CCA President Ellen Kleinstuber

Focus on What Matters

May 19, 2022

Earlier this month we celebrated Mother’s Day, and for me it was an immensely fulfilling day given that I came into motherhood to three young adults just a few years ago. It hasn’t always been an easy road for me and the kids to navigate, which made the time we spent to together on Mother’s Day that much more special. It also made me think about how my mom taught me an important leadership lesson that I have been working hard to embrace.

My father was a perfectionist who often lamented not being able to accomplish more with his time. Even when he was jury rigging something around the house that needed repaired, he was meticulous in his work. He had a vision of the right way to do something and would accept nothing less from himself. Although sometimes unconcerned with the aesthetics of the final work product, he always made sure to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s in both the planning and execution of whatever he was doing. He took great pride and satisfaction in a job well done, even if getting that job done perfectly meant he was stressed because he didn’t finish everything on his list. 

My mom, on the other hand, was a pragmatist. She had this amazing ability to get things done. She was quick and efficient with her work. My father would often comment that she could get more done in a few hours than he could in an entire weekend. Looking back, I realize now she had an innate sense of how much time she had available to complete a task. She scaled her work to meet the time available while never compromising the quality of her work. The effort she put in was still recognized and appreciated even if it wasn’t “perfect”. 

In many ways, I am my father’s daughter, and I inherited his perfectionist tendencies. If I’m not careful I fall into the trap of always searching for the perfect solution that meets my unnecessarily high standard of the “right” way to do something. For my daughter’s baby shower last weekend, I felt the need to put together the perfect gift bags, diaper raffle baskets and party décor. I even went so far as to read multiple articles online about how to fold tissue paper to make the tips peek out of the gift bag perfectly. This is just one of many examples of how I will research, ponder, reconsider and evaluate myself into exhaustion over something that frankly just doesn’t matter. 

While chasing after these ideals frequently leads to praise from others, it also causes stress, anxiety, lost sleep and missed opportunities. This realization hit home for me recently as I work my way through my latest read, “Take Back Your Time” by Christy Wright. As an actuary, I love things that come in well-defined steps, and her approach in this “guilt-free guide to life balance” outlines the five steps to achieve the right life balance for you.

  • Decide what matters
  • Stop doing what doesn’t matter
  • Create a schedule that reflects what matters
  • Protect what matters
  • Be present for what matters
This process is all about behavior change, driven by an understanding of what motivates how we spend our time now and what should motivate us to allow for a feeling of balance in our life. For me, the first two steps in the process are game changers. 

Why did it matter to me that the baby shower gift bags were perfect? I wanted to please people. I wanted them to think highly of me. I wanted them to have a good time at the party. I wanted to show that I care about them. You know what? Whether the gift bag they grabbed on the way out the door had perfectly peaked tissue paper sticking out of the top had no bearing on whether they had a good time or if they felt loved by me. 

As it turns out, I traveled the week before the shower and delegated the gift bag assembly to my husband. What would have taken me an hour to do, I’m pretty sure he powered through in 20 minutes. Why? Because he has the same belief that my mom would have had, which is that no one really cares about what is in the gift bag and what the tissue paper looked like. The bags looked beautiful without perfectly folded tissue paper.

We live in a world defined by being busy, which can lead us to feeling like our lives are out of balance. Are we busy with the right things? Do we have the right perspective about the things we’re spending our time on? If we aren’t, the easiest way to create balance in our lives is to stop doing the things that don’t matter. We also have the opportunity to say no to things that we don’t need to do, that don’t bring us joy, and don’t help us be the person we want to be.

As actuaries, we are held to high standards for the work we do, as there are often significant and real-life decisions made based on our work. This puts pressure on us to strive for perfection, and understandably so. Striving for perfection takes time and contributes to our busyness. I’m not suggesting we accept mistakes or compromise quality where it counts. I’m talking about recognizing that while often perfection is demanded, there are times when good enough is good enough. Our ability to recognize those times can create additional space in our busy schedules so we can put proper attention and focus on things that matter most.

As leaders we need to have clarity of mind about what is and isn’t important. If we don’t, our ability to lead is encumbered and our teams’ success is jeopardized. It’s very easy to become distracted by taking on other people’s problems, focusing on the wrong things or doing more than is needed. Our ability to clearly define the desired end state and keep the team focused on the big things while we execute the small things is essential to ensuring we’re doing the right things at the right time and in the right way. 

As the deadline for publishing my monthly blog loomed this week, I am acutely aware of my perfectionist tendencies; I was tempted to spend more time rewriting paragraphs. However, I have many other demands on my time – personal and professional. As I seek the perfect balance, I have chosen to follow my mother’s example and be satisfied with good enough. Now, I have more time in my busy schedule to focus on the next important thing. 

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