Why You Should Lower Your Expectations for 2021 Starting Now

You’re so anxious to get 2020 over with. I get it. I feel that too.

It would be amazing if somebody returned everything to some semblance of normalcy right about now, wouldn’t it?

Sitting here in December 2020 at the end of a long year, it’s tempting to paint 2021 as a relief to all our problems.

Trust me, I feel the urge to do that too. Deeply.

But, that would be a mistake.

For some leaders, it would be a fatal one. Either because it could take you out or your organization down…or both.

Before you dismiss the post, or quickly move on to something else more ‘positive,’ let me drop some promises in (which is actually the point of this post: To help you make it through the end of 2021 and well beyond).

Lowering your expectations for 2021 now will lead to greater joy, a far more resilient organization and a much healthier you later.

As they say, the secret to happiness is low expectations. One of the reasons you’re so frustrated and exhausted right now is because you expected things would be better.

Humans do that. Christmas is disappointing because your picture of how your family will behave is different from how they actually behave.

The frustration you feel with your team emerges from the gap between the ideal person you thought you hired and the real person you actually hired.

Lowering your expectations increases both your resilience and your happiness almost every time.

Here are 5 ways that lowering your expectations for 2021 is a really good idea.

1. The Shut Down Happened Overnight. The Reopening Will Be Far More Gradual and Intermittent.

It’s slowly dawning on most of us that there may not be a reopening ‘day’ or season where everyone floods back in and everything is at it was.

For most organizations, the shut down happened overnight. You were open for business as usual March 9th 2020, and were shut down completely or radically impacted by March 15th.

It’s easy to imagine that the reopening would happen exactly the same way.

There’s incredible news with a vaccine on the way, but both the roll out and its impact on the spread of COVID-19 is going to take a while.

While nobody wants it, we’ll likely have months ahead of the virus surging and retreating, and with that, regulations that move you in and out of degrees of lockdown.

The restrictions themselves will take a while to lift completely.

Government regulations are one thing. Human behaviour is quite another.

It might take a while longer for most people to feel comfortable being in crowded public spaces, and some of the pattern changes people have adopted during COVID will likely be permanent.

I think the metaphor of having green light, yellow light and red light people is sound.

Green light people are those who will rush back and be perfectly comfortable.

Yellow light people will be more cautious for months or maybe longer.

And red light people, made so either by disposition or medical condition, might change how they operate in the public sphere for a much longer time.

Simply realizing that this will be a longer, gradual process will help you plan for a longer, gradual re-entry and make you more effective as a result.

2. Normal Is Being Redefined As We Speak

You long for normal. I long for normal.

I also understand everyone is oh-so-tired of hearing about “the new normal.”

So, what can you actually expect?

Emerging out of the pandemic, in all likelihood, won’t be the return to normal you hope for.

That’s because normal is being redefined as we speak.

The longer the current crisis goes on, the longer temporary habits become permanent ones.

We will eventually settle into some kind of normalcy, and that’s likely to have a strange and unpredictable mix of familiar and new patterns.

So sure, people will return to live events.  Schools, gyms, restaurant and churches will one day be open without restrictions. (Cheer now).

And to be sure, offices will reopen and traffic jams will happen and people will vacation and airplanes and resorts will operate at capacity again.

But don’t miss the nuance underneath all this.

Will company offices return to exactly where they were pre-pandemic? There is zero indication that’s going to happen. Of course, some offices will reopen as they used to be, but most will change their patterns. As this Harvard survey shows,  remote work will, in all likelihood, become much more prevalent than it was pre-COVID. Many companies have already downsized and hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions?) of people have already sold their homes and moved to more remote places now where they can easily work from home.

It will be interesting to see what happens with shopping (more home delivery?), school (more homeschooling?), fitness (fewer gym memberships now that people bought their own Peleton?) entertainment (are direct-to-home movie releases more of the future after 2021?). Will in-person church attendance take months or years to go back to pre-pandemic levels?

So post-pandemic, whenever we get there, will definitely feel more normal than things do today. But normal will have shifted. And even a 10-30% variation in patterns is massive disruption and something every leader needs to plan for starting now.

3. The Biggest Certainty Is Unpredictability

Every leader longs for certainty. I do. But even long before the crisis hit, you didn’t really have certainty.

