Thursday, January 7, 2010

To clean or not to clean?

When I first started freelancing nineteen years ago, one of my freelancing friends told me that I would be more successful as a writer if I viewed everything in terms of billable hours, as lawyers do, and avoid tasks that weren’t “billable.” She gave as an example cleaning one’s office. Cleaning brings in no revenue, can’t lead to future revenue (as writing queries or going to a conference might), and can expand to fill the time available.

As someone who had routinely straightened her office at the end of the day, I thought this was great advice . . . for the first few years. Not cleaning up saved me extra eight hours to ten hours a month, which I could spend making more money or taking off a Saturday.

It is a good idea in moderation. Most writers will take any excuse they can to avoid writing. Straightening up feels like work and eats up a satisfying amount of time, creating a false sense of accomplishment. (In that sense, it’s like writing a blog post.) The result: lots of hours in the office, but not much writing done.

But my office provides many examples of the problems that arise from focusing too much on billable tasks.
  • Every raised surface and most of the floor are covered with papers.
  • The stacks of related papers have gotten so tall that some have fallen on each other and merged.
  • There are so many stacks of paper that I don’t remember what paper is where.
  • To get to the built-in drawers and cabinets in my office requires moving boxes of supplies, promo items, or papers, which encourages leaving even more things on the floor instead.
  • I waste probably an hour a week looking for lost items.
  • My account book for 2009 is blank, and an unsorted pile of receipts several inches tall awaits entering.
Please do as I say and not as I do. Don’t wait to clean your office until the task seems as resistant to solution as the Sphinx’s riddle. Take enough time to file, straighten up, and throw away that you can find what you need when you need it.

A good start may be routinely straightening your office at the end of the day.


Your visit was appreciated. Please stop by again on January 23, when I'll be blogging about how much and what writers should read.

—Shauna Roberts


Anonymous said...

There's an old saying: "A stitch in time saves nine". That saying did not come out of a vacuum. People (managers?) who only consider "billable" time worthwhile, are short-sighted and narrow-minded.

So get tidying everyone.

Genella deGrey said...

A circumference of at least four feet around me needs to me perfectly organized if not clean when I write.

Does that count?

Jewel Amethyst said...

I have a hard time imagining how anyone can write in clutter. It feels constricting and I have to clean. But then, I do not have an office (at least one that I write in). My laptop on the bed is still my main venue, and I keep most of my research papers in pdf files on the computer (less clutter.)

Shauna Roberts said...

CAPTAIN BLACK, yes, sir, captain, sir! As soon as I finish this story . . .

GENELLA, I would count that as tidy, at least compared with the current state of my office.

JEWEL, some clutter doesn't bother me. In fact, I find it a big help to have my research materials around me where I can easily refer to them instead of filed away, out of easy access. But excess clutter like what I have now makes it hard to focus.

Liane Spicer said...

When the time you save by not tidying up every day is offset by the time you spend looking for things, something's gotta give. When my spaces get too chaotic I lose my always-tenuous sense of control. When I feel this way I'm less productive at everything.

My mother's rule in the kitchen is: Clean as you go. I try to apply that to the office and my writing space as well.

Stefanie Worth said...

I hate cleaning, but my office is practically the neatest space in my house. I simply subscribe to the practice of touching a piece of paper once.

For example, got a receipt? Shove it in the EXPENSES folder. The latest writing magazine? Put it in the appointed holder. Paperwork related to my son's college life? That goes in the huge portable file on the lower shelf.

So, there's really no need to "pick up" at the end of the day for me. Mind you, I'm an incredible pack rat. It's not perfect, but over the years I've created a system that accomodates my flaws.

Shauna Roberts said...

LIANE and STEFANIE, thanks for your helpful comments. I realized after reading them that part of my problem with my office is that I never set up a system for storage or filing after moving here. Many things I can't put away just because there's no designated place for them. Tonight I will talk to my husband about whether I can use his file cabinets that are currently sitting empty in the garage. Thanks.