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  • Sarah Nannery

Memory Lane: One Word - Meticulous

When I was growing up, there was one descriptor that followed me around everywhere - at home, at school, visiting family - everyone seemed to key in on this one part of my personality and turn it into a reason for praise. Or at least, a reason to take notice.

This one phrase became so ubiquitous that it fused into my self-identity:

"She is so meticulous."

Meticulousness was a specialty of mine.

It still is, though I have learned to turn it down, because you simply cannot be as meticulous with every detail of your life after you become a parent and a working professional and a life partner all in one. It's just impossible.

But back when life was simple (ha!), and all I had to worry about was homework or fitting in or which book to read next (ahhh, the good times, right? even though we didn't know it back then...), I had the time and the space to be as meticulous as my heart desired.

"That plant is going to think it lives in a tropical rainforest," my Dad commented from the kitchen table one night, watching me while I carried out my evening chores of watering the house plants.

Give me a job - like "water the plants" - and I'll do it. Like, do it, do it. Like, probably over do it.

My attention to detail growing up was second to none. If my job was to water the plants, then every inch of those plants were getting watered. Yes, literally every inch. That meant using the spray bottle to spray the top of each leaf. And the underside of each leaf. Yes, underneath, too. And a 360-degree rotating spray of the stem. There was no 30-second dump-a-cup-of-water-in-the-soil happening if I was the one watering the plants.

Of course, that meant it took much longer for me to complete my tasks.

"Honey, are you still watering?" my Mom chimed in half an hour later. "I think that's enough now, thank you!"

Even as a child, being dubbed as "meticulous" seemed to be a double-edged sword.

At times, it garnered praise - like in First Grade when my teacher held up my coloring to show the class how neatly I had stayed inside the lines, saying that I was the only one and that she'd never seen another 6-year-old color better. (Yay, me! Stay-inside-the-lines superstar! Except I've come to realize that the lines aren't always a good thing...)

But at other times, it drew concern, or, at worst, disdain and frustration.

Because my work was so much higher quality, it took me longer to complete. And because I lacked the executive functioning skills to determine what tasks or parts of tasks were more important than others, I could end up getting stuck perfecting elements of work that had little or nothing to do with moving the needle forward on the end goal.

If you've read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, you know about "The Terrible Trivium."

The Terrible Trivium is one of many "demons" that the protagonist, Milo, faces on his adventure through the magical tollbooth. The Trivium entices Milo to waste precious time on tedious and useless tasks, like moving a pile of sand from one place to another with a pair of tweezers.

Well, tweezing grains of sand may not sound enticing to you, but speak for yourself! ;-D

When I read that - I was probably about 10 years old - I realized how tempting that really would be for me. And it made me stop and think - wow. I would actually enjoy the steady, solid, comforting repetition of that kind of work, where I could see and experience tangible progress (even if it was slower than a sloth eating peanut butter), and where I could settle into a focused, rhythmic zone of "accomplishment."

But what would I really have been accomplishing? Nothing, in fact. That sense of accomplishment would have been false - a lie. A distraction.

Only the blunt and obviously useless nature of moving sand with tweezers could have opened my eyes to the idea that some tasks - some trivial, time-consuming, detail-oriented, highly tempting tasks - were actually black holes of nothing, with no real forward motion.

Would the plants in my house when I was a kid have survived perfectly well if I had cut my 30-minute watering routine down to 3 minutes of soaking the soil? Yes. Did they survive any longer or live more quality lives because I spent all that extra time and care putting water on every cell? Probably not. But did I enjoy those 30 minutes as a mental health break from whatever other chaos was happening in my life? Absolutely.

So here is the balance, right?

How can I satisfy my deep inner need for trivium - yes, trivium, because for me it is meditative and restorative - while at the same time not sacrifice real accomplishment?

I think the answer for me has been to try to look at the return on investment. What's the ROI of my current task? Is it restorative for me? Great. Is it actively keeping me - distracting me - from reaching my bigger picture end goal? Not so great.

I have learned to differentiate between trivial pursuits that give me the mental break I need but don't impact my accomplishment level - like putting the silverware away by size (productive and doesn't take an exorbitant amount of time) or taking some "me" time to indulge in an adult coloring book (not productive in a functional sense but immensely productive in a mental health sense). And trivial pursuits that are a negative impact on my bottom line - stuff that, while it may feel good to do, is taking me away from the more important things. Stuff like making the images for my blog posts more-than-humanly-perfectly-perfect or rubbing every single last grease spot off of the toaster oven. Would it be nice if the images were perfect and the toaster oven was spotless? Sure. Are either necessary for life to go on pleasantly? No.

This way, I can still satisfy the autistic "Terrible Trivium" urges that give me calm and peace, while at the same time treasure my time and put it where it's needed most. I can be meticulous about the things that matter, rather than trying to be meticulous about everything.

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