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The tyranny of order

I had two goals for yesterday:

1. Try to move much more slowly, both physically and mentally.
2. Only do things I felt like doing, as opposed to things I thought ought to get done.

As vivitalia observed, “Never a bad time for some new year's resolutions.” She was responding to my Friday post listing ways I want to change my life. I’m pretty sure she was saying new year’s resolutions don’t necessarily need to start New Year’s Day. In fact, believing that Jan. 1 is the only time for resolutions is the kind of thinking I’m fighting. Call it the tyranny of order.

For a long time, that way of thinking has been ingrained in me like growth rings inside the trunk of a freshly felled tree. I remember being in fifth grade, making a mistake on some homework, and feeling unable to simply cross out the error. Instead, I did the whole assignment again, so it would be perfect.

Then there was the episode from about 15 years ago, when I was a mid-level editor at the local newspaper. I arrived at the office about 5:15 p.m. on a Saturday and found I had a dozen pages to read the copy for and then lay out by midnight. I looked inside my desk drawer for my layout tools: pencils, a line gauge (a journalist’s ruler), an eraser and Sharpie markers. To help the people who put the pages together, I used a red Sharpie to indicate certain instructions, a black one to indicate others.

After I opened the drawer, I saw three black Sharpies and two red ones. I immediately stood up to go to the supply cabinet for a third red Sharpie.

“This is ridiculous,” I thought. “You’re only going to use one of each anyway. Close the drawer and get to work.”

I couldn’t. That third red Sharpie ordered me – ordered me – to come get it. So I did. Only then could I get to work.

The tyranny of order. It’s been replicating itself, like those tree rings, since fifth grade, 43 years ago. Even now, when people who are visiting my office for the first time look around, they invariably comment on how neat it is. I reply, “It’s a sickness.”

Writing the list Friday helped — a lot. Yesterday, when I found myself being sucked toward the whirlpool of obsessive behavior, I told myself: You don’t need to do task B right after task A. In fact, you don’t need to do task A first. Nor do you need to get anything done right now. So what if you took the socks out of the dryer and then forgot to fold them in pairs? So what if, after the socks were folded, you threw them into the drawer instead of aligning all the dress socks east/west on the left side of the drawer, all the casual socks north/south on the right side? (Separate drawers for black and brown socks, of course.)

Yesterday was a day of saying “no” to all that, and I’m still trying today. So what do I want to do right now? Write a conclusion for this essay, edit it, rewrite it, and post it. But right now, I’m going to go get a glass of pineapple juice and read the morning newspaper instead. I’ll finish this tonight.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2007 12:25 am (UTC)
It's nice to hear that changing ingrained routines isn't as impossible as it seems. I hope you continue to say "no" because you deserve a break.

Dec. 10th, 2007 03:55 am (UTC)
This is a good time of year to try, now that most of the air has been let out of the semester.
Dec. 10th, 2007 12:35 am (UTC)
For a long time, that way of thinking has been ingrained in me like growth rings inside the trunk of a freshly felled tree.

I know that feeling: it feels like these thought and behavior patterns are not just facets of our personality, they are us. You can't take the growth rings away and leave the tree; they are the tree. They comprise it, shape it, in every possible way.

But unlike trees we can choose and change. I'm glad to hear it's going well for you so far.
Dec. 10th, 2007 04:01 am (UTC)
I hear you when you say "they are us." My core skills — organization and time management — are drawn from the same forces that make me line up my socks in the drawer.
Dec. 10th, 2007 12:59 am (UTC)
That's such a long pattern to attempt to break-- you're really brave to try to take it on. I'm not sure I could. Good luck...just take it one day at a time!
Dec. 10th, 2007 04:03 am (UTC)
I'm not brave. Rather, I can't continue to live in a state where spilling a cup of coffee pushes me to the brink of losing it.

Cmac is fond of quoting Stonewall Jackson: "You may be whatever you resolve to be." We'll see.

