at myself in my 30s, I thought: Married at 30, kids at 32…40 just seems more realistic to me.”

Values change. Go with the flow

Life coach Carly Cooper has one piece of advice for women like Liefhebber: “Chill out.” Cooper, 37, worked as a copywriter and party planner before finding her true calling: coaching others. She feels for women who are set on “figuring it all out” by a certain age. The problem for younger women, she explains, is that they’re making major life decisions (career, marriage, kids) based on who they are at that precise moment—and what society dictates—instead of going with the flow and letting things unfold more naturally. Let’s face it; your values change as you get older. What’s a priority at 25 may not necessarily be where your heart or mind is at 35. And for older women, missed deadlines can make them feel like a failure when in fact it may not be too late to still fulfill their goals. “They’re saying now that 40 is the new 30. What does that even mean?” Cooper asks. She says it’s okay to have goals and ambitions, but you can’t put an age on it. “Why put that pressure on yourself? Stop inflicting these deadlines on yourself and just live!”

For Mosha Lundström Halbert, 24, that’s easier said than done. Halbert knew at age four that she wanted to be an actress and by 10 she had set a strict deadline: to win an Oscar by 26. (Just like Gwyneth Paltrow had done for her role in Shakespeare in Love.) It’s an astounding goal for anyone, let alone a prepubescent girl from Toronto, but she devoted the next decade to making it happen. Halbert spent summers at theatre camp, starred in school plays, found an agent at 13, and eventually attended the University of Toronto drama program and New York’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre (alumni include Diane Keaton and Gregory Peck), followed by a short stint in L.A.

But things don’t always go according to plan. Halbert experienced a series of setbacks—including, at various points, a sleazy manager, resentful teachers and an unhealthy obsession with the gym—which caused her to question her life’s goal of becoming Hollywood’s next leading lady. So she did something drastic: At age 19, Halbert ventured off a supercharged career path and bought a one-way ticket to Iceland. (Her mom, celebrated fashion designer Linda Lundström, is Icelandic, though Halbert herself had never been.)

“It was a huge culture shock, and I felt lonely. Iceland is so isolating, and the people there are very stoic,” she says. “But I needed to step back and regroup.” Halbert filled her days by volunteering at a local theatre and working the night shift at a bar. But her daily highlight was hunkering down at a favourite café, sipping soy lattes and writing plays.

She soon discovered that writing was much more fulfilling to her than acting. She had a knack for it and, combined with her love of fashion, it was something she wanted to pursue. And so began Halbert’s next chapter: covering fashion for The Varsity (U of T’s student newspaper), interning at Fashion Television and, ultimately, becoming FLARE’s associate fashion news editor, where she has truly found her calling.

Experience is the best teacher

In many ways, Halbert exemplifies John Lennon’s famous song lyrics, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” We often don’t end up where we’ve set out to go and, for obsessive planners like Halbert, landing in uncharted territory can be a scary thing. It can also be depressing.

When Halbert left for Iceland, pausing her aspirations to act, she remembers being devastated by the reality that there would be no Oscar in her foreseeable future. She felt like she had wasted years of her life.

But Cooper urges women not to view any experience as a regret. “A lot of times you need to have these experiences to determine what you don’t want in order to get you closer to what you do want,” she says. “If you look at them as lessons learned, and not successes or failures, that takes a lot of the pressure off.” She also believes in listening to your inner voice—more so than what your best friend since Grade 1 has to say, no matter how well intentioned she is.

Katherine Raso is a firm believer in silencing the naysayers and trusting your intuition. The 36-year-old gave up a successful, senior-level job in public relations at the Bay, and regular Sunday-night dinners with her close-knit family in Toronto, for Dubai. Raso’s friends questioned her decision to move to a desert, and her mother was especially concerned. As Raso explains: “I was 33 years old and there I was, picking up and moving across the world. [My mother’s] first reaction was, ‘[But] when are you getting married and having kids?’”

It’s not that Raso hadn’t considered that prospect. She had always planned to go to university, then law school, and to be married by 25—a plan that never materialized. She picked travelling to Southeast Asia over studying law. And while her friends were getting married and having kids, Raso found herself single and focused on work. Eager for a new adventure, she tied up loose ends, bid farewell to her family and jumped on a plane to Dubai, where she knew three people.

It was a bold move, but one that’s paid off. Since arriving there in 2008, Raso has formed a tight community of friends and has a fabulous job in PR and business development. (She’s worked on a range of projects, from the massive Atlantis The Palm Dubai hotel launch to creating celebrity lounges during the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival.) “You can’t live your entire life for your friends and family,” Raso says of her unconventional choices. “At a certain point, you have to do what’s right for you.” That’s precisely what Cooper tries to ingrain in women’s minds: “You’re never going to be able to control other people’s reactions to what you do. The only thing you can control is how you react to what they’re saying,” she explains. “It’s not about having a confrontation and trying to convince the other person of your decision— because you can’t. It just ends up being a power struggle and frustrating. Graciously accept what they’ve said and continue to stay true to yourself.”

The difficult part for most people is trying to figure out the difference between being ambitious (having goals and persevering until you reach them) and being bullheaded (religiously sticking to an idealized, and often unrealistic, life plan, regardless of whether it’s the right path for you). The truth is, if you’re too busy planning, you’re likely limiting yourself: missing the chance to celebrate your successes as you rush on to the next goal, stressing over a missed deadline instead of learning the lesson to be had there, and passing by opportunities, oblivious to the possibilities that present themselves. So forget that self-imposed deadline already. The most important thing is to actually enjoy the journey. Because that’s what life is really about, isn’t it?