How About a Systems Audit?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

I know, I know. You hear the word “audit” and you imagine that a root canal would be more fun, right?

Let me make the case for scheduling time to perform an internal audit of all your systems. This is my week to do it and I’m already well on my way. As some of you know, I’m a systems junkie. I love organization, productivity, and developing new ways to track information and, hopefully, to do my job more efficiently.

This week I’ve already solved a major glitch in my computer back-up systems. I plan to set a new model for doing email. I’m going to update and analyze my submission tracker system. I’m also going to begin an update on my clients– where they are and where they need to go. It’s more than I can hope to accomplish in one week, but I plan to get as much done as I can and then create a schedule for completing the balance.dreamstime_xs_26036371

Systems and organization are not just for agents, however. I often teach a class for writers called Discovering Your Organizational IQ. If you’d like to assess how you fare when it comes to organization you can take my quiz here. But whether you are an Organization Meister, an Organization Maven or even Organization-challenged, you can benefit from taking time to analyze your tools and systems.

As a professional writer, you are an entrepreneur. Yes, writing is an art but if you are writing for publication, you are as much a business person as you are an artist.  You need systems for filing things in your computer and in your office. You need to plan a protocol for naming computer files so you can immediately access those files and identify which edit is the latest and best. You need to log in your royalty reports to keep track of the number of books sold per title. You need to keep a running tally of cumulative books sold. (That’s how writers know when they’ve hit one million books sold– a cause for big celebration.) And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

If you are yet unpublished you’re not off the hook. You may have even more to keep track of– submissions, contests, agent queries, etc. You need good systems to keep all this in order. And if you get it all in place now it will become second nature by the time you’re published, when time will be at a premium.

We all need to keep our tools in top shape. Is your computer sluggish? Maybe it’s time to move some media files to external storage. Do you have glitches you haven’t taken time to fix? Your audit week is the time to get everything running smoothly. Even if you have to sit on the phone with a tech, set aside the time to do it. It will save you many wasted hours of work-around gymnastics over the long haul.

Your turn. What aspect of your work is out of control and driving you crazy? What do you need to fix? Are you spending too much time with email? How can you fix that? Is your inbox filled with unsolicited newsletters and ads? Do you know how to slow down the deluge? Is your newsfeed on Facebook filled with people you don’t know? Did you know you can change that? I encourage you to set aside time to work on the things that are slowing you down.

And. . . please share the time-saving systems you’ve already put in place.


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  1. Even though my workspace may look pretty chaotic, there is method to my madness, and I’m actually pretty efficient. Well, more or less.

    The main time-saving system I use is ‘procedure’. There’s a certain way I perform most of the daily tasks, and in a certain order. For example, feeding, watering, and walking 26 dogs would take forever if the actions were not carefully orchestrated – and I had to think of what I was going to do next. It’s developed through a kind of intuitive time-and-motion study.

    The second help is leaving no task unfinished. The laundry gets done, and does not inhabit the dryer ‘until I get around to it’. I know when the dryer will be done, so it gets folded at that time. Keeps jobs from backing up while I’m doing something more ‘fun’.

    Third, I try to get the dirty/hard/boring jobs done first. It’s remarkably freeing to be able to feel “Ah! THAT’S over with!”; it aids morale and efficiency. Things like file organization fall into this category.

    Fourth, preparation. Setting out clothing for the next day, setting out tools for the next day’s job, setting out research materials for tomorrow’s writing – these all enable a running start and prevent a feeling of ennui on facing the day with its tasks and responsibilities.

    • There is a method to my workspace madness also. The piles are very well organized. 😉

      I echo what you mentioned about working before playing though. The play becomes more of a reward for a job well done.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You must be efficient, Andrew, to care for 26 dogs and write. Eight years ago our golden, Betsy, had 14 puppies. The work of caring for them about did us in.

      I like your night-before preparation. It means you are hitting the new day proactively. I need to institute some of that.

  2. Forgot to add this – it’s a good idea to make sure that your MS and other files are up-to-date with the software you’re using.

    Some of Microsoft Office’s programs have compatability issues – both forward (which is expected) and backward (which is generally a surprise).

    An example – my wife created a flowchart in Powerpoint 2013, on her tablet, and wanted to work on it on her laptop (which has 2007) to take advantage of a larger screen.

    She saved the file as a 97-03 version (which is compatible with almost anything), and when she opened it she found that her flowchart was now a bitmap. Yuck.

  3. This reminds me of a verse I love:

    Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts. Psalm 90:12 (HCSB)

    Excuse me while I do a little auditing/numbering. . .

  4. My Mom has always said that I’m a “tornado” when it comes to cleaning and organization. I try to part immediately with things I KNOW I don’t need. Junk snail mail or email gets deleted immediately … thrown into the trash or shredded.