What you had was some form of predictability.  The crisis, of course, took that away.

The unpredictability and uncertainty are likely to continue for a while longer. Months for sure. Perhaps longer.

A good way to look at 2020 is that it helped build some skills that are essential in unpredictable times: Agility, flexibility and the ability to move fast and change again.

Those will likely be even more important in the future.

The last few decades are filled with companies, organizations and churches that died because things changed and they didn’t.

When the autopsy is done on those organizations, you usually discover they lacked not only the vision to see that change was necessary, but the flexibility and agility needed to change.

You’re developing agility and flexibility as a result of everything you’ve been through. Keep developing them, and don’t let those muscles atrophy.

4. An Unhealthy Rhythm Now Means You Might Not Make It To Then

I recently asked over 75,000 leaders (over email….you can sign up here to join my list) what they’re struggling with. By far, the #1 challenge is exhaustion: Their exhaustion and the fatigue of their teams.

The thing I’m most worried about for leaders who see 2021 as a panacea, or a finish line of sorts, is that they’re not going to make it into 2022. (I explain more on that in point 5, below.)

Imagining that 2021 is going to give you rest is kind of like thinking you’ll be fine after the tornado, only realizing too late that you now have to rebuild everything.

Yes, things will eventually be better. No, we’re not there yet.

Finding a healthy rhythm during the crisis is essential to being okay after the crisis.

In the same way that so many leaders looked to time off to save them during 2020, only to discover that a week or two off didn’t solve anything, looking to 2021 to save you will just be an exercise in disappointment.

Time off won’t save you from an unsustainable pace when the problem is how you spend your time on.

And if 2021 won’t bring instant relief, it’s critical for you to find a sustainable pace now.

I have a lot of free resources on how to manage your time, energy and priorities to stay healthy, and I have a session in the free 2021 Church Leader Toolkit if you want to learn more (non-church leaders are welcome to the Toolkit as well).

Time off isn’t going to heal this one. How you spend your time on is.

5. The Greatest Leaders Confront the Brutal Facts (But Never Lose Hope)

Let’s finish up by going back to what Jim Collins calls Stockdale Paradox, one of the principles that a lot of leaders talked about early on in the crisis.

As you may remember, Jim Stockdale was an American Vise Admiral captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam War. He was held and tortured for seven years.

Stockdale said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who kept thinking things would get better quickly and they’d be released. “They died of a broken heart,” Stockdale said.

Instead, Stockdale argued, the key to survival was to combine realism and hope.  In Stockdale’s words:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

That, essentially, is your job in crisis leadership. The greatest leaders confront the brutal facts but never lose hope.

And sadly for you and me, the crisis and instability will soon drag into their second year.

You will prevail in the end, but there’s some brutal stuff you and I need to get through before things get better.

Crisis leadership falls apart when leaders embrace the extremes: Pessimists only see the real, and naive optimists only see the ideal.

When you embrace both, you discover true leadership. You’ll also emerge out of the crisis stronger and into a much stronger tomorrow.

Get The Tools You Need In 2021 (A Free Toolkit)

As hard as it might be, what if 2021 could be a year of real growth for you and your church?

You know that in 2020, some organizations grew while others struggled. I’d love to help your church thrive in 2021.

I know, that sounds crazy (especially after a post like this), but like most things, it’s crazy until it’s not.

I believe 2021 can be a great year for you and your team, and I’d love to help you make it happen.

That’s why I created the 2021 Church Leader Toolkit.

Inside, I cover:

  • How To Produce Content That Actually Gets Read & Watched
  • 5 Keys To Better Digital Preaching
  • How To Keep You And Your Team Out Of Burnout
  • 7 Strategies To Deepen Digital Engagement
  • 3 Key Pivots For Every Organization In 2021

I’ll be releasing 5 parts of the toolkit throughout December. And it’s free.

You can get access and share these skills with your team here!

What Do You See?

Any thoughts on the challenges you’ll be facing in 2021? How will you battle them?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

You're so anxious to get 2020 over with. With vaccines on the way, it's easy to assume 2021 will be less challenging. Here are 5 reasons that's a mistake.


  1. Dr. Jan Hamilton on December 31, 2020 at 11:57 am

    Mariann Budde walks on water….God is using her for miracles!

