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Selective Perfectionism is the Solution to Parenting Overwhelm


Cutting grass with scissors and a ruler

Recently I drove down to Seattle for a concert, and as I was walking through Belltown, I remembered a trip to the Emerald City that my wife and I had taken years ago. It got me thinking — what the heck did we spend all our time doing before we had kids?

Parenting can take up so much time and energy that it’s a miracle that we get anything else done.

Even once you get past the initial lack of sleep and not knowing what you are doing most of the time (ok, that part never goes away), it can become easy to feel like you are not as productive as you could be once you have kids.

A while ago we asked AE readers what the single biggest challenge they faced when trying to achieve their goals over the past year. Here is a pretty representative response we heard from a mom:

So many other unanticipated demands from my roles and responsibilities as a mother, family member, and home owner seemed to overtake my own agenda this past year.

There never seems to be enough hours in the day to get it all done. It's challenging to balance my own dreams & goals with those of others who depend on me for support.

It can be hard, especially if you are traditionally a goal-achiever, a Type-A, or a perfectionist, to feel like you can’t do it all anymore.

In TPS232, we talked to time management expert and author Julie Morgenstern about being productive (and thriving!) while having a family. She has a book on the subject called Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You.

Click here to listen to our podcast with Julie Morgenstern.

Julie calls parenting “the ultimate time-management challenge,” and we discuss tips to deal with that. There’s one strategy I want to dive into further, as I believe it is key: the concept of selective perfectionism.

Isn’t perfectionism a good thing?

Perfectionism sounds good:

  • You want to do an awesome job at your day-to-day tasks at work.
  • You want to do an awesome job at your longer range important-but-not-urgent tasks.
  • You want to be an awesome co-worker, helping your colleagues out when they need it.
  • You want to be an awesome spouse or partner.
  • You want to be an awesome parent, helping your kids with schoolwork, sports, and teaching them about life.
  • You want to have an awesome home, totally clean and organized.
  • You want to be an awesome friend and be social with them.
  • You want to have awesome hobbies that make you interesting.

Is it stressing you out just reading that list? Here is the problem: none of those things are bad. They’re all, well, awesome.

The only issue is that if we have all of those expectations of ourselves, then it feels like we are lacking. It especially feels that way when applied to parenting.

Why perfectionism is a productivity killer

The problem with having a perfectionist mindset when it comes to everything is that our reaction is binary: things are as perfect as they can possibly be (and maybe one smidge better than that), or they are unacceptable.

With this mindset, we spend more time on things than we should, and because time is a finite resource, something (eventually) has to give.

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Since time is a finite resource, everything you do has an opportunity cost. By spending time doing one thing on the list above, that’s less time you have to do the other things.

We tend to think of opportunity cost as money or time, but it could also manifest itself as energy, attention, or overwhelm.

That’s one reason we published the TEA Framework. It’s difficult to tackle your productivity challenges if you don’t know what the root of those challenges is.

Once we understand that time, energy, and attention are finite, it becomes clear that spending an extra hour at the office giving the Powerpoint deck one last set of images, or replying to email on the sofa during family movie night when it can wait until tomorrow may not have a payoff equal to its cost.

Perfectionism holds you back from getting help

When I said that time is a finite resource, there is one asterisk to that. You can create more time by delegating to others.

We have a number of articles and podcasts about delegation, including our 3 Simple Steps To Delegating Work The Right Way (TPS182) and our popular guide to getting started with an executive assistant (TPS190), but in our CEO Productivity episode (TPS143), guest Charles Ngo makes the case that you can’t have a perfectionist mindset if you want to truly delegate:

Before hiring an EA or any employee in general, you have to let go of the perfectionism mindset … people use perfectionism as an excuse or a badge of honor.

The problem is, we often think things like “it’s just faster for me to do it myself”, or “no one can do it as well as I can.”

Both of those may be true! However, having this mindset means that you can never truly let go and get help, and that means that perfectionism is standing in the way of you taking steps to shift your available time to the things (or people) that are truly important to you.

The solution? Embrace the 80% rule that Charles attributes to Ramit Sethi in the episode:

If someone can do the task 80% as good as you, it’s good enough.

It goes back to opportunity cost — is that last 20% worth more than the potentially massive amount of time, energy, or attention that could be freed up?

Perfectionism stops you from achieving because you get hung up

People who self-identify as perfectionists will often credit this trait for their achievements. The thinking goes that because of the obsessive and uncompromising attention to detail, excellence is a result and that translates to success.

The question is: how much more could we achieve if the perfectionism was dialed down a bit?

Years ago I worked for a financial software company, and a colleague of mine was in charge of our software connecting to our bank partners.

He had our development team create a small utility for importing bank data, but was unhappy with the user interface.

He sent it back over and over again. This button should be a different shade of orange. That font should be a bit thicker. The status bar should move a different way when importing. The developers were going nuts.

