I used to run a business consultancy in fashionable Mayfair in London. I had an office just off Berkeley Square and used to take clients to tea at the Ritz Hotel, visible from my front door. Sometimes in the Spring I would have my lunch in a deckchair sitting in Green Park across the road, from where I could almost see Buckingham Palace through the trees. It was all very posh and wonderful.
I would get summoned from time to time by small and medium-sized businesses all over London. ‘Come and sort us out,’ they’d say. So I did. Usually, I could tell what the problem was within the first five minutes after arrival, but I had to spend rather longer being toured around and having everything about the business explained to me, otherwise people may have thought I had magic powers and maybe called the authorities. The truth was that I didn’t have any magic powers, I just observed the obvious - and in most small business, the problems were usually very obvious indeed. What applied to the vast majority of businesses I saw in those years also can be applied to writers and their careers, so it’s worth elaborating upon for you.
In almost every small business I visited, the main issue, the main thing holding that business back from flourishing, was the same: the boss, or founder, or managing director, or whoever was running the business (the person who was usually my client) was doing the same thing. They were burying themselves in the day-to-day production of the firm, whatever that was, from furniture designing and installing to renting musical equipment, from running a chiropractic surgery to operating a telesales company - the problem was identical. In each case, the head of the outfit was spending too much time ‘on the shop floor’ and not enough time thinking about the future and planning for it.
This makes sense, of course: most small businesses started off as one-man shows, in which the head of the company was the company. This person’s routine, then, was the day-to-day production, whether it was designing furniture or taking phone calls or whatever it was. As the business had grown, this founding person had delegated certain tasks - answering the phone, cleaning up, acquiring supplies, marketing and so on - until the one remaining task was usually the central production, the job itself. In most cases, even this had had to be spread out to other individuals as the business continued to grow - but in every single case, the founder had retained a portion of his or her original role and was busy trying to do day-to-day things in the middle of the hive of activity that he or she had created.
In one sense, there was nothing wrong with that at all. It was, after all, their business. They loved it (usually) and wanted to continue to do what they loved. But in another sense, this was killing them. Because in each and every case these businesses had grown into quite a machine, churning out products and activity on a daily basis, and they needed someone to steer them. Like a large steamroller whose weight and force rolled on remorselessly, these businesses had momentum and inertia - unless they were controlled by someone, guided in some way, they would just keep on rolling. In every case, because the boss was embroiled in day-to-day actions and not keeping track of everything that was going on, these behemoths had rolled themselves right into various ditches.
I could tell straight away. How? By looking at the boss’s desk. If it was clean and orderly, with a place for everything and everything in its place, but not empty - in other words, if it showed a certain amount of ‘traffic’, but carefully channelled and not stacking up - then I could guess that the business as a whole was more or less under control and that the problems would be minor. But this was never the case. ‘Never’ sounds like too absolute a term, doesn’t it? But it was true. The desk of every single boss of every single company that I was called in to help had a desk which was piled high with paperwork and looked chaotic.
That meant trouble.
I remember one instance that I’ve written about elsewhere: the client, a furniture designer from Stoke Newington, called me in a panic. When I arrived, I was told that he was in despair: he owed £12,000 in taxes and had used up all his financial reserves. He was considering closing down the business, even though he had about £20,000 worth of work still to deliver, because he couldn’t see a way forward. He was desperately sad that he would have to get rid of so many loyal employees, people who had become his friends, who were good at their jobs - but there was no other way.
I listened politely as we toured the shop floor and I was introduced to his deputy, and some of the workers, and shown the process of designing and then preparing kitchen furniture to install. I saw high quality work and conscientious, hardworking individuals. But I didn’t have to see them, nor listen to what he was telling me on the tour. I’d seen his desk. It was awash with papers. Even as he was talking to me, he lifted various bits of papers up, exclaimed ‘Look at this! This job is worth £15,000 on its own! It will never get done now!’ or ‘Here’s this bill! We could pay this, but that would mean not paying the tax man!’ and so on. In each instance, he then replaced the paper he had waved around back on his desk, in a different place, where it would be ignored for another indeterminate period.
I’d been there over an hour before he was prepared to listen to what I had to say. I’d taken notes, in order to look professional, but didn’t have to refer to them.
‘Here’s what you must do,’ I said, and he leaned forward a little. ‘You must collect all these papers together into a single tray, and stack them neatly. Then, one at a time, take a paper from the top of the tray, address whatever it is until it is fully done, or as advanced as you can possibly take it, and then place the paper in another tray. Do this for a few weeks, and let me know how you get on.’
Of course he looked at me blankly. I sounded like a doctor giving a medical prescription. And he believed that I hadn’t really listened at all. But, to his credit, he did as I asked.
It was six weeks later before I interrupted my tea at the Ritz, remembering to call him. I hadn’t heard from him, and thought I’d better check to see if he was still alive. He invited me over straight away. On arrival, I saw a changed man: he was cheerful, relieved, happy to see me but very busy. He explained that he had paid his tax bill in full, had £20,000 in the bank, and now he had a new problem: how to hire enough trained people in time to complete a whole new set of orders. Plus he felt happier because, instead of running around worrying, he was now finding time to do what he loved, which was top-end furniture design.
What had happened here was something which you might be able to draw lessons from as a writer: I had simply focused his attention on the present, getting him to deal with one thing at a time instead of worrying about everything, and slowly this had brought him round to being able to think about the future. As the burden of anxiety evaporated, and the production levels in the company slowly rose, he could see beyond the immediate concerns of day-to-day work and plan to steer the machine that was his business towards a brighter and more controlled future.
Writers are very much like the owners of small businesses. They become engrossed in the task in front of them and don’t think very often of where their story is heading, or indeed where their writing career is aimed. The steamroller that is their work in progress or their life as a writer rolls on without anyone steering it. They pick up the next immediate task and lose sight of where all these tasks are leading them.
Stop. Think. Tackle each step at a time and look ahead to where the thing is going. Don’t allow your steamroller to end up in a ditch. Take control and you’ll soon find the time to do what you love while also knowing where it’s all heading.