    I don’t have any huge computer issues currently … when pictures are taken, I download them immediately and name their file under the appropriate year. Bills are paid electronically … I adore this method. And my husband just ordered me a new amazing laptop … 1 TB; hot pink!! Grin.

    I’ve had to … I write mission articles, so it is critical that each article has everything in its own file … in case I have to retrieve it … the article, permission granted, everything.

    But what I do lack is time organization. I’m not way off … but I could do better. I’m looking forward to taking your quiz!

    • Took the quiz! I’m doing good … but one thing that stood out is that I need to organize my contacts better. My email contacts are great … but I have a “Christmas Card Name and Address List” file on my computer, and a quick list in my desk drawer (that has addresses scribbled through and new phone numbers scribbled in!). I need to work on that.

      • I need to organize my contacts as well, Shelli. You’ve reminded me of another Books & Such blog post about collecting people, and as my email subscriber list continues to grow, it could use some organization.

      • And Meghan … if we do it now, it will save a headache later!

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Once you begin to use a good contacts program it will save you hours and hours of time. Your Christmas list will just be a subset of your contacts file. Once you enter an address you’ll never type it again– labels, directions, letters– everything is at your fingertips.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      We are kindred spirits, Shelli. Lately, though, lack of time has caused me to rush through things instead of systematically dealing with them. That’s why I need a week to get everything back humming.

  5. NLBHorton says:

    “As a professional writer, you are an entrepreneur. Yes, writing is an art but if you are writing for publication, you are as much a business person as you are an artist.”

    At this point, I think only about 40 percent of my time is spent writing, while the other 60 percent is spent on the business end of things. However, that 40 percent is pretty sweet! Thanks for thie reminder, Wendy. NLBH

  6. I took the quiz. I’m an organization meister with secret fears (according to the quiz). I definitely have room to hone my systems for writing and for my home. 🙂 Many areas of my life got out of control last fall when my husband went on a month-long business trip. I’m slowly getting things back in order. The one thing I really need to do? Get my email on my desktop working again. I’ve learned to work around it, but it’s inconvenient. Sitting with a tech on the phone is not my idea of fun, but it’s time. 🙂

    For me, when I’m working on a book, I have lots of folders within the folder for the book. For my fast draft, I break it down by chapter, with a folder that holds all my prep work and the scenes in the folder. I have folders for each character, for research and for pics of my characters. I know just where to go when I need something writing-related. And pretty much anything that’s on my computer.

    In real life, I’m getting a better hold on my time with a timer and a little daily planner I print out (still like paper and pen for my to-dos!). I write down the Day’s Dire things needing to be completed, my domestic tasks and some other things I want to focus on in a day. When I fill it in the night before, I am ready to roll the following day.

    • Jeanne, it seems like something is always going wrong with the computer. My husband is a computer genius (in my opinion) … he can fix anything. But … it’s just remembering to tell him and him finding time to sit down and help me. But if it weren’t for him, I’d seldom have a working computer!

    • Composing Orders for the Day the night before is a great idea.

      Having a whiteboard helps. You can get them with magnets, so you can put them on the refrigerator.

      Just don’t put the whiteboard near a phone, otherwise it’ll be cluttered with callback numbers and messages before you know it.

      Also, never ever EVER use a Sharpie!

      Guess how that lesson was learned?

    • Jeanne, do you use Evernote or Scrivener?

      • Jenni, I have Evernote, but I honestly haven’t taken the time to learn it. I’m going to purchase Scrivener in the next week or two, because I’ve seen so many wonderful ways it can help writers. 🙂 Do you use either? What are your thoughts?

      • In answer to your question Jeanne, I use both.

        Evernote is handy for organizing research, upcoming story ideas, and helpful writing advice.

        I really enjoy the 3 x 5 scene card shuffle on Scrivener. It helps with the big picture view of the story and makes changing the order of scenes a breeze.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Jeanne, I love your organization for your book– chapter by chapter.

      I understand your pen and paper approach. Even though I maintain most systems on my computer I do have my Day Journal– a gorgeous Circa (Levenger) notebook in which I keep my to-do list and take notes during meetings with clients and publishing professionals.

    • Judy Gann says:

      Jeanne, we are alike in how we organize our folders for the book we’re working on. The only difference is I do my folders with the chapters, research, characters, etc. in Microsoft’s OneNote.

  7. My family probably thinks I go way overboard in the organization department, but I simply can’t stand clutter. I organize my clothes closet by types of clothes (skirts, pants, shirts, suits) then by color and then shirts by sleeve length. Too many years in retail. 🙂 I actually taught an online workshop for writers on organization one year. One quick tip: touch every email or piece of paper only once.

