Saturday, January 21, 2012

Professional Organizers Can Help Writers

Professional organizers don't come cheap, but sometimes they can pay for themselves by making a writer much more productive.

I have used professional organizers twice, and they were a great help both times.

The first time, I had been living in New Orleans for almost fifteen years, and I had outgrown my home office. When a friend mentioned that she and a friend of hers were starting a professional organizing business, I commented that my office was a lost cause. Her eyes lit up. She said that they needed to get some practice jobs so they could get references and suggested that they give me a discounted price with the understanding that if I were happy with what they did, I would write a reference for them for their Website.

Dubious that anyone could help me, I still couldn't pass up such a good offer. The two women came to my office, crawled over piles and dug through the closet, took lots of measurements, and asked lots of questions. Then they came up with a brilliant plan that gave me lots more space and a more efficient work space. They even did all the work themselves in one day, shutting the door so I couldn't interfere. I was happy to write a good recommendation.

A lot of what they did for me was to make me question my assumptions. A few examples:
  • I had been keeping every draft and every piece of reference material for every article I had ever written, or ever proposed, since I had started as a freelance writer. They convinced me that now that the Internet had been invented and information was easy to come by, I could get rid of many journals and all but the most recent background information for articles. 
  • I had one table for writing and one table for editing, with reference books and basic supplies by each. That had made sense when editing work arrived by Fed-Ex or fax machine and I edited manually. But now that I edited mostly on the computer, they consolidated the two work areas into one. 
  • I had all my bookcases and tables against the walls with a big empty space in the middle of the room that I used for storing piles of papers. They took my tables and arranged them in the shape of a U, making a work cockpit. From my chair I could now reach every project on every table as well as my printer and fax. The room felt bigger because my work area was neat and there weren't piles all over the floor; I had more work space because the "cockpit"  took advantage of the middle of the room; and I even had wall space for more bookcases. 
I went from having a messy, crowded office without enough space to work to a work space that saved me time and energy and suited my work style perfectly.

The second time I used a professional organizer was a month ago. We had lived in California for more than four years by then, and yet many boxes from my former office were still sitting in the hall, waiting to be unpacked. My major problem was that my office in California has no closets and is lined with built-in wood bookcases and drawers. They look beautiful, but I can't reach their top shelves, and they leave no space for filing cabinets. I was at a loss where to put books so I could reach them and how to store papers I would otherwise file.

The problem only increased over the succeeding four years as I generated more paper and started new projects. I had nowhere to file or store them, so the floor and every other surface in my office was covered with stacks of paper. I wasted 15 to 30 minutes a day looking for phone numbers I needed to call, notes I needed for a project, and other important things such as scissors, my calculator, my pocket knife, even my house keys.

I was overwhelmed and, some days, frustrated to tears. The mess stressed me out, but I didn't know where to start.

This time I found an organizer by searching Google for professional organizers near my Zip code and then reading the organizers' Websites carefully to see what types of jobs they did and whether they had experience with people with memory and health problems. I selected a company that listed "elderly people" as one of the groups it served.

The woman the company sent out was a former nurse who had seen worse messes than mine and was not intimidated.
  • She took everything off the bookcases; I chose what books to keep, what to throw away (some of my medical and scientific books were so out of date that they were useless), and what to give to Goodwill. When she refilled my bookcases, I had room for books that were sitting in piles, waiting for a home. 
  • She cleaned out my cabinets and reorganized them. 
  • She convinced me that old computer, printer, and USB cables; old phones; and old phone cables should be boxed up and put in the garage, where they would be easy to access but not taking up limited drawer space in my office.  
  • We went through all the piles of papers and still-packed moving cartons and we filled boxes and boxes with papers and junk I no longer needed. 
  • With the addition of several files trays, my tall pile of "papers to do something with soon" became neatly organized by topic and urgency. 
  • Once the hall was empty of moving boxes, I bought short bookcases for along the hall wall to store  books and papers for current projects. Now components of projects are together at a level I can reach, and the hall looks nice instead of as if we're preparing to move.
  • My organizer took several empty plastic file boxes sitting in the hall and, using hanging folders I already had, filed important papers in them. I have no place to put the boxes except to stack them on the floor in the corner, but at least they look orderly and contained and I can find what I need.
  • Many organizers—watch out for this if you decide to hire one!—want their clients to buy expensive prepackaged systems for organizing and filing. Personally, I don't care for nouveau-middle-class matchy-matchy decorating, and I certainly don't want to pay money for it. My organizer was similarly frugal. She organized my drawers and cabinets with things we already had around the house or in the garage, buying only a few attractive—and cheap—storage containers and file trays at Target. 
  • Because my organizer didn't use a prepackaged system, she was able to organize my office and storage around the way I work and think, not around the way the designer of a prepackaged system did.
The professional movers who had packed us up in New Orleans had put things in boxes willy-nilly, without regard for what papers, folders, or books were grouped together in my office. Materials for a half-written novel had been packed in several different boxes. Thanks to the organizer's help in unpacking and sorting, I now have everything I need for that novel reunited.

