The Art of Upscale Downsizing: 3 simple rules that transformed my new workspace

Last weekend, the Griz and I moved into our new quasi-retirement digs (read Aging Hippie Lakeside Love Grotto), between thunderstorms and flash flood warnings. As water continued to rise just a few hundred yards from our new place, the complex management sent out text messages warning residents to watch for snakes on the property, and in the spirit of encroaching apocalypse, I did something I've never done before: I made my office my first priority.

Typically, my office (or my cough "office" cough) has been the last room in the house to be finished. This time, my kids are grown, my life is my own, and the Griz is happy to share center stage with the work that keeps me happy and contributing to our solvency. This week I'm scheduled to dive into editing Orna Ross's forthcoming historical novel about W.B. Yeats and his paramour Maud Gonne. It's a beautiful, important book, and I wanted to be ready for it.

My new sunroom office in this one-bedroom apartment is just 8x10 feet--half the size of my upstairs office, with which I'd fought a major organizational/ housekeeping battle, in our old four-bedroom house. I was nervous about the drastic downsizing, but as I worked through the process, I made three simple rules, which turned out to be the three things I love most about my Woolfish "room of one's own":

1) Every object must earn its footprint. For me, that means everything in this room has to A) serve and purpose and B) make me happy. Utilitarian + Joy = worth it.

Making the cut: A Salvador Dali coffee table book doubles as a lap desk. A Dr. Seuss lunchbox that houses paperclips and pushpins. My great-grandma's kitschy plaster cat, now in charge of pens and highlighters. No longer happening: Furniture, wall art and tchotchkes that were nice to have and sometimes hard to let go of but didn't pass a test of archival value ("Will my kids really want this after I'm dead?") or serve a daily need.

Gorgeous thrift store china cabinet: no. Tiger oak chair rescued from a defunct VA hospital: yes. I could have made an argument for the usefulness of either one, but the chair earns that footprint. The cabinet served as a junk collector simply because it was there. No cabinet = no junk. Winning!

2) Nothing but work happens in the workspace. It occurred to me that my most precious natural resources, time and space, are both limited, and my mindset for one naturally influences my mindset for the other. This small square footage is premium real estate, and it's most valuable to me as clean, feng shui friendly floorspace. Cluttering it with plastic bins, file boxes and obsolete computer equipment detracts from the calm, creative vibe I'm striving for, and though a lot of that stuff is arguably work-related, it's not the work I'm working on now, so it doesn't earn a footprint in this space.

Same goes for time clutter. A while back, I declared a "Facebook only while standing" policy, which immediately made me more mindful of the time I was wasting there. I try to justify social network activity as "platforming", but in truth, 90% of that falls more accurately under "farting around". So no more magazines or leisure books on the desk, and no more games or aimless net surfing on the office computer. (Isn't that why God created smart phones?)

Old manuscripts, tax records, press archives, correspondence and keepsakes took up a huge amount of space in my old office and our over-spill storage unit. I invested in a NeatDesk scanner and opted into their whole system. I'm still working through the mass exodus of paper from the storage unit, but the bottom line is: everything that can be digital must be digital. And almost anything can be digital.

I'll admit, I cried letting go of my kids' school projects, which I'd been justifying as decor in my old office. I'm keeping a few framed pieces for the wall here, but everything else is being digitally archived. My plan is to compile a coffee table book for each kid, which will be equally feng shui friendly in their future homes.

3) I work at home; I do not live at work. In the past, when my office got out of control, I could close the door and keep the insanity to myself. My new sunroom office is open to the living room in our new apartment, so it has to jibe with the living room aesthetic, and that forced me to be more mindful of the way my work serves (or or doesn't serve) the greater goal: a happy, healthy home life with this man I love. My work tends to take over at times, and I've learned that allowing work to hog all my time, space and waking thought actually makes me less productive in the long run, because I get fried and don't allow myself to recharge.

While plotting books, I've always built out massive grids of sticky notes on the wall a la A Beautiful Mind. I had stacks of books that were sent to me for reviews and blurbs. I tacked up Max Parish and Ansel Adams calendar art and scrawled notes on corkboards. The purpose of all that (in my head) was part organization, part inspiration, and it worked for me in that space, but it's not what I want to look at when I'm sitting in my living room. Not working. (No, really, I'm not. Seriously! I really mean it this time!)

Going forward, I'll be organizing writing and ghostwriting projects with Scrivener, which allows me to integrate research, character notes, and chapter material. (Try it! You'll like it.) A Passion Planner satisfies my need to physically write things down and brilliantly brings all those random corkboards and creative impulses into an intelligent plan of daily, weekly and monthly actions that pragmatically serve my creative goals. Instead of keeping a file drawer for editing and ghostwriting clients, I'm streamlining editing and book doctor projects via a nifty online system called 17 Hats, which allows me to create typical work flows from first contact to client invoice.

So instead of a blizzard of flailing sticky notes, I now have one powerful, wall-wide work of art that genuinely does serve to inspire me and provides a super cool counterpoint to the more conventional living room art. I got this amazing canvas frame X-Men panel on Overstock.com for less than $100. (It's actually a room divider.) It comes from "The Dark Phoenix Saga", in which Jane Grey (now Phoenix) kicks the stone-cold keister of Emma Frost (aka the White Queen).
Her power is a song within her... a passion beyond human comprehension. She is more alive than she has ever been...
Just the right vibe for a fiercely focused and beautifully functional creative workspace.


Comments

Debbie Young said…
Wow, what an inspiring post. I'm doing bits and pieces of what you're practising, Joni, but your account will give me the courage to be more radical. (My kids school projects? Crikey, I still have my own school notebooks, from kindergarten onwards, gathering dust on top of one shelf here!)

I also have an inspirational card somewhere in my study bearing William Morris's famous quote: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” If only I could find it under all the stuff that doesn't qualify on either of those counts!
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks, Debbie. That's a brilliant quote from WM. (Slides it into hip pocket for later...) Good luck with the space redux!

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