Forget What’s Ideal

forget what's ideal

Prevention magazine writer, Marygrace Taylor, asked me what advice I would give her readers who want to have a perfect day at work. I told her somewhat apologetically that her premise didn’t quite work. The reason: the first step would be not to aim for a “perfect” day.

I explained that there is no such thing as a perfect day. Every day is likely to have some good and bad mixed into it. Aiming for perfection inevitably sets you up for disappointment and can lead to stress over time.

It seems I convinced the writer not to use the word perfect (although best — the word she replaced it with — implies something similar). Here is the Prevention article with the tips I gave her.

What I had learned in my research

This exchange reminded me of doctoral research I had conducted long before I had children (i.e., before I knew better). The perfectionist in me wanted to determine the ideal situation for the working mother I hoped to someday be. (Yes, I wanted to be a perfect mother a good 11 years before I gave birth to my first child!)

My research question was, “Is better for a mom to work part-time or full-time?” I surveyed and interviewed Chicago professional women who had worked full time before having their first child. Then, I compared those who switched to part-time work with those who continued working full time.

I found no differences between the two groups; both were equally satisfied with their work and family lives. I also found no difference between how much the groups experienced work-family conflict.

Those findings threw me into a two-week, sleep-deprived, panic-ridden frenzy. I sifted through and pored over my data and redid my analyses, but I couldn’t explain what I was seeing. Expecting part-timers to be happier, I had an easy explanation planned. And, I had the arsenal to explain why full-timers were happier. But finding no differences presented a problem because it left me with nothing to say unless I could explain it.

It turned out that a single question I had added as an afterthought saved the day. In addition to asking my respondents how many hours per week they actually worked, I had asked them how many weekly hours they wanted to work ideally.

Redoing my analyses after I made my discovery, I found that nearly everyone preferred to work fewer hours. But those who worked far more hours than what they said was their ideal number were less satisfied — and experienced more conflict — than those who worked slightly more than their ideal. That is, those who worked closer to their ideal were more satisfied.

My conclusion at the time was the following: mothers should find work that is closer to their ideal or shift their ideal so that it is closer to reality.

What I learned from my clients: Forget the ideal

Now, however, after working individually with a number of smart and talented parents, I take a different stance. Forget the ideal entirely. When it comes to navigating work and family life, having an ideal is simply not helpful. In fact, it causes problems because it is often unattainable and always a moving target.

That doesn’t mean you can’t strive for better. In fact, I have seen time and again what actually works:

  1. Enjoy what you have and what you’ve already accomplished. It seems simple but actually requires some effort because it is easy to overlook or discount. It requires reminding yourself to acknowledge not only what you need to do, or should do, but what you’ve done.
  2. Then, focus on making just one or two small, incremental improvements.

Taken together, these two strategies have helped many of my clients. They feel more satisfied with their work and family lives and experience less work-family stress and conflict.

You can start by dropping the words perfect, should, ideal, and best from your vocabulary. Replace them with good enough, want to, an idea, and better.

Remember, you probably don’t need a makeover or an overhaul. Most likely you just need a few tweaks. If you’d like to figure out quickly what those might be, consider booking a coaching session.

An older version of this article was first published in February 2014.