From the July 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

If you've ever looked around your home office and suddenly discovered you were drowning in paper, then you can understand Judith Broadhurst's world.

"I can't even keep up with opening my mail," moans the 51-year-old entrepreneur, who estimates she receives at least 60 e-mail messages daily, as well as an armload of regular mail, for the four businesses she operates. She teaches writing classes at universities as well as online, publishes a weekly and monthly newsletter for freelance writers, writes magazines articles, and last year wrote a book, The Woman's Guide to Online Services.

"I tried getting organized. I've done everything. I've read books on the subject. I worked with a business coach for six weeks to find out why I was always behind schedule and stressed out. I even hired people a couple of times to come in and do my filing," admits the entrepreneur. Nothing worked.

Entrepreneur took Broadhurst's problem to Nancy Black, owner of Organization Plus in Beverly, Massachusetts, and a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Black, who has been a professional organizer since 1983, believes getting organized is something that can be learned; it's a matter of setting up a system, she says.

"But it does take time to get and stay organized," says Black, who adds that Broadhurst's problem is not unique. "I find a lot of creative people have problems with disorganization. It could be because they are right-brained and think more tangentially than left-brained people, who think more logically."

Clutter-Busting

We presented Black with Broadhurst's situation: Her 11- by 10-foot office contains a computer, laser printer, dot-matrix printer, phone, stand-alone fax, lamp, calculator, credit card processing machine and telephone. There are two closets in her home, both in her office; one is filled with clothes and the other with office supplies. To make a desk, she has set up several tables in a U-shape around her chair. Broadhurst has bought a lateral file cabinet, a mobile file rack and baskets in an attempt to corral the paper that has accumulated.

Here are Black's suggestions. "Remember, these are just suggestions," she emphasizes. "There is no right and wrong. If one thing doesn't work, another could. The solution has to be customized to your needs."

1. Clear off the top of your desk. Don't try to organize; just pile everything up, and take it off the desk.

2. Create action files. "These are things that you need to see visually and that must be taken care of immediately," explains Black. "If you put your bills in an action file, for example, you'll remember to pay them. If you put them in baskets, you'll often forget."

Use an open desktop file for the action files, says Black, who prefers one made by Estellete called the Oxford DecoFlex open hanging file. Within the action file, create hanging files for mail, immediate responses, queries, bills and the like. Inside each hanging file, place smaller manila or colored file folders.

You can also create action files for each project you're working on, suggests Black; but don't keep these on the desk.

Broadhurst agrees that action files work for her individual business projects but has found they are not practical for items such as bills or mail. "For the bills that are really critical, I put a reminder to myself in Quicken and my contact management file," says the entrepreneur.

In this case, Black suggests handling all bills the same way. "I think consistency is important; you should have the same system with every bill," she says.

As for the mail, which Black says Broadhurst should open daily, "the key is to put it where you are going to take the next step on it"-in folders labeled "reply letter," "phone call" and so on, depending on what action is needed.

3. Establish reference files. These are papers that are less than five years old, which you may need to refer to. They are kept in file cabinets, preferably lateral ones (the kind that are wider than they are deep) because it's easier to find things there. Black says this is where Broadhurst could put articles she clips. Reference files should also contain any bank statements more than one month old.

4. Set up archival files. These are used to store papers more than five years old. They are labeled by date and content and kept in a closet or moisture-tight location. Store archival files in boxes the same size and width as file drawers (banker's boxes, for example) because this makes it easier to retrieve information.

Black says it's also important to use a notebook as an index detailing what is in the reference and archival files.

Once action, reference and archival files are established, Black suggests that Broadhurst begin organizing in one corner of the room and work her way around.

What to throw away? For guidelines on keeping records, see "Management Smarts," page 32, in our May 1996 issue. When in doubt, ask yourself, "What is the worst that could happen if I throw it out?" Check with your accountant or attorney before tossing any papers related to real estate, investments, legal issues or taxes.

Getting A Grip

Although Black suggested an administrative assistant should be brought on board to handle tasks such as opening mail, retrieving e-mail, making bank deposits, answering phone calls and filing, Broadhurst was hesitant because of the expense and unsuccessful past experiences with office help. "Part of the key when opening mail is the decision-making process," Broad-hurst says. "Something somebody else might consider junk mail, I might consider a story idea."

"If the mail is not something you feel comfortable delegating, then get someone to file," suggests Black. "You can always get a high school student to come in and file for you." As for expense concerns, Black says that if Broadhurst evaluates how long it takes her to file and how much her time is worth, she would realize hiring a student at about $5 an hour is cheaper.

Broadhurst's filing system should reflect each of her separate enterprises, says Black. There should be a file drawer for each entity; drawers can be further subdivided according to the components of each business. The file folders for each business could be a different color, and when sorting mail to be filed, Broadhurst could note what file and folder each item should go in using a corresponding color of ink.

To organize individual projects, Black suggests Broadhurst create a project management sheet for each task, break it down into manageable time segments and set deadlines for each.

Project management lists should be coupled with an action plan, developed by prioritizing. "Ask yourself what is the most important thing for you to do," says Black.

An action plan will help eliminate procrastination. "[Most] people who procrastinate do it because they have so much to do, they don't know what to do next," says Broadhurst.

Black also advocates using a daily planner. "It helps you see what you are doing with your time and keeps track of what you need to work on," she says. "A daily planner illustrates your accomplishments. Most people dwell on what they haven't done and don't give themselves credit for they have accomplished."

Your computer could also be a source of organization. For instance, many people use contact management software in their business.

Time management is a critical component of organization for Broadhurst since she is handling so many projects and going in so many different directions at the same time. "Where I fall down is daily action-what needs to be done today or this week," acknowledges Broadhurst, who also admits she tends to put administrative projects such as filing or organizing on the back burner to meet outside deadlines.

Black stresses the importance of using the same project management techniques for internal management projects as you do for your outside jobs. "And you can't try to do 15 projects [at once]," she says. "You've got to focus on one and follow through."

Finally, Black points out, finding the organizing techniques that work best for you is not a black-and-white matter. It's a case of customizing strategies to fit the individual needs of your business.