My office is a haven again and no longer a place of stress.

This time, I received no friend discount or early client discount. I paid by the hour, and it was expensive. However, my organizer worked quickly and had excellent ideas for fixing my problems. I was amazed how quickly she got things in order, and I needed her for far fewer days than she or I originally estimated. I'm working efficiently now. I know where things are, and I no longer fret that I'm forgetting something I'm supposed to do. I don't have to climb over papers anymore to get to my desk or a bookcase or a cabinet.

As before, it was worthwhile to hire an organizer to get my office—and me—back on track. I expect 2012 to be more productive and lucrative than 2011, and hiring a professional organizer is a big reason why.

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on February 6. Hope you visit again then.

—Shauna Roberts


Phyllis Bourne said...

"My office is a haven again and no longer a place of stress."

I love this line. Great post, Shauna!

KeVin K. said...

You only spent 15 to 30 minutes looking for things? I'm envious.
My home office doubles as the family temporary (ha!) storage room for things they're not sure is junk but don't have a place for right now. My usual routine is to spelunk for things I need, load them in my satchel and head for Port City Java to write. (Or, on days like today, the kitchen table.)
Maybe Kvaad Press can hire a professional organizer.
And an armed guard to keep family members with boxes out.

Charles Gramlich said...

That work cockpit ideas is a great one. I have something similar set up in both my home office and my work office, I've got tables on three sides in both places so that I can spread stuff out. It still fills up, but it helps, and helps when I begin the clean up/organizing job myself.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I have a love-hate relationship with my home office. My home office is in my formal living room, since I don't see the point of having both a dedicated living room and a family room. It sometimes doubles as a playroom for the kids. Other times I dump them and their toys out of the room and it gets overrun with papers.

The thing is, no matter how I organize that office I find I am unable to write in it. So most of my writing or any other work for that matter is done outside the office.

As for a professional organizer, I don't see myself affording one anytime in the near future, but it is a good idea. It might help me to finally be able to work in my home office.

Shauna Roberts said...

PHYLLIS, glad you enjoyed the post!

KEVIN, that must be hard not to have a dedicated office. I doubt I'd get anything if I were constantly moving from place to place to write. I find I concentrate best in my office and have a hard time writing anywhere else.

CHARLES, yeah, I LOVED having tables on three sides of me. If we ever move, that's the set up I will use again.

JEWEL, I'm always surprised by how many people can write outside their offices; nothing feels right when I try to write outside my office, and I get little done. One of the advantages of a professional organizer is a fresh look at your space and how you're using it. A friend might be able to look at your office and figure out ways to make it more inviting and more conducive to writing, and that would be free. (She probably wouldn't do any of the work for you, though.)

Mia Loveless said...

Hi Shauna, Well written article, properly researched and helpful for me throughout the future.I am so joyful you took the time and effort to make this article. Very nice publish. Thanks :-)Mia Loveless

Shauna Roberts said...

MIA, thank you for dropping by.

Liane Spicer said...

Some people function happily in chaos; I don't. Since my budget doesn't extend to personal organizers I have no choice but to keep my small workspace orderly. In theory.

In practice what happens is that every few months I look up in surprise and realize that my order has gone to hell while I wasn't looking. I spend a day or two getting reorganized then I don't look up for another couple of months.

Shauna Roberts said...

LIANE, that will be my challenge now, to finish the little bits left undone when the organizer stopped coming and then to spend a day every month or two putting things away again.