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Where is that receipt for the conference you just attended? And how about the interview that you finished last week for an article you need to write today? Writers can easily find themselves lost in a sea of papers or searching through electronic folders if they’ve let their office and organizing system slip into despair.

If you have a severe case of “clutter” or a minor “messy” situation, today is the day you can start to tackle those untidy areas of your writing life and put yourself on the path to a neater and more organized you.

“Having to search for what you know you already have wastes time, and that is time you will never get back again,” says Diane Albright, a Certified Professional Organizer (CPO) and nationally recognized expert in the field of organization and productivity. “The more organized you are, the more productive you can be.”

Albright points to studies that have found that the average American wastes fifty-five minutes a day looking for things they know they have but cannot find, which adds up to approximately six weeks a year of searching for stuff—time that could be spent doing more writing. Albright says that all of the looking for files and resources also causes stress, while being organized makes you feel better and builds confidence in your ability to execute on a project.

“...the average American wastes fifty-five minutes a day looking for things they know they have but cannot find...”

Get Ready

Getting organized doesn’t have to be delayed because you don’t have a bunch of special organizing “stuff” that will only add to your existing clutter. If you need containers and bins, look at repurposing what you already have—something a creative person may just enjoy. With that in mind, there are two items that Albright recommends getting to help the process:

“If I were to organize an office, the first thing I would buy would be a label maker,” says Albright. “For office use, my favorite label maker is the P-Touch 2730. This label maker can connect to your computer and print anything that is on (your computer) onto a label—from logos to photos—or if you just prefer to type from your computer, instead of the keypad on the label maker. And it has laminated labels, so it’s not going to wear away.”

Because people use 20 percent of their things about 80 percent of the time, labeling is important to help remember where 80 percent of the stuff is that we don’t use as frequently. When you start organizing your office, you’ll want to group items by category and then label those categories. And why a label maker? Albright says not to rely on printing labels from a computer or handwriting them because it can be time consuming and because of the possibility of a paper label wearing away or falling off.

Albright says another essential item is a desktop file organizer that will hold important files that you frequently use. While Albright has two low cost favorites, a more decorative option on her site or a less expensive version at Staples, she says you can cover a cardboard box with paper if you want a virtually no-cost option. This will help to clear up the piles on your desk that are awaiting an action.

A paper shredder may be an additional item you may want to purchase if you anticipate having to destroy large amounts of outdated financial documents or sensitive information. This is an item that I have found to be useful because once a paper is shredded, there is no way it can make its way back to my desktop or a file folder.

“Once you are organized from this moment forward, then you can go back to organize what you let fall through the cracks.”

(Photo: Diane Albright)


Get Set

Take the time to think about how you are going to tackle the clutter instead of diving into a daylong cleaning fest that will cause you to crash and burn by lunch. Here are some key thoughts from Albright on how to approach the problem, whether you work from home or in an office:

  • Start with something that will have a big impact. Think about what area is causing you to waste the most time or causing you the most stress. If you get that area organized, then you will have more free time to continue the organizing process and lower stress levels about the whole situation.
  • Know that organizing doesn’t have to be a huge project for the day, or you may never do it. Break it down into small, achievable segments that you can plan into your weekly schedule. Start with a desk drawer or electronic file a day. Spending just ten minutes a day can work. Albright developed an approach called 10 Minutes a Day to Organizing Success®, which has a template you can use to outline your week. (Click here for a free, blank PDF form to use for your planning). For example:

Day 1: Create a bin or folder for each project you have; do this on your computer and e-mail in-box.
Day 2: Toss all of your cables and cords that aren’t in use in one box, but label each cord with the name for the corresponding device before tossing.
Day 3: Create a “Pending Folder” in your physical desktop file folder and e-mail in-box. A pending folder is for all of the things you are hanging on to because you are waiting on another person’s action or response.
Day 4: Organize one of your desk drawers.
Day 5: Create a “To Read” folder for your desk and e-mail in-box. Go through this folder, while you are waiting at the doctors or sitting in the car at soccer practice.

