Mind Like a Macintosh

I hope Windows users will not take offense at this; but, in truth, it was Macintosh that invented double-clicking on little folders to retrieve files and documents. Before that creative breakthrough, maneuvering around computer directories was (in my view) a nightmare. I was rarely in the right directory; and, if, by chance I was, I couldn’t remember the name of the file. The Mac, on the other hand, seemed so logical, so user-friendly, and so organized. To me, it was and remains a metaphor for how a writer must be able to quickly put her hands on exactly what she needs, when she needs it—be that a file, an invoice, a scrap of paper with a phone number on it, a business card, a memo, or draft #2 of something that is now in its fifth incarnation.

I have ceased to be amazed at clients’ expectations. The phone rings, and occasionally the client actually identifies himself. Usually, though, he just starts talking as if we were in the middle of a meeting and he had merely paused to take a sip of coffee. “You know that third paragraph?” he might say. “I think it needs some work. How about if we said it this way?” And he begins to ramble or restate or dictate.

In the meantime, unless I have a system that allows me to reach for the file as he is saying hello, grab the appropriate piece of paper, and get to the third paragraph at about the same time he does, I am immediately lost in space. A variation on that theme suggests that I am sitting at the computer; and, no matter what I happen to be doing at the time, I can instantly find and open the client’s file, the project file, and the document he is already busily rewriting. Both are possible, of course, but my goal is to be able to do one or the other with lightning speed. When the client says, “You know that third paragraph …?” I want to be able to reply, “Yes, I’m looking at it right now.” Now, that’s organized!

Take a good hard look at your office. Is it organized? Could you find something if you needed to? Never mind finding it in a split second. Could you find it at all? If not, why not? Is your file system a mess, assuming you have a system? Are there piles of things here, there, and everywhere; an overstuffed things-to-do box; a stack of filing you never seem to get to; research that is so old it is obsolete; files for clients you don’t have anymore; or publications that are out of print? In other words, are you buried in a sea of useless paper?

Alone or with help, you can bring order to chaos. Here is what you would have to do:

  • Go through every piece of paper and act on it: File it, read it, or pitch it.
  • Go through every file folder; consolidate those you want to keep, and ruthlessly toss the rest. If you’re really ambitious, you can recycle the paper.
  • Revamp or reorganize your filing system so that it makes sense, not only to you, but also to the imaginary secretary you dream of hiring.
  • Clean off your desk and any other surface that has anything on it. That definitely includes the floor.
  • Remove anything from your work area that isn’t necessary for work, such as non-work-related books, knickknacks, excess photos, and general clutter. Put the things you use often within arm’s reach.
  • Arrange current project files in alphabetical order, and put them close enough to grab when the phone rings. Review their contents so you know what is in each file without shuffling through it frantically.
  • Put a long enough cord on the phone to allow you to keep talking if you have to move away from the desk. Better still, use a portable phone. Best of all, use a battery-powered headset, so your hands stay free.
  • If the thought of tackling all of the above makes you physically sick, hire a professional organizational expert. This is not an extravagance; it is an investment in your ability to function.
  • Finally, make sure your “system,” whatever it may be, works for you. It must be able to grow with you and your business.

Organizing your physical environment is step one; step two is doing the same thing with your computer environment. This could require a chapter all its own, but the fundamental rules are much the same as those for your office.

  • Ask yourself, what is cluttering up your computer? If you can’t bear to part with something, back it up. If you don’t need a file or folder, delete it.
  • Organize your computer files the same way you have organized your paper files—logically and accessibly.

The payoff for all this effort and time? Among the many obvious benefits of an orderly mind, computer, and work area is the biggest benefit of all: When the client or editor calls and begins talking as if you had the file in your hand or on your screen, you will!

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