I am both an obsessive perfectionist and easily distracted, which makes for some bizarre and infuriating consequences. It’s why after poring over the supplies I would use to make thank you notes for Xavier’s birthday (in July) and carefully constructing them right after his party, they still sit unwritten on my desk. It’s why I have a box of carefully labeled, sorted, and color coded speciality printing papers that now sits at the top of the hall closet into which we’ve also stuffed an unorganized stack of bags, coats, and half-inflated helium balloons (don’t ask).
It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to discover that perfectionism is not a wonderful quality that we only pretend is a weakness in job interviews when we’re asked to enumerate our every flaw (when really our potential employers are looking for confirmation that we are indeed flawless). I have understood for a while that it does not result in immaculate homes and expertly organized lives. In fact, because everything must conform to impossibly high standards, it can be downright paralizing. When I don’t have time to do something the way it ‘should’ be done, I don’t do it at all. Alas, still in search of The Perfect Dresser and The Perfect Kitchen Table, my clothes are piled up in uneven stacks at the bottom of my closet and we continue to use the old table we borrowed from my mother for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Surprisingly, being very busy can sometimes be the kick in the pants I need to settle for “good enough.” Before Quinn was born, I was juggling a full time teaching job (that easily ate up 60 hours each week), a full time slate of classes in my doctoral program, and only four days of childcare for Xavier. I have vivid memories of picking him up from childcare, getting him fed, bathed, and down to bed, and diving back into my coursework, grading, and teaching preparation into the early hours of the next morning, knowing that as soon as my head hit the pillow, I would hear my baby crying for his late night feeding. It felt like constant triage. It’s not a schedule I would wish on anyone (including myself), but it forced me to find a way to get all of the important things done without completely losing my mind. Teaching is one of those things that you can’t just phone in, and I sometimes found myself dropping what I was working on during a late night research or paper grading session to plan the next day’s classes. “What was I thinking?” I’d say to myself. “I should have done this first.”
And so the rule of first things first was born. It’s quite simple, really. When you find yourself with time to tackle some items on your to-do list, but you are overwhelmed by it, think first of what you absolutely need to have done to be ready for the next day. Do you have something due? Is everything packed for that doctor’s visit/trip/important appointment? Do I have any phone calls to make or emails to send to make sure everything falls into place for tomorrow? I always tackle these things first. It’s reassuring when I finish this list to know that, although there might still be a long list of things to do, I could at least make it through the next day fully prepared. Once I’ve finished everything I need to do for the next day, I move on to the day after that. And once I’m a few days ahead (which really rarely happens, by the way), I start tackling more long-term projects. And I can do it a bit more comfortably, knowing that if I don’t finish, I’ll still be ready for tomorrow.
It’s a fairly common sense concept and one that, I’m sure, many people have mastered completely on their own and others have tackled with the help of planners, iPhones, and a whole cadre of software. But for those of us for whom picking out an outfit can be downright draining, its bears repeating. As I look ahead to a busy fall of preschool duties, dissertation work, travel plans, and a long wish list of family outings, I’m hoping this rule will help keep me on track–and help me maintain my ever-dwindling sanity.