Write a new plan at the end of each week.

  • Start getting organized from this point forward. Don’t start organizing last year’s paperwork first. Once you are organized from this moment forward, then you can go back to organize what you let fall through the cracks. You may even find that these piles can be filed in the shredder or trash.

So, plan your approach, determine the daily areas for the next five days that need to be cleaned-up, and allot the time for getting it done. Remember to keep it manageable and to focus on the things you will get the most out of cleaning up right away. And start with the more current paperwork before tackling four years of tax documents. These tips will help you keep stress levels low because if you are more stressed out over the cleaning than the clutter, it won’t get done.

“Aim toward the goal of someone being able to walk into your office and find things without your assistance.”

Get Organized

While the approach you take to organizing may have some unique aspects because of the type of work/writing that you do, there are some key tips for any writer who is creating a system for her office. Here are three tips to get started:

  • Consistent: Whether you’re creating paper files or electronic folders, make sure to keep your system consistent. For instance, when you create a bin or folder for each project you are working on, use that same exact name to create a folder on your computer and in your e-mail in-box.
  • Simple: Aim toward the goal of someone being able to walk into your office and find things without your assistance. Labels should easily identify the objects inside a box. For example, don’t write “Miscellaneous” or “Stuff” because that doesn’t describe the contents.
  • Sustainable: If you have scheduled “three hours of cleaning” first thing every morning for the next three weeks, you are setting yourself up for failure. Make sure each process you put in place is one you can sustain over the long run.

Most people won’t have a problem identifying their disorganized areas that need some TLC. But in case you need some inspiration, here are the top things in my home office that have fallen into disrepair:

  • Financial documents to include folders, receipts, and spreadsheet updating
  • Organizing my computer files with a better system
  • Cleaning and updating my source list, so I don’t have to search for cards
  • Managing my “piles” of clips, including physical and electronic versions
  • Going through my physical files to shred and dispose of outdated documents
  • Giving my laptop the cleaning I know it deserves

Your list may include going through your office supplies and deciding what you need to stock up on or get rid of, organizing the piles of magazines you receive, updating your invoice list, or going through your e-mail in-box. But remember Albright’s approach of picking an activity a day, instead of making a list a mile long that may make you run for the leash to walk the dog...yet again.

“Don’t start any new improvements for your office or self until you master keeping your office organized.”


How to Keep Going

Just like it’s hard to stay on a diet, getting organized is easy for an hour, maybe a day, but what after that? If you feel yourself finding any excuse to skip your goals on day four and five, consider getting an organizing “buddy.” If you have someone there to talk to or help you out, the time will go by quicker, and there will be a way to hold you accountable for completion of your larger projects. A virtual organizing “buddy” can check in with you to ask if you’ve completed your daily organizing while she tackles her own list. And if you have a friend who loves to organize, consider bartering a service with her to have her come over and help you out with some bigger projects—like finally going through all of your clips and scanning them.

Albright also recommends staying focused on keeping the office organized for twenty-one consecutive days once you finish. “Don’t start any new improvements for your office or self until you master keeping your office organized,” says Albright. “After twenty-one days, it becomes habit. If you move onto something else, it’s not going to stay that way.”

What About Cleaning Up Your Career Clutter?

Physical clutter is much easier to spot, but less tangible day-to-day career clutter may be harder to recognize; however, it’s still inhibiting your progress and slowing you down with its distraction. These are just three of the “unorganized” areas of your career that may need periodic straightening in order to make sure they are just as focused as your desktop.

Goal Creep: Do you have a ton of sticky notes around your desk that say things like, “Pitch to XYZ really cool magazine,” or “Make sure to talk to so-and-so about assignments for next year”? Maybe there are some lists that start with, “Write that book of poetry you’ve always dreamed of doing when you have time.” “Be sure to blog every week!” This “goal clutter” is another area of your writing career that may benefit from a little organization.

“When you define a target, then you can track how close you come to hitting.”

