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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2001 / 3 Adar, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Thinking inside the box at tax time -- INCOME TAX preparation season is for me what New Year's Day is to other people. A time to lie lay on the floor and wait for the room to stop spinning. No, I mean a time for looking back on the past year and making elaborate resolutions for the year ahead.

This time of year, not New Year's, is when people get serious about setting unreasonable goals. That they strive to do better. That they devise gimcrack organizational systems with boxes and files and envelopes and calendars. A time to pledge allegiance to greater organization.

We are a people who put great store in organization. We may not know where we're going, but we're going there with a mission statement, a list of deadlines, a proper storage system and the software to keep track of it all.

I found further encouragement when I got lost in a bookstore and I found myself in the valley of self-help books. This is a place I usually avoid. If I were more organized, I would not have been there, but my own confusion brought me face to face with shelves full of books on how to be more organized.

Scanning them, I noticed something interesting. That the New Agey books, the Strive-for-Dynamic-Business-Success -Among-the-Sharks books, the general Get-in-Touch-with-Yourself -and-Live-a-Fulfilling-Life books, the books about specific low-level psychiatric ailments, and even the Be-Like-Martha-Stewart books, all come together in one feel-better harmonic convergence on the Get Organized shelf.

Some books advise you to put your stuff in labeled boxes to get in touch with your rich inner self.

Some advise you to put your stuff in labeled boxes to stomp the competition and become a High Achievement Personality.

Some advise you to put your stuff in labeled boxes as one part of a 15-part plan for becoming the kind of person who can complete a 15-part plan.

Some advise you to put your stuff in labeled boxes to achieve Zen-like simplicity of living.

And some advise you to put your stuff in labeled boxes in order to discover the simple joys of putting your stuff in labeled boxes decorated with colorful, hand-printed archival-quality wrapping paper.

I saw this array of advice and possibilities for improvement and immediately made a resolution.

Buy stock in a corrugated cardboard company.

That I came upon this at tax time did seem providential. This is the one time of year when I repent my sloppy ways. I'm living a Form 1040-EZ lifestyle in a Form 1040 world. It's time to be a grownup. This will require labeled boxes and multicolored markers.

The key to successful boxing is to make your system flexible enough to last a year. With this in mind, I approached the first box's label like a poet, knowing I had to convey the essences of life in only a few words. The successful box label must have the brevity of a haiku line - forms fall in small pile.

I thought hard and wrote "other."

Writing "miscellaneous" would have sent me to the dictionary.

And just as the books promised, I immediately felt more in control of my life, my destiny. I charged forward and created more. "Other II," "Tax stuff" and "pieces of plastic that must go to something."

I distrust systems, so it was hard to go too much further. I didn't want the boxes to become an end in themselves. Yet this was clearly incomplete. I added just one more - "paper to go into other boxes."

This was a genius stroke. It made the system open-ended. Ready to receive whatever overflow life brought to it. And it represented a firm commitment to work this out further. Someday real soon when I get around to it.

An organizational system is no better than its labeling. It's obviously too subtle a technique to lay out in one column. I'll should flesh it out into a self-help book. But that would mean going out and finding more boxes. I'll have to consult the schedule.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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01/12/01: White boards taking over classrooms
12/23/00: Post-election holiday etiquette
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11/30/00: Courts should be on-line, on-TV and in public
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© 2000, M. R. Lane