Dec. 10th, 2007 04:28 am (UTC)
Reading this entry sent shivers down my spine. My life has also been ruled by obsessive-like behavior. Like measuring the pictures sticky-tacked to my walls to make sure each was in the exact center of a cinderblock. Organizing my closet by color, sleeve length, hanger color, and type of clothing. Partitioning my textbooks and notebooks according to class in the order in which those classes occur. My roomates continually make fun of me for doing the dishes the instant they appear in the sink. "Why are you still cleaning?" they're forever asking me.

Because I don't know how to stop.
Because I literally can't sit still until the house is clean, until every fraction of my desk is dust-free, until my cupboard is alphabetized by food type and/or brand.

I'm glad to see these habits can be, if not broken, somewhat controlled. And thanks for the quote. A piece of advice I'm working on following m'self.
Dec. 10th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)
After reading your examples, I understand perfectly why the piece resonated with you -- especially so after reading your posts over the past months.

My "get back in control" strategy is to refuse to surrender to such behaviors and then watch how the world doesn't start spinning in reverse just because I've been contrary.

I'm not going to try to make wholesale changes, just piecemeal ones. And not all of those behaviors are counterproductive, and some of them -- my tendency to collect brightly colored pens, for example -- may be indulged harmlessly.

Try breaking a habit: the food-sorting in alphabetical order, for instance. And really, shouldn't your food be sorted by expiration date?

There's a reason I asked that question; it wasn't a wisecrack.

Dec. 10th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)
I like how you make the distinction in this comment about not all the behaviors being counterproductive. I think that's an important point, at least for me.

Before I can sit at the desk and really accomplish anything, I need there to be a general feeling of order in the queendom. Not because I can't function otherwise, but because I hate walking back into perceived chaos. I like to clean up the dinner mess before I leave the kitchen simply because I don't want to have to do it later. Once it's done, I can lower my shoulders, relax the muscles a bit and move on.

When I get up in the morning, I like to make the bed. Nothing bad happens if I don't, but I don't like coming back into the bedroom and seeing a wrinkle bomb of blankets.
Dec. 10th, 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)
That would make sense, but I only have one of each type. The reason it's sorted in alpha order is because my cupboard is above eye-level, so if there's stuff in the back, I can't see what the box says, just that there is a box there. If it's alphabetical, I can guess with a reasonable degree of certainty, whether I'm risking my life pulling down oatmeal or cheez-its.

The fate of nations has rested on less. ;)
Dec. 10th, 2007 02:08 pm (UTC)
Great post. I'm an incredible procrastinator, so for me, it's not that I can't do B before A, it's that I don't want to do A so I'll do B instead... putting off A until the final hour.

As a professional organizer who gets called in to help people bring order to their lives, I've got to say that there's a big difference between liking order/being organized, and obsessing about things beyond the point of rational, which is a point that each person must determine for themselves.

Sometimes, people lump it all in together, especially if they're very unorganized, as though bringing order to the chaos swings the pendulum completely to the other side.

We helped someone organize a closet, and we always suggest matching hangers, like with like, color sorted, etc. Once we did this, she realized she had over twenty (20!) of exactly the same white t-shirt. She'd had no idea, because there'd been no order.

I'm sort of wanting to give you permission to keep the sock drawer somewhat organized. Otherwise, how will you know what you've got if they're all willy-nilly in a jumbled pile? (the mere thought gives me shivers...)
Dec. 11th, 2007 09:33 pm (UTC)
Wow, at least it is not just me who has obssesive tendencies before I am able to accomplish anything. Keep at it and hopefully you will be able to say "no" one day to that tyranny of order.
Dec. 12th, 2007 01:20 am (UTC)
Today I was throwing trash on the floor of my truck instead of reaching behind the passenger seat to drop it into the little wastebasket I keep there.

Today I dumped a big pile of unsorted papers on my desk and just let them sit there instead of sorting them and putting them in their proper places.

Today I walked into my Old English final at 5:20 p.m., only to discover it had started at 4, and instead of getting down on myself, I said, "What the hell ..." Instead of getting distracted by my gaffe, I concentrated on answering the questions instead.

It's a start ...
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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