(Photo of Sage Cohen by Nyla Alisia)

“I am a big fan of goals personally,” says Sage Cohen, poet, blogger, and author of The Productive Writer. “In my experience, having a process for measuring our evolution as writers makes the whole journey far more satisfying. When you define a target, then you can track how close you come to hitting.”

Without establishing your goals, you can send yourself in a million directions and take on projects that don’t meet your goals or expectations for your career.

“I definitely suffer from ‘goal creep,’” says Justine Ickes, writer and instructional designer who blogs at Culture Every Day. “And I think that’s true for many writers and creative people.”

Because you have to open your mind to letting in ideas, there is the possibility of unfocused ideas and less career-forward situations creeping into your work. It’s easy to get sidetracked, warns Ickes, who must remind herself to stay true to the big picture and focus on the specific goals and daily actions that will get her there.

Several tips that Ickes offers to keep her goals focused and free of “creep” clutter:

  • After setting your goals, keep them visible. “A few years ago a dear friend helped me brainstorm my big picture goals, and we wrote up the key benchmarks on a large piece of flipchart paper,” says Ickes. “It’s tacked up on my office wall, so that I see it every day; and it serves as a visual reminder. So each day, I can see those goals, so that when I’m tempted to dive into a new project or to pursue the ‘flavor of the month’ idea, I ask myself, ‘Does this move me toward my goal?’”
  • Revisit your goals quarterly, not just at the beginning of the year. “Believe it or not, the fact that I have two young sons helps with this quarterly review because I’ve gotten into a rhythm where the review is in sync with their school calendar,” says Ickes. By periodically checking your goals, you can start to see whether the projects you have started or hope to start align with what you want to achieve. If they don’t, you should evaluate whether you should be doing them.

“…it’s very important to think long and hard about which social media you’re using and why…”

(Photo: Justine Ickes)


Time Wasters: Admit it. You spend time on Facebook. A lot of time on Facebook. Or maybe your addicted to finding out if your latest celebrity is really pregnant. Are you checking e-mail every ten minutes? Or maybe Fido is getting a few too many walks around the block these days? Do you spend more time on the phone than required? Then it is time to identify your time wasters and figure out how to decrease time spent on them.

“I think it’s very important to think long and hard about which social media you’re using and why,” says Ickes. “Is it really helping you move toward your career or writing goals?”

Setting designated times for checking social networking sites, doing some web surfing, or checking e-mail helps to eliminate cluttering your day with time wasters.

“Don’t check e-mails more than three times a day, unless your job is sensitive to e-mails,” says Albright.

She suggests checking in the morning, but not first thing, since you will want to spend time following up instead of working on a project that needs to get completed. Then check right after lunch, when you’ll have time to address any issues instead of before lunch. Finally, check about an hour before the end of the day, when you have time to respond to any concerns.

If your life is cluttered with time spent on the phone, Albright says to jot down what you would like to discuss or ask during the call before placing it. According to studies, doing this will save about five minutes per phone call, adds Albright.

Stress Mess: Has your writing career become stress-filled? Have you lost the spark that gives you new ideas and motivation? If that’s the case, you may have a case of stress mess and need to take the time to figure out the source of your career stress in order to have a productive year.

“I have a tendency to prioritize writing over the life practices that keep the writing flowing,” says Cohen. “For example, my sleep and exercise rhythms often get sacrificed in favor of more time at my desk. Because being sluggish doesn’t do much for my mood or my productivity, I have committed to the care of my body and spirit as primary investments in my writing life.”

Identifying your stress messes will help you to set a schedule for cleansing them from your life and point you toward a more focused day and career.

Goal creep, time wasters, and stress mess are all “junk” that gunks up the creative process and inhibits productivity. Consider adding these areas to your weekly cleaning schedule, so that you can start organizing these areas of career clutter that are keeping you from being your best.


Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer, mom of three, and military spouse who lives in Tennessee. Her articles and essays on military family life and parenting have appeared in anthologies, regional and national magazines, and newspapers. You can read her blog, Mom of Brats (about military families), or visit her website to learn more about what she writes.

More from Janine on WOW!: Personalize Your Parenting Writing

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