Your bedroom is where you sleep, and your kitchen is where you eat, but your home office may be the nerve center of your entire house. If you own a home-based business, this is where you keep your files, communicate with your manager or clients, and keep track of your bookkeeping. Even if you don't work a 9-to-5 job out of your home office, it's where you manage your household's most important financial, medical and educational documents.
No matter your office's official use, you can't get much done in there if it's a cluttered mess. Unless you're cleaning your desk, clearing the floor and weeding through your filing system with some regularity, you could find yourself lost in a tangle of wires and buried in piles of papers.
This weekend, spend a few hours cleaning, organizing and getting a handle on your home office. These 10 simple tips will show you how to get started, and will guide you through the entire process. By Monday, you might even be able to see the top of your desk again.
Before you clean a single thing off your desk or floor, remember that you need somewhere to put all that stuff -- and some rational system for organizing everything. Chances are if you need to organize your home office in the first place, you're working in a state of partial or total clutter right now.
You can use a variety of tools to organize your office, including:
- An inbox you can use to put assignments, bills, letters and other projects on your to-do list. Remember that this isn't a permanent storage container: If a piece of paper has been sitting in your inbox for more than a couple of days, you need to either file it or trash it. While you're at it, you might want to add an outbox to handle paperwork that's finished but still needs to be filed.
- A file rack to hold current projects
- A trash basket, recycling container and shredder
- A filing cabinet
Next, establish a workflow. When a project comes in, you might start by putting it in your inbox. Within a day or two, it can move to your file rack of open projects. After the project is finished, it goes into the filing cabinet. After a couple of years (depending on your business and how long you're required to keep documentation), it should move to its final resting place -- the recycling bin.
The purpose of cleaning your office is to help you get organized. The best place to start is at the part of your office where you spend the most time -- your desk.
Is your desk buried under stacks of papers, rainbow-colored mountains of Post-Its and piles of office supplies? Start with a clean slate. Take everything off your desk except for your computer, printer and phone.
This might be the first time you've actually looked at your desk in a long time. If what you're looking at is several years' worth of accumulated dust, you can use this opportunity to clean your desk and vacuum under it.
Then, go through every item that was on your desk. Consider how often you use it. Once a day? Once a week? Once a month? Never? If you don't use the item at least once a week, put it aside. Once you've organized the rest of your office (read further down this list), you can find new homes for all of the supplies and other items you've relocated.
Investing in a filing cabinet is a great way to free up space in your home office. Buying a fireproof cabinet that also locks helps ensure that your important documents won't get stolen or destroyed. A locked, fireproof container is essential for really important documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, passports and car titles. You could also keep them in your bank's safety deposit box.
To maximize storage space, buy a four-drawer filing cabinet. Make sure your chosen filing cabinet is sturdy: You don't want it to break or fall over onto your foot.
Once you've got your cabinet, get to the business of filling it. If you just throw all your paperwork in there, you might as well have not bought the filing cabinet in the first place. Use hanging folders for the main categories (like client, financial and medical records). Within those folders, subdivide your papers into individual folders.
Come up with a system to organize your files. It can be alphabetical, numerical, color-coded -- whatever works for you. Label every file and put it in its proper place in the filing cabinet so you won't have to go hunting for it when you really need it.
One of the reasons why home offices get so cluttered is that their owners either stubbornly refuse or don't take the time to throw things away. Take a few minutes to purge your office of everything you're no longer using.
Here are some things you need to toss:
Unsure when it's okay to throw out certain documents? Here's a guide to how long you need to keep important papers:
- Tax returns and supporting documents (canceled checks and receipts): seven years (Keep tax returns forever if you have the space)
- Pay stubs: one year, until you get your W-2
- Investment statements: one year, until your year-end statements arrive
- Bank statements: one year
- Medical bills: one year
- Credit card statements: one month, after you've checked them for accuracy
- Newspapers, magazines, Internet print-outs: as soon as you've read them or are finished using them
Do you trip over a snaking mass of wires and cables every time you step foot into your office? Having too many cables underfoot is not only a tripping hazard, but it also can pose a fire danger and make your office more cluttered than it already is.
To reduce the number of cables in your way, put away or get rid of any electronic equipment you use infrequently or no longer use at all. Use as many wireless devices as you can -- your mouse, keyboard and printer -- to reduce cable clutter as well. Another option is a USB hub, which lets you plug several devices into your computer using just one USB cable.
Plug your remaining cables into a surge-protected power bar to prevent your computers and other equipment from frying during an electrical storm or other power surge.
Bind the remaining cables together with cable ties, clamps, clips or Velcro wraps (available at your local office supply store) so they stay in one place, out of your way. Route the wires through the hole in your desk and make sure they're all behind your desk, against a wall, and away from open areas of your floor where someone might trip over them.
You waste valuable time whenever you have to root through your desk or get up and walk to your filing cabinet to search for supplies you use regularly. Even if your desk is relatively clean to start with, it won't stay that way for long. Every time you pull out a supply you need and then leave it on your desk, you'll be adding to the clutter.