    Organization isn’t an issue for me as much as going out to FB to promote a client’s book and then hanging around to like and share a ton of other stuff.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Those of us who love order do irritate those around us. My husband and son have a running joke. If they see a piece of paper on the kitchen counter one of them will loudly say, “Hurry up. Pick up that paper or Mom will say the house is trashed.”

      I need to do the “touch each email of piece of paper only once.” If it is a tough question or a troubling issue, I tend to put it aside to do later. It means not only handling it multiple times but it means I stew over it until I tackle it.

  8. I love talking organization, Wendy! It reminds me that I’m not doing as poorly as that little voice in my head says I am but also points out new areas that could use some work. I love your idea of spending a week catching up…get it over and done with in one fell swoop.

    I’m like Jeanne — folders within a folder for a ms and labels the same for all projects so I know exactly where everything is. I do need to organize submissions and queries. There haven’t been many yet, so I haven’t taken the time. I can just remember all of them. But the brain is a feeble organ sometimes, so backup is always a good idea.

    Thank you for the pointed questions today.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      The nice thing about a dedicated week is that some of the tasks take a long time. My back-up reorganization took more than 24 hours since I have upwards of a million files and hundreds of large media files that needed to be moved around.

      And if you need to call for tech support it takes a concentrated block of time to carefully troubleshoot systems. There’s no fitting it in between calls or appointments.

  9. Jaime Wright says:

    This determines it. I need Scrivenor.

  10. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m right in the middle with organization. When it comes to tangible objects, I’m pretty on top of things. Files, folders, mail processed, drawers tidy—LOVE organizational bins and trays, etc. But the intangibles like e-mail, mailing lists, and computer files? They can be a bit esoteric.

    P.S. When you find out where I am and where I need to go, will you tell me?

    • He-he, Sarah. You are right . . . THERE. Where you belong. 😉

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I love the tangible stuff as well. My pendaflex files are all color-coded. When I open a file drawer, it makes me happy.

      But it’s the computer stuff that will slow you down. I cringe when a writer opens their laptop and all their files are simply put into documents. Hundreds and hundreds of unrelated files, all in documents. Hierarchal filing– folders within folders– is the answer to finding anything in a minute, no matter how many files you have. (But you know that.)

  11. Jenny Leo says:

    I took the quiz. Let’s just say I am less of an organizing-tornado and more of the “looks like was hit by” variety. Yet I meet my deadlines and get stuff accomplished. Still, I can’t help but think that life would be much simpler if I could work out an organizational method that I could stick to long-term. My problem is staying focused. I am fascinated by so many things and flit from thing to thing like a demented butterfly. Staying focused on one task until it’s done seems a pipe dream for me.

  12. I now discipline myself to checking my blog and Facebook ONCE a day. Next I need to stop frittering away so much time planning and dreaming about the next trip. The keyboard just seems to suck my fingers in and won’t let go! And then before I know it, I don’t have time to get on the treadmill, and I have to go to work. Gone is the time to write. I can be disciplined, but too many days go wasted. Working part-time, my days are chopped up, and I have to figure out how to get more organized more often with my time. I liked your quiz. I’m an Organization Meister who wastes too much time.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      No generation has had the temptation of so many time-sucks as we have.

      When I read last week that teens are no longer reading for pleasure, I could easily believe it. They are reading FB and texts and visiting websites. They haven’t yet started reading ebooks, though they do use plenty of game apps and so their devices consume them.

      I like janet’s blog from yesterday. I’m going to try to schedule a weekly unplugged Sabbath.

      • Great idea. When I go on vacation and maybe check emails a couple times a week, I don’t miss it!

        I know, I worry about my grandkids who constantly have their noses pressed to a screen.

  13. Another thought – when organizing, avoid mission creep.

    Don’t add tasks to your dedicated organizational session – if you set out to organize contacts, don’t decide to get MS files streamlined in the same session. It’s inefficient, and can be bad for morale if the expanded task suddenly seems too big.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Excellent advice! I tend to do that. In fact I tend to do that in every area of my life. I’ll start out to paint one wall and before you know it, the whole house is involved.

  14. I’m fairly organized by nature, but I struggle with procrastination (example: I’m supposed to be researching weeds for a freelance job right now!).
    I’ve started a daily log of tasks and priorities, using Donald Miller’s Storyline Productivity Schedule. It does keep me focused on what needs to be accomplished each day.
    NOW, I’m off to read about weeds!

  15. Took the quiz — definite meister, and the description fit me to a T! I definitely LOOK organized. The reality? It’s pretty messy under the surface. I’ve been complaining about my sluggish systems and constant pop-ups that tell me I’m almost out of space. A business opportunity came up a couple weeks ago and I had to pull together recent samples in a hurry — and it wasn’t easy.

