Selective Perfectionism: MIN/MOD/MAX

One of the biggest pieces of advice you often hear about self-care is to learn to set boundaries. Setting boundaries is important for carving out time and space for self-care – we even blogged some practical tips for setting self-care boundaries in the past. Setting boundaries is also part of focusing in on what work we consider essential.

A second piece of classic self-care advice is to plan, plan, plan. Plan your year, your month, your semester, your schedule, your to do list…. we are big on planning here at TMSC (but not on obsessing about planning, but that is another blog post).

To be transparent, all of this advice left me a bit…. wanting. No matter how hard I apply the rules of “set boundaries and plan”, I still often struggle with deciding what to do with my time. It definitely didn’t help with feeling like I had enough time.

Values, of course, are an excellent place to begin when you are trying to decide if you will commit to something.

But what happens if almost every opportunity we are offered aligns with our values?

After a few years of learning to say no to things that didn’t align with my values – and thinking “Phew! I made it. I finally have this figured out!” I found myself in this exact place. Suddenly I was saying yes to everything again, because it was all important to me.

Serve on this committee about equity, diversity, and inclusion? Yes!

Teach this course for some extra money, when we’re short staffed? Sure!

Sign up for pottery lessons and swim lessons for the kid and outdoor play care? Yes, these reflect our values!

Jump into a research collaboration with people you love working with on a topic close to your heart? Absolutely!

This is how I found myself drowning in value-consistent activities! What? It is not supposed to work like that! I felt ripped off.

Then I discovered Julie Morgenstern’s MIN/MOD/MAX approach in her book Time to Parent. (I will definitely discuss this book more another time, because it is awesome)

The MIN/MOD/MAX approach allows us to move beyond a simple yes/no “Does this align with my values?” or “Will this activity move me toward my values?” to assign a level of engagement with that activity. (Morgenstern calls this “selective perfectionism”). Her point? We can’t do everything perfectly – and so many of us in the helping and knowledge professions are high achieving people (like grad students and professors and lawyers and doctors and teachers…) who don’t even stop to consider how much effort we will put into our tasks. Because if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it perfectly and to the best of our ability, right?

No! Wrong. Because not every task needs – or frankly deserves – perfectionism. As Morgenstern says, “unbridled perfectionism will disrupt your capacity to experience contentment and joy” (p. 75).

It’s not enough for us to decide if we will do something. We should also decide, ahead of time, what level of effort we are going to give.

Consider the following example that many of us can probably resonate with: You are asked to sit on a committee that will be working on something near and dear to your heart, that you consider to be very important. Here is an example of what that involvement might look like, at each level of effort.

MAX (maximum) effort: I will volunteer to chair this committee and I will be responsible for the work we do, including doing work that others are unwilling to do.

MOD (moderate) effort: I will join this committee and I will agree to take the lead on one task (like scheduling, taking minutes, or organizing 1 initiative)

MIN (minimum) effort: I will attend meetings and share my opinions, but I will not take the lead on any tasks.

I hope this blows your mind and helps you as much as it has helped me. Knowing if I will do something and then deciding how much of my perfectionism it will receive has done wonders for helping me manage competing, values-consistent demands.

In self-care solidarity,