From the June 2002 issue of Startups

If it's gotten progressively harder to work or even make your away around your home office amid the surplus of files, books and household items, it might be time to give your office a little facelift. But before you invest any money in containers, new filing systems and more shelves, take a look at what's in your office, part with unnecessary objects and make use of things you already have.

With the help of Los Angeles organizational expert Donna McMillan, owner of McMillan & Co. Professional Organizingand a professional space consultant since 1984, I set out to the home of entrepreneur Kathy Obal, a pro-audio publicist and owner of Kathy Obal Publicity. Our goal: give her home office a facelift by getting her organized, for less than $200.

Obal's biggest problem was her desk. "It has too many things on it, and it's hard to work. I think visually I have a lot of chaos, a lot of clutter on the shelves," she said when McMillan and I first arrived at her Burbank, California, home.

That's a common problem for her clients, says McMillan, who believes we all have "million-dollar real estate" in our offices. Making use of this real estate will make you more efficient because you won't have to be constantly getting up to retrieve those oft-used items. Basically, any space that's within arm's length while you're sitting at your desk should be reserved for the items you use constantly, while items you use only frequently should be a little farther away. Anything you access infrequently should be the farthest from you.

"First step in any organizing process is to sort. And the reason we're sorting and really analyzing and categorizing is that if we're gonna go shopping, we need to know what we need to buy," McMillan said as we dove into the project. "A lot of times I find that people go shopping first and come home with [the wrong] products."

We first cleared off adjacent shelf space that was later used to store some of the items on Kathy's desk. A corner filing cabinet whose drawers she'd been unable to open because an adjoining portable shelf was blocking it was moved so that it was facing her desk and thus more accessible. In its place, and at McMillan's suggestion, Obal plans to put six storage boxes containing her taxes for the past few years--covered with a tablecloth--on top of which she will place her multifunction machine (it was previously taking up valuable space on her desk).

We also cleared a bulletin board above the desk of unnecessary items, making the space look less cluttered. Obal's business requires her to constantly access music and pro-audio magazines that were previously placed in small stacks on surrounding shelves, wasting a lot of valuable shelf space.

A lot of household items--a breakfast tray, some of her husband's books and assorted hardware--had also made their way into the office. Once we cleared the office of items unrelated to her business, we set to organizing some of the shelves, moving items used infrequently to higher shelves, placing small items in containers and propping up the magazines with bookends. Business books on shelves above her desk were centered on the shelves, helping to take the weight off the areas where the books had been bending the shelf boards.

All told, a trip to Office Depot and IKEA for bookends, a phone stand, an outlet strip, six magazine holders and one CD drawer totaled just $139. We started at 10 a.m. and finished around 4 p.m. "I'm really pleased with what we've done today--we've been able to make the room look and feel more efficient," says McMillan.

And as for Obal, who had no idea what to expect: "I'm really surprised at how much space was opened up. The room feels more pleasant to be in, and I see things that I want to continue to work on. I'm pretty happy."