Always keep your most important tools close by. Put a shelf behind or beside your desk to store your dictionary, calendar and any other books you use often. Put a file holder on your desk to hold files for current projects.
Fit your top desk drawer with a caddy, tray, or other organizer or small containers in which to hold your pens, pencils, rubber bands, paper clips, sticky notes, Wite-Out and tape. Before you put those supplies in the drawer, throw out any pens that are broken or out of ink, paper clips that are bent out of shape, and any other supplies that are empty or that you know you won't use.
With your desk covered in computers, printers, monitors, phones, modems and computer storage, where are you actually going to work? Here are a few tips for clearing some of the technology out of your workspace:
- Put your computer tower on the floor. You don't need to access it on your desk. It's just taking up valuable space there.
- Ditch the mammoth monitor. If your monitor has been around for almost as long as you have and is half the size of your desk, recycle it and buy an inexpensive, lightweight flat-screen monitor.
- Back everything up online. For as little as $30 a year, you can sign up for an online storage service that lets you back up your files online. Not only will this online backup protect you in case your hard drive crashes or your computer is damaged or stolen, but it also will let you remove the extra storage device from your desk.
- Buy an all-in-one. Instead of having three pieces of equipment on your desk -- a printer, fax machine and scanner -- buy one piece of equipment that performs all three jobs. Then, take that item and put it on a printer stand to free up room on your desk.
- Move the light. Instead of using a desk lamp, put a freestanding light next to your desk, and aim it at your workspace.
You can't help but adore that cute photo of your husband and son on their last fishing trip, but does it really need to be in the middle of your desk?
Take everything that's not directly related to your work off your desk. That includes photos, magazines, greeting cards, awards, plants, coffee mugs and souvenirs. You can still have some of these items in your office, just in a more remote place.
Have a favorite photo of your family framed so that you can hang it on the wall over your desk. Then you can still look at it every day without it taking up any extra room. Put your plants on a windowsill or on top of a filing cabinet, or hang them from hooks in the ceiling. Build a shelf for your awards and souvenirs.
Finally, pick one or two very important (and small) personal items to keep on your desk.
How do you keep track of your assignments, meetings and other obligations? Do you have an old-fashioned paper Day Timer that's brimming with notes? Have you converted to a digital calendar but continue to rely on sticky notes to remind you of important dates and deadlines?
Decide on a system that you know you can stick with. You can go paperless and put all of your important reminders on your BlackBerry, iPhone or other personal device. That includes your deadlines, meetings, to-do list and appointments. Throw out all of your old paper to-do lists. Connect the calendar on your computer to your phone so you always know where you need to go.
You can also stick with a more classic system, like a memo board. Use a magnetic, write-on or calendar-style board to record all of your important events for the month. Hang it right over your desk and keep it updated.
Your desk and filing cabinets aren't the only parts of your office that need decluttering. Your computer can also benefit from a good spring cleaning. If you keep piling programs and documents onto your hard drive, eventually it's going to get so cluttered that you'll never find what you need, or you'll run out of room.
Here are a few tips for organizing your computer:
- Create a filing system. Set up folders in a way that makes sense to you. You might have one main folder for your clients (and within that, one file per client), one folder for tax documents, and one folder for personal photographs.
- Toss out old files. Just like you throw out old papers, get rid of any files you're no longer using. Roll your mouse over the file to see when it was last modified. If you haven't revised or used it in the past six months, delete it. The only files you really need to save are personal photos, project files for current clients, tax information and legal documents.
- Back up files. So that you don't lose anything you need, back up all of your important files on an external drive or through an online storage service.
- Organize your e-mail. Your e-mail inbox can get just as cluttered as your desk if you don't have a system in place. Create folders to store messages by topic, sender or date. Go through your old messages and delete anything you no longer need.
For more information on home organization, see the links on the next page.
Can you make your home office more sustainable? Keep reading to learn about the Top 5 Ways to Make My Office More Sustainable.
More Great Links
- CNN. "Spring Cleaning for Your Financial House." (Oct.12, 2010) http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/moneymag/0703/gallery.financial_records_organizing.moneymag/6.html.
- DIY Network. Tips for Increased Organization and Productivity. (Oct. 12, 2010)http://www.diynetwork.com/decorating/tips-for-increased-organization-and-productivity/index.html.
- Good Housekeeping. "How Long to Store Legal Papers." (Oct.12, 2010) http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/organizing/important-papers-to-keep.
- Lankford, Kimberly. "Which Tax Records to Keep." Kiplinger's Personal Finance, January 3, 2008. (Oct.12, 2010)http://www.kiplinger.com/columns/ask/archive/2008/q0103.htm.
- Mattei Andrea, Bob Adams, Katina Z. Jones. The Only Clutter Book You'll Ever Need. Avon, MA:Adams Media, 2004.
- McMurray, Sandy. "Cut Cord Clutter." Microsoft Home Magazine. (Oct. 13, 2010) http://www.microsoft.com/canada/home/home-office/articles/cut-cord-clutter.aspx.
- Schroedel, Jenny. The Everything Organize Your Home Book. Cincinnati, Ohio: Everything Books, 2007.