Christene LeDoux,
Part-time Personal Assistant

Rate: $12 an hour
Found: Craigslist

Christene loves my daughter. Loves my dog. Loves my cat. On the first day she works for me, she drops off dry cleaning, organizes a drawer, buys materials for a new laundry-room shelf, buys hooks for my bathroom doors, drops all my trash at the transfer station, takes four boxes of donations to the thrift store, finds a handyman to fix a broken bureau drawer, and brings me a latte. I love Christene.

On the second day, she gets stuck in traffic on the way to my house, and I spend the first hour of her time here searching for tools she can use to install the laundry-room shelf. She installs said shelf slowly and with some difficulty. Same with the hooks on my bathroom doors. I realize, at the end of the day, that we should have asked the handyman to install the shelf, so that Christene could have worked on combining my address books. But I still love Christene.

As I'm falling asleep that night, insight jolts me awake: I'm making many of the same mistakes businesses do when they outsource (see "Outsourcing Trip-Ups," at right). Having edited a half-dozen stories about those pitfalls, I should have been able to avoid them. Nope. Management 101: Knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to execution. To lull myself to sleep I open my laptop and tinker with the next day's to-do list.

The third day, Christene sells a crate of my old books to Half Price Books, picks up my dry cleaning, ships some packages, checks the mail, prints photos from a CD, drops another box at the thriftstore, takes more trash to the transfer station, and brings me a latte. Then she sits at her laptop and starts typing my contacts into a database. I sit at my desk and write. When I leave for a classroom party at my daughter's school, I feel like part of me is still working. I'm wondering whether Christene could be a semiregular help around the house. I wonder whether she'd consider changing her name to Gerald.

After Christene leaves, I realize I've done about an hour's worth of paying work and six hours of "Action, Reference, or Trash." I'm seriously failing at this outsourcing thing. But all my drawers are organized. Would my editor, who's just e-mailed to ask for the story­ I owe him, be impressed? Nope. Would he be impressed if he knew that I stay up late turning business cards into electronic­-­address-book entries? Nein. That the next day, Saturday, I spend my free time applying "Action, Reference, orTrash" to more boxes and files, and that, in the process, I find my own birth certificate and my parents' wills? Not likely. I'm hoping that turning in this story early will make up for it.

About halfway through the Week of Ge­rald or his Reasonable Facsimile, I wonder whether my dream is permanently shattered. CanI go back to dreaming of the perfect personal assistant, knowing the difficulty of managing that mythical person? If not, might my psyche be permanently damaged?

Now that it's over, I'm not so worried. I think I've learned how to deal with Gerald, in whatever form he manifests himself. Part of him now resides in the me who recites "Action, Reference, or Trash" at the smallest provocation. The rest is out there, ready to be hired at a moment's notice. In fact, I'm thinking that, in a couple of weeks, when I've caught up on my work, I'll get Christene over to put seven years' worth of photos into the photo albums I just bought. That way, I can strike a big task off my new comprehensive, master, everything-including­-the-kitchen-sink list.

And what's after that? Woman of the Year, of course.

Happy Returns
Money spent on outsourcing: $525
Temporary nanny manager: 145
Organizational specialist: 260
Part-time assistant: 120

Money spent as a result of outsourcing: $303
Shelf supplies 63
Filing supplies 81
Wrapping supplies 15
Lightbulbs 7
Plastic bins 21
Carpet cleaning 65
Handyman 25
Filofax refills 26

Time spent looking for outsourcing help: 8 hours

Time spent preparing for outsourcing help: 14 hours
Cleaning closets 6 hours
Making lists 3 hours
Shopping for organizing gear 5 hours

Time helpers will spend helping me: 22 hours

Value of time lost to outsourcing prep and/or obsessive organizing:
$1,225 (and counting)

Value of finding third cousin's address the first time I looked for it:
you know.

Outsourcing Trip-Ups

If I were a corporate vice president contracting work out to a vendor, I might stumble into some of the same traps I came upon at home. "Outsourcing requires an ongoing relationship that has to be managed proactively and measured to achieve what is expected," one expert at the technology research and analysis firm Gartner's told CNET news. "Outsourcing is hard work, and it takes a lot of preparation." I learned that firsthand. Mistakes are for learning from, though, and here's my newfound wisdom.

 Get ready, get set. Without the necessary information, your hirelings can’t do the job. If you don’t know exactly what you want them to do, it’s hopeless. Analyze your work carefully, prioritize, and put all the info together before you hire out the work.

 Expect training time. My nanny-for-a-day didn’t know how to find my daughter’s school, the post office, or anything else in town. I had to write directions for her. After a few days, she’d learn. Don’t think your helpers can work independently until they’re trained.

 Match the person to the job. I should have asked Christene to delegate shelf installation to the handyman instead of doing it herself. Faster, cheaper, more time for Christene to bring me lattes.

 Hands off! Once you hire and train your vendors, get back to where you belong: at your own desk, doing your own work. Let them come to you with problems. Check in occasionally; expect reports. But don’t expect them to do everything exactly the way you would.

 Don’t get distracted. You’ve hired people to make your life easier, not harder. Let them focus on doing their jobs while you focus on doing yours. Don’t let their work change your to-do list.