  2. Dr. Jan Hamilton on December 31, 2020 at 11:55 am

    God is calling us to the return of His miracles on earth. Go to NICABM.com as Ruth Buczynski, Ph.D. in Behavioral Psychology orchestrates a body of 100 global MD/Ph.D. scientists to address another pandemic, mental illness with no screening, testing, therapy, yet to be discovered and shared. Plus my family is listening to Bishop Michael Curry’s Audible Book “Love is the Way”! We can do this! We are God’s feet, voice, arms, legs and hands. Healing is our prayer in Washington, DC. Join us in the Jesus Movement of “The Way of Love”! The family of Dr. Jan Hamilton on Capitol Hill.

  3. Rev. Jim Lewis, PhD on December 16, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Thank you for your realism and wisdom. As an Army Reserve Chaplain I thank you especially for your ADM Stockdale facet. Viktor Frankl is one of my favorites along those lines too. In your Stockdale comments, though, you said “You will prevail in the end…” to which I would hope you could point out to your readers should be a qualified statement. While we can be assured that Christ will prevail, and as my favorite “futurist” Leonard Sweet has said in various ways, Christ will still keep working in the world, whether thru the church or in spite of the church– the brutal reality is that “you” as in any particular pastor, or any particular congregation, may NOT prevail.

    I’ve been cleaning out my basement, and among other things, cleaning out old and broken tools– often even quite beloved tools– that either themselves no longer work, or no longer do the job as well as other tools. The same tasks need to be done, but sometimes tools that once worked no longer work, and I need to “re-tool” to keep going. Congregations, ministries and programs are tools. I LOVED the children’s Christmas pageants I grew up in– but they are largely now a “tool” of the past. Our “drive through Messy Christmas” this past Sunday was a new tool that may or may not work as well or last as long as Christmas pageants. My role as pastor is likewise a tool. Will that “tool” last? For some will, or I may need to “re-tool” my role in ministry. My congregation may be a broken tool, my role as pastor may be a broken tool that will not prevail– though Christ will. And if I want to be a part of what Christ is doing in our changing world, I may need to re-tool even myself.

    Keep being a blessing and open to God’s re-tooling– Rev. Jim Lewis, PhD

  4. Marc Limbaugh on December 14, 2020 at 5:13 pm

    My heart bears witness with the wisdom of your article. I don’t see it as a retreat at all. It’s just a matter of holding realistic expectations at the onset of the year. Jesus said much of the same thing when He said such things as, “in the world you will have tribulation”. He warned his followers that in the world, they would have great tribulation but to be of good cheer – He had overcome the world. He warned Peter of a set back under pressure and then encouraged him that he would eventually emerge to strengthen his brethren. I fully expect the year to start off like an old locomotive, but when rolling, will pick up speed. Thank you for the realism. It’s refreshing and believable.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2020 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks Marc!

  5. Alan Rathbun on December 14, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Thanks, Carey! It’s a good word. Yes, we should always have hope and yes we have to be brutally honest about what is going on. According to John, I think that is how Jesus prepared the disciples . He was blunt about the trouble we would have in this world while at the same time confirming that their peace and hope in Him was secure.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2020 at 11:50 am

      I find life goes better when I cooperate with reality rather than deny it. 🙂

      • Alan Rathbun on December 14, 2020 at 12:11 pm


      • Geoffrey Stephens on December 14, 2020 at 12:18 pm

        So I guess then the question is who’s reality? If we accept our circumstances (present reality) then how do we ever bring His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

  6. Geoffrey Stephens on December 14, 2020 at 10:15 am


    I am not in agreement with your call for a 2021 downgrade. The to me is a misunderstanding about what it is like to live under persecution and yet have victory. Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Cor 16:13-14

    So in love I want to say I am most times contrary, but I have learned to know when it is from God and part of my gifting and when it is flesh and needs to be silent. So with humility I want to bring a couple of things to light. One of your podcast had John Eldredge on it and I want to bring up one of His teachings.

    We live in the partial and not the fullness of the Kingdom. This is a truth easily understood as when Jesus returns we will get the full rule and reign of Jesus as King, but until then we are to advance the Kingdom. So while our hearts desire the fullness of Jesus’ Kingdom, we understand that we are living in the partial. However, we don’t retract or settle for less by limiting our desire and hope.

