Beginnings: My Business and My First Book

teal typewriterIf you had told me even as recently as three years ago that I would someday write a book, I might have laughed at you. 

I was just finishing my third year of working as an elementary school instructional assistant. Although I loved working with children and found the work enjoyable, I wasn’t content. 

My professional life has taken many twists and turns to say the least. Having always been interested in science, I received a B.S. in Biology at Tennessee Technological University. I worked for the first year after my undergraduate degree in a research lab position at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. I then pursued a career in education by attending Georgia State University and receiving a high school teaching certificate. It didn’t take me long as a high school science teacher to realize this was not my true calling. 

I returned to my original goal of pursuing a career in medicine, earning a Master of Medical Science from Emory University and working as a pediatric physician assistant. The coursework and the job challenged me, and I enjoyed it. But by this point, my husband Eric and I had been married for 7 years, and I was ready to start a family. Although Eric wisely argued that it would be advantageous to work as a PA longer to gain more experience before devoting myself to raising our children full time, I would not be swayed. I was sure that I would have plenty of time to work before that stage of my life began. But God had other plans, and so after a very short career in medicine, Eric and I were thrilled to welcome two beautiful, healthy girls into our family. 

I spent the majority of my adult life caring for our children and volunteering in the school system and other community groups. I wouldn’t trade those years for any career opportunity or any amount of money in the world. I was exactly where I needed to be and enjoyed those years immensely.

During the last few years of my time at home, I participated in many volunteer projects. One of those projects involved organizing the storage area of a local community theatre. Since I had been practically obsessed with organizing for as long as I could remember, volunteering for this project was an easy decision. While knee-deep in a jumbled heap of costumes and props, I said to my friend who was organizing with me, “I wish I could do this every day!” Little did I know how much that experience would foretell. 

I did some research into organizing, and when I found out that some people organize as a profession, I was ecstatic. But I was also intimidated, because this job was not the kind where I could just fill out an application and potentially be hired. It would require literally starting my own business, including every step: licenses, insurance, finances, marketing, etc. I knew that I could do the work of organizing, but the prospect of starting a business was so daunting that I moved on to something that seemed safer. I took a job as an elementary school instructional assistant. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of becoming a professional organizer. 

Eric and I had engaged in numerous conversations over the years about me starting an organizing business. I would get excited about the possibility, but end up deciding that I just wasn’t ready. In the spring of 2016, after our youngest daughter was finishing her first year of college, the timing was finally right. On the Silver Comet bicycle trail in Georgia, we had a landmark conversation that would change my life. Eric said something like this: “I know you’re afraid, but I really believe you are perfect for this. I don’t want you to have any regrets or to wonder years from now whether you would have been able to succeed. I am 100% behind you and will do anything I can to help you make it happen.” 

So in August of 2016, I finally took that leap of faith and launched my business, Shipshape Solutions. It has been both one of the most terrifying and most gratifying endeavors of my life. The challenge in the first few months was to spread the word about my business and to gain clients. I knew that many new business owners use blogs to help market their business. So I started writing blog posts about my business and about organizing. I continued this practice as I started working with clients. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I got with it, and the more I enjoyed it. 

While reading my favorite magazine, RealSimple, I noticed that every issue of the magazine included an organizing article. Of course this was my favorite part of the magazine! I wondered whether a regular organizing article would be of interest to readers of our local newspaper, the Kingsport Times News. I had been contributing articles to the food page of our newspaper for about a year, so I thought perhaps this would give me a bit of leverage in asking. After a few months of leaving messages with an editor and then a bold in-person request, I was granted a regular column. 

I gained more confidence with each article I wrote. I’ve never had trouble coming up with ideas because there are so many ways to approach the topic of organizing. Since my article is published on a monthly basis, each article must be able to stand on its own. I have always tried to make them relatable to a large audience of readers and to contain practical information that could be used immediately. 

Eventually, I began to think outside the box of the monthly column. I had proven to myself and my editor that I could write 1,100 words on one topic at a time. What if I weren’t restricted by a word limit? What if I could write more? Knowing that there are hundreds of organizing books on virtually every topic imaginable, I didn’t want to duplicate something that already existed. I wasn’t sure I would have anything unique to contribute, and I was hesitant to begin such an overwhelming task. But just like my dream of starting an organizing business, my dream of writing a book wouldn’t die. 

I began brainstorming topics. I had several possibilities, and it took me a while to settle on one. Three factors led me to choose this topic. First, even though thousands of organizing books have been published, very few of them touch on the spiritual implications. I didn’t want to just write another “how to organize” book. I wanted to expound on what I believe is the core issue, the most crucial lesson we need to learn when facing the facts about our clutter. Second, I had the privilege of giving a presentation on this topic several times over the past few years. Each time I gave the presentation, I not only fine-tuned it, but I wanted to share more. I felt a strong sense that I had only begun to scratch the surface. Third, I have personally seen the spiritual impact that coming face to face with clutter in all its forms can have in my own life and in my clients’ lives, and I was eager to help many others experience this same freedom. 