I’ll give him credit. In the end, they created possibly the most beautiful bank data import utility ever.

To what end though? It was a small utility used by a handful of people. It wasn’t core to the business, and it wasn’t core to anyone that needed to use it.

How many other ways could we have delighted our customers if we had released a utility that was 80% as nice looking, and how many hours could have been spent on other things by all involved?

Perfectionism when you’re a parent

Unchecked perfectionism is a challenge from a productivity standpoint, but even more so when you’re a parent.

The time, energy, and attention that perfectionism inhibits at work can carry over to home.

You can spend more time and energy than needed on work tasks, which can cause you to stay longer at work, be distracted at home and have less energy for the family.

If you are upset because you don’t feel like a particular project at work is up to ideal standards, many of us can’t turn that off when we get home. We are thinking about (or working on!) that Powerpoint deck when we should be (or feel we should be) spending quality time. We may be physically present, but we may not be truly present.

This becomes a vicious circle, as we then feel guilty about letting work bleed into home life.

Teaching (or un-teaching) perfectionism

Any parent knows that kids are always picking up cues and learning from everything we do.

(Scary thought, I know.)

In Time to Parent, the author makes an interesting point about actively de-emphasizing perfectionism:

Furthermore, one of the best things you can do—especially as a parent—for your kids and peers, is demonstrated in your own actions that you don’t have to be perfect to be good or likeable or successful. In the age of illusory social media profiles, if we were all more open about sharing the things we struggle with, we might be able to disrupt the culture of the perfect parent.

Apply Selective Perfectionism

Now that we’ve established that it’s impossible to be perfect in every part of our life, what’s the solution?

No, the answer is not to let your standards slide or to start mailing it in.

The answer is to be more strategic or selective about how you apply that perfectionism.

Think about the things you need to do at work or home.

Some of them need absolutely maximum effort. They need to be done with care and need to be as superb as they possibly can be.

Some of them you can mail it in. They just need to be done. How well they’re done isn’t so important. If you’re a perfectionist, it might pain you to do it at first, but if you are honest with yourself that’s the type of task it is.

And some fall somewhere in between. They need to be done well but don’t need extreme measures.

Time to Parent calls this MAX-MIN-MOD, and you can apply this to everything you do, if you take a moment to think “which bucket does this fall into?”

For example, let’s say you are planning a family trip. Applying the MAX-MIN-MOD framework:

  • MAX: You research flights for weeks, noting price trends and figuring out which airport is the best to fly in and out of. You have a detailed itinerary researched where you know what you’ll do every day, where you’ll eat, and the sights you’ll see. You’ve researched maps for the driving portion, and don’t even get started about rental cars…
  • MIN: Hit a flight aggregator, pick a flight that’s in your budget, find a hotel from a travel site, and you’ll figure out the rest when you get there and talk to people.
  • MOD: Do some research, figure out your flights and hotels that will work well for you, find the top 10 sights you want to see, and leave space for serendipity.

You can see how the same task (planning a family trip) can take wildly different amounts of time, energy, and attention.

Different tasks will take different levels of focus, and depending on the circumstance the same task can take different levels at different times. You can apply this to work tasks and home tasks.

The result is less feeling overwhelmed because you don’t have everything perfect, and you don’t have time to make it that way. You may not get things done in quite the same way as before you had kids, but you’ll be in more control of what you do pay attention to.

This concept pairs well with our podcast Why Pursuing the Work-Life Balance Myth is Hurting Your Productivity (TPS139). We talk about the idea of “intentional imbalance,” and Thanh goes through an exercise to help him find where to put his time, energy, and attention.

Action Items

Look for what you CAN do less on

Apply the MAX-MIN-MOD framework to the things you do at work and at home. What needs to be amazing, and what falls into the other two categories?

Start questioning the things you do “just because"

There are a lot of things you do at home and work that you do because you or your colleagues have always done them that way.

Start questioning the things you do and see what you can eliminate or make more efficient. There are a hundred variations of the pot roast/ham story for a reason.

Allow the family to help

I love my kids, but there are a lot of things they aren’t very good at. Folding and putting away laundry for example.

We could make them fold and re-fold their clothes to get them perfect and make sure everything is perfectly organized in their drawers, or we could choose to spend that time laughing at the latest Kim’s Convenience with them.

As long as they’re helping, we are OK with things not being perfect.

Remember that social media is a trap

You’re scrolling through Facebook and see how amazing your high school friend’s dinner party looked, not to mention how happy everyone is. You scroll through Instagram, and you see someone living their best life in serenity on top of a mountain.

Why isn’t your life perfect like theirs?

Remember that things are usually not what they seem online, and the more we can teach kids that, the better off we and they will be.

Determine what you will put your attention to first

If this all sounds good but you you aren’t sure where you want to put your productivity focus on first, we have a super-quick Productivity Quiz. It will help you discover your biggest opportunity for being more effective, and will give you quick and easy action steps that you can apply and free up time.

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