    I get it that it is extremely difficult to push forward when the enemy shows his fierceness, but that is exactly what we are to do. Yes, it is required to be operating in faith with the Word, promises and prophecies, or our pushing is just human striving. This is what I see in all the stories in the scriptures. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had the right attitude, and stand, “we will not bend the knee to evil even if God doesn’t rescue and we perish.” (paraphrase)

    Jesus is our guide and we need to push into Jesus for what He will bring for us and our ministries. So in Love let me say we will only have the promise land that we claim by promise and prophecy and fight the way Jesus directs.

    To this let me say I see this in a group of leaders around Dutch Sheets and the tenacity they move in as ministers of intercessory prayer. This is the model I will follow. You might consider and request a meeting with Dutch Sheets.

    This is not in any way to construed that I am saying your ministries or messages are not valuable. We as believers can disagree and not personally bash or tear down a person. I value what you bring, but in this instance I can’t stand where your say we should in the 2021 plan. I will have the best year of my life and my ministry. We will expand and grow as the first wave of revival hits with the move of God in those places where His people dive deep into Jesus and His directions.

    From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. Matt 11:12

    We are called to advance the Kingdom of God in prayer and intercession, then we will see greater works! Personally, I have never prayed as much as I did 2020 as any other time in 30 years as a Christian.

    • Jason Purdy on December 14, 2020 at 10:49 am

      I didn’t read this as a retreat, but more of a reset of expectations. We can still do what we do and offer what we offer, but to temper our expectations against how the pandemic is affecting human behavior.

      • Geoffrey Stephens on December 14, 2020 at 11:03 am

        I think that this is a great time of opportunity for those who are willing to attempt the great risk of faith for that which Jesus has for us specifically. Prophetically I have heard this is a time of judgement. When most of us hear judgement we think punishment, but it equally means blessings. It depends on which side of the judgement you are on, as it is either punishment meaning correction or blessing meaning vindication in the house of God. For the world it is condemnation of evil practices. I think that for the most part this is a great moment for the body of Christ to met the needs and advance the Kingdom.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2020 at 11:48 am

        Jason understands the intent of the article. Thanks Jason. Glad 2020 has been a year of building your faith Geoffrey. Me too.

    • Geoffrey Stephens on December 14, 2020 at 11:18 am
  7. Frankie Powell on December 14, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Great insight and information, especially concerning “reality’

    Thanks again

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2020 at 11:49 am

      Thanks Frankie. Reality is our friend….

  8. Amy Schweim on December 14, 2020 at 9:05 am

    Thank you for this post. There is great content here. I will be sharing with my leaders. Expectation management is a hard thing to grasp but it is helpful in many situations. Expectation management was crucial to me when I was going through a very difficult divorce.


    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2020 at 11:49 am

      Thanks Amy!

  9. Dave Rochford on December 14, 2020 at 8:43 am

    This is a worthwhile post – thank you.

    But Jim Stockdale was Vice-Admiral in the USN, not a general.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2020 at 9:18 am

      Thanks for catching that Dave! It’s updated now.

      • Eric Van Kesteren on December 14, 2020 at 11:32 am

        I must agree with Mr Stephens. I hope to make just a couple points regarding the message, and definitely not against the Messenger.
        My guard goes up almost instantly when something is set forth for churches that is void of scriptural reference and led by Man’s wisdom. As the Angel at the tomb said, “Why do you search for the Living amongst the Dead?” Christ rebuked us in sadness when He said, “Oh you of little faith. Why are you so afraid?” He then calmed the wind and waves. We are also given God Himself in the form of the Holy Spirit. With these things in mind, we should be Leaders of courage, fearing nothing but the One who controls both our body and spirit.
        Also, I would like to suggest that, upon autopsy, you would find that many of the churches that have died in the past were a result of attempting to mesh Man’s desires with the true preaching of the Word. When we blur the clarity and beauty of the Gospel with Man’s sin nature and false-wisdom, the result is a dead ministry. (‘Click to Tweet’ – just kidding). Jesus told Peter that if he loved Him, that he needs to feed His sheep. It is as clear as that.
        Final note – The Israelites were overrun not when they trusted in God, but when they sought the protection and salvation of Man.

        • Geoffrey Stephens on December 14, 2020 at 11:49 am

          Nicely put! Also I think Phil 3 is relevant, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore, all who are mature, let’s have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that to you as well;

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