Having decided on my topic, I set out to write. But the daily tasks of running my business and life in general left little time to write. Sometimes getting away from the normal routine is the only way to dedicate time to a project that requires intense focus. And so, when Eric and I spent a month in Missoula, Montana in July of 2019, I was finally able to dive into writing the book. My prayer for this book is that God will speak through me to help readers see how clearing our clutter can free us to live the purposeful, fulfilling, and abundant life God has planned for us. 


How to (Really) Work from Home

IMG_1530The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed so much about our home and work lives. Because of the need for social distancing, many more people are working at home, some for the first time. While some excel in adapting to this new setting, others struggle to remain productive. My husband Eric began working remotely in 1998, well before it was so commonplace. Over twenty years of experience with remote work has given him valuable insights that can help those who are still settling into this new normal. For this article, I asked Eric some questions about how to work effectively from home. 

You started working from home before it was widely utilized. How and why did your remote work begin?

While we were living in Atlanta in 1998, Seattle-based RealNetworks offered me a job, but I didn’t want to live on the West Coast because of family ties in Kingsport. After telling them I wanted to work for them but didn’t want to live any further from Kingsport, they offered to let me work remotely, and I have been working remotely ever since then. I worked for RealNetworks from 1998-2013 and have worked for Groupon since 2013. 

What are your top strategies for productively working at home? 

  • The most important one in 22 years of remote work is to have a regular start time and end time every day. 
  • I’ve always insisted on a dedicated space for work. When our daughters were young, I worked in an office built into a detached garage. Being in a completely separate space was very helpful. Even now in a small loft apartment, I don’t just work from the kitchen table. I have a desk that’s specifically for work. 
  • I always dress for work. Working at a tech company is fairly casual, so I don’t have to dress up. But I still dress as if I were going into the office.
  • I over communicate to my employer. For example, I have a worklog in a Google doc that I share with my manager. At any time, he can see what I’ve been working on every day. 

How has the practice of working remotely changed over the years? How has your own practice changed over the years?

  • The biggest change has been technology. I have so many more tools to stay in touch with my colleagues than when I started. 
  • When I first started, I decided to be very rigid with my schedule. I worked 8-5 and didn’t do anything else during those hours. Later I relaxed a little bit and would occasionally trade a few minutes of running an errand for a few minutes of extra work at the end of the day. 

What are your biggest distractions?

It’s easy to start reading the news and suddenly find that an hour has gone by, so I try not to open any news while I’m working. Of course social media like Facebook and Twitter are “weapons of mass distraction”, so I almost never open those while working. But really just the normal activities around the house are the biggest distraction – packages being delivered, laundry needing to get done, contractors dropping in for home repairs, travel planning, online shopping, etc. Really, my personal to do list is my biggest distraction. 

What do you see as the biggest advantages and disadvantages of working from home?

Advantages: When you work in an office setting, there’s always a social expectation that if someone drops by, you’ll stop to talk. This is built-in wasted time. You get that time back when working from home. Another advantage is that there is no wasted time commuting.

Disadvantages: It’s hard to remain socially connected to coworkers. You really have to work at it. You don’t know any of the scuttlebutt or water cooler talk around an office. That talking time isn’t all bad. Sometimes that kind of talk can lead to useful technical discussions. You have to plan those kinds of conversations when you work remotely. Another disadvantage is that work life balance is much harder. You’re tempted to work all the time. 

Do you find that you are more productive or less productive when you travel to the Groupon offices as compared to working at home?

I am much more productive at home, mainly because at the office, I feel the need to have scheduled time with many different people plus some general social time. 

Do you find that people are respectful of your time, or do you often have requests to do non work-related tasks during work time? How do you handle these requests? 

Early on, I started applying what I called the “Eastman Rule” not only to myself but to others. When I was deciding whether or not to do a household job/task/errand in the middle of the work day, I would first ask myself: “If I was working from an office at Eastman, would I do this now?” If my answer was no, I wouldn’t do it. I applied the same rule to family and friends. When I got requests, I would say, “If I were working at Eastman right now, would you ask me to do this? If not, I’m not going to do it. 

What advice would you give to people just beginning to work from home? 

  • Be as rigid as you possibly can with your schedule at the beginning. You can always ease up later.
  • If possible, have a dedicated room for work. If that’s not possible, have a dedicated desk or space that you only use for work.
  • If there are young children at home, you need clear signals for when you’re working and when you’re not, and you need to communicate clear expectations for your family and friends.