Q:I just started a homebased accounting/tax-preparation service, and I know I need to be really organized. Unfortunately, I've never been an organizing whiz and I'm a little concerned now that I have to set up my own filing and record-keeping system. Do you have any tips?

A: Congratulations! Not only for starting your own business, but also for wanting to start out on the right foot by getting organized. Taking the time upfront to get things in order will pay off every day.

It doesn't take long to accumulate a mountain of paperwork or clutter. Few people know where to start in the process of excavating their desk. Some create piles. Others mountains. Some find creative methods to hide the clutter in their office.

Let's briefly look at five steps that you can use to set up your office for maximum effectiveness. For instance, if you had to organize a cluttered drawer in your desk, where would you start?

  • Remove. "I can't get my drawer open." Sound familiar? Whatever your situation, the first step is to remove everything--take out all the pens, pencils, clips, twisties, sugar packs, tea bags, photos, keys and dried-up candy.
  • Sort. As you remove items, sort according to like items. Sorting shows that you have 87 pens and 830 clips. You might ask yourself, "Do I really need so many?"
  • Eliminate. After you've discovered that 54 pens don't even work, or that the sugar packets are rock-hard, then you can eliminate the items directly into the trash or into a box labeled "to go elsewhere."
  • Contain. Now comes the step most people leave out. Stop and think--if you put all that stuff back into the drawer, it will soon be a jumbled mess again. Instead, keep those groups sorted and separated at all times by first containing them. If you put each group in a drawer divider or shallow box before placing them back in the drawer, they'll stay in one place.
  • Assign. Don't just stick the containers in the drawer. Assign them a place. Unassigned items simply float from place to place.

Now you're probably wondering where to start with your filing system. Your first step is to empty your file drawers one at a time. Start with the file drawer in your desk. Remove each file and sort it on the floor using a nifty filing system I call FileMAP:

  • Main: These are the files you're currently working on.
  • Archive: These are files you haven't looked at and never will look at, but you might need them someday.
  • Personal: Refers to your personal files. This would include your 401(k), taxes and so on.

Now go to each stack and eliminate the files you don't need, purging from files any duplicate or unwanted papers. Next, contain and assign these files into the file drawers, with Main files in one drawer, Archive files in another drawer and Personal files in a drawer. The files nearest you are the Main files. The files you use the least (Archive) will be furthest away. File each file alphabetically within its drawer.

Within your Main, Archive and Personal drawers, you can also have specific categories, such as Clients, Finances or Presentations. If you have lots of Client files, then you'll need a category called Clients that's placed into your Archive drawer. When you need to work on a particular client file, you can take it out of the Archive drawer and place it into the Main drawer.

These five steps, as well as the FileMAP system, are sure to give you a head start as you begin your new adventure of being an entrepreneur!

Sue McMillin equips and encourages her clients to clear office and home clutter, enabling them to find anything they own in seconds, recover 40 percent of the space in their environment, gain up to an hour a day in productivity and save as much as $5,000 per employee per year. Some of her clients include 3M, ABA, Boeing, Eli Lilly, Fannie Mae, Intel, Kodak, Marriott, MCI, NEA, Steelcase, Toyota and Xerox.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.