(c) 2010 Trina Lambert

So I’ve just finished up another week where my lack of organization made my life so much harder—and got in the way of how well I could do activities I do enjoy. Old story, different day, right? Yet here’s the thing about me, I’m always searching for that Holy Grail of organization that will CHANGE MY LIFE. Another old story because it’s part of the story of who I have been from my beginnings: a naturally disorganized person (seriously, you should have seen my bedroom from my youngest years!) who keeps believing that all I have to do is find the tools/systems that will redeem me.

On the other hand that type of thirst could also condemn me except that it would also be pretty darn lame if I struck some Faustian deal just to get organized. Please tell to stop lusting after this seemingly elusive goal that isn’t even fun!

What I really want is to have more fun and reduce my stress levels by being more organized. That means all I care about—deep down anyway—is being organized enough to live better.

Back to this week. Despite posting my intentions on February 13 regarding getting our tax paperwork ready, especially in time to estimate our information for filing the preliminary FAFSA (filling out this college-related financial aid document is so not fun!) by school deadlines, I did not finish until February 28. I have been turning down invitations and putting off creative projects ever since then but could never quite finish until I got my husband to sit by me as the impending deadline arrived. (OK—on the positive side, the deadline was really March 1 so I beat it by two days!)

What seems to be true about me is that when I do not rely on a system or plan, then I work in a circular manner. Now, this is not a bad way to get going when I am trying to access my creative side—in fact, I like to use mind-mapping or clustering techniques to get all the thoughts out of my head and then focus on prioritizing order once I see all the pieces. However, I think we can all agree that creative approaches to tax work are at the bare minimum ineffective, but more likely criminal!

Still, yesterday, when my daughter asked me to help her with an outline for an essay she was writing, I kind of flipped out. Outlines are so linear and fixed—they’re lists!

The good news is that this week I am also reading Atul Awande’s The Checklist Manifesto and remembering the power of lists in many situations. Awande demonstrates how in a complex world, sometimes a simple checklist can bring focus to what needs to be done, even in complicated situations.

Such a checklist might have simplified my tax task so that I really could have finished it two weeks earlier. Even though I gathered all the official documents as they arrived in January and had most of the other papers necessary to help me fill out my accountant’s tax planner form, whenever I was missing something, I went off on a tangent. I’d work on one spreadsheet but not complete it because I was missing data. Instead of looking for the missing papers, then I would start with another spreadsheet. Before I finished, piles of papers—that had mostly been clipped and separated neatly—mixed together and covered my table. Yes, the tax planner was essentially a checklist, but a long, detailed checklist designed for multiple tax situations, not just my own. My own checklist could have been a handwritten slip for checking off all the papers I needed to gather as well as for checking off that I had filled in the corresponding slots on his form.

Funny how I forgot that checklists used to serve me well in another long ago complex time in my life. Once upon a time we had twin infants whom we brought with us to work. Caring for two infants is one long operations project at a time when you are not getting enough sleep to think clearly so it’s good to have plans and systems. It was hard enough to get out of the house just with the babies, let alone with all their equipment, supplies, and food. So finally we created a daily checklist that helped us get out the door with what we needed in a minimal amount of time.

It’s so simple, it’s scary. Holy Grail material or not, I’m giving it another chance.

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