    I love the idea of an audit week… setting aside that time to clean up and organize is so necessary! After 10 years as a freelance writer, maybe it’s time. 😉

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I can’t tell you the difference it made to computer speed to migrate media files over to storage devices. I was so sick of that beach ball spinning.

      Maybe while you’re waiting to hear about that freelance opportunity you can block out a few days to tighten everything up.

  16. Did you read my mind? Or my computer’s mind? It’s sluggish, and I’ve been putting off calling someone. Now I can also feel guilty about it! 🙂 It is on my to-do list, though. Happy Day!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Don’t feel guilty. Just put it on the list of things to do. It will feel like a huge weight lifted when your computer is zipping along again.

  17. Sarah Sundin says:

    I’m pretty proud that I scored as a “Master.” I’m a born slob who has learned basic organization as a survival tool. Some of my friends call my highly organized (which would make my mom bust her gut laughing) – but certain aspects of my life are models of color-coded neatness. My computer files, research notebooks, Excel spreadsheets, etc. – gorgeous! However, I do have two piles on my desk of things that I want to keep or really should deal with…but I don’t have a home for them yet. So I’m a strange hodgepodge of procrastinating slob and Ninja-skilled organizer.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Sarah, I think those of us who started life as slobs and systematically learned to organize are the true missionaries of organization.

      I always tell Janet if you want something done in the most efficient way, with not a scintilla of energy wasted, you give it to the laziest person in the room. I am not willing to expend one minute more of labor than I have to– hence perfect systems. 🙂

  18. My Mom tells me that when I was born I looked at her with an expression of “Hi, I’m Jennifer, just tell me what you need me to do.”
    Scary how my mom had me figured out at 5 minutes old.
    I know where EVERYTHING is. I know what half of what research book talks about Kit Carson’s wife’s cabin. I know there is enough butter in the freezer for a while. I know where my computer files for book 2 are and that I need to make sure the MC’s father must be changed from chaplain to quartermaster on order for the MC to logically walk from the Indian commissary to the quartermaster’s office.
    Impressed? Thanks. (buffs nails)

    I have no idea where the whole load of towels went that I folded yesterday. I can’t find my favourite hair clips. I think the dog’s leash is under the couch. Maybe. It took me 2 weeks to remember to call the optometrist for my daughter. I really need to sweep the stairs. The front hall is a mess of boots and more boots.
    I lost a new glove in Colorado and keep thinking I should post a photo on Facebook in case anyone in Colorado Springs has found it.

    The quiz said I was an ‘organizational master’. Nuh uh. Well, maybe I am for my writing.
    But anyone who wants to play “have you seen my mate?” for a glove? Yeah, she must have fallen pah-ritty hard on that ice.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Interesting that you are are an Organization Master professionally and laid back personally. I’ll bet it is actually a nice blend.

      When you describe your nature, it reminds me of my friend, Lucinda Secrest MacDowell. Her husband always teases, “Cindy loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

  19. Christine Dorman says:

    Hi Wendy,

    I’ve been working all day, so I am just getting to read your blog. Normally, I wouldn’t comment this late in the day (5 PM my time), but I just had to comment on your quiz. I took it and it completely nailed who I am (an Organization Meister who looks organized to others, but…there are flaws in my system). I don’t know how you managed to put together such an accurate quiz, but great work!


  20. I’ll tell you what I’m spending too much time with, the first twenty pages of my MS.

    Do these people(my characters)ever arrive? Do they ever allow the Lord to transform the things that are holding them back and haunting them? (Even though I know these answers, my numb mind needs reminding.)

    Then out of this quagmire of repetition came a wonderful suggestion from a fellow writer.
    Edit from back to front.

    This strategy has been invigorating to say the least. A great reminder of the importance of tying up loose ends, as well as the joy I derive in exploring deep POV.

  21. donnie says:

    Error 404 -Message not received- Error 404

    Upgrading DOS TRS-80 mini-micro 8 bit processor operating system and re-booting in progress.

    This should take no longer than it takes to re-write the entire code for the newly revamped Obama-Care Web Site.

  22. I know about myself that I don’t operate well in chaos. Taking the time to tame the chaos frees something in my mind. Not creating chaos would free it all the more. This post made something click on a particular issue for me. Standardizing the way I name files will save me so much. I was doing well at building folders in which to store like-minded files. Big help. But I haven’t done the same with photos. Learned more than that in this post and the comments. So valuable. You’re a hero again, Wendy. This was exactly the day for me to hear this!

  23. Linda Rodante says:

    Wow! Lots of replies. I am still techie challenged! Organizing on the computer is harder than wrestling a gator. And finding someone who can help from the ground up is worse. I need much prayer. 🙂