Streamline For Success

Keeping your office organized allows you to concentrate on your business.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the February 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Keeping your office organized allows you to concentrate on your business.

Last year, professional organizer Lisa Kanarek of Dallas chose to help organize a home office that was a real "winner"--in a contest for the most cluttered and disorganized workplace.

First, she streamlined the winning office in terms of furniture, filing systems, paper tracking, and daily organizational structure. She helped the winner to see that a homebased business owner who works in a disorganized office is like a hamster on a treadmill. "It's like running in place," Kanarek says.

"Disorganized people run in a circle and can never get ahead, because they're always catching up."

This year, Kanarek's clients included a couple who both work at home, doing freelance writing and editing. "They had mail and files in the kitchen, and files in the den," she recalls, "even though each had a large home office." Kanarek helped her clients consolidate their information. "They'd bought a four-drawer file at a thrift store. Because the drawers stuck, they stopped opening them, leaving them filled with old files they no longer needed." Kanarek suggested that, while buying a new file cabinet would initially cost money, it would eventually save time and money "because they could stop fighting with their file cabinet."

She encouraged them to move their files out of the den, and suggested they stop handling mail in the kitchen, so they could consolidate those files, too. She helped them eliminate tax files dating back to 1975, keeping only the seven years' worth required by the IRS. "They had a hard time parting with old things," Kanarek says, "and I explained that if you keep things but can't find them, they're useless to you."

While clutter might appear harmless, disorganization and clutter in your home office consumes valuable time; each job becomes harder to complete if you must constantly move stacks of papers and ransack your office in search of that important receipt or document. Organizing your office promotes peace of mind and saves time and money. With an efficient home office where you enjoy working, you can increase productivity and professionalism, streamline the way you handle paperwork, take control of your time, and respond swiftly to new developments in your work.

Consider the following ideas to help you organize your home office:

1. If possible, choose a room with a door as your home-office site. When Kanarek, who is also the author of Everything's Organized (Career Press, $16.99, 800-955-7373), converted her dining room to her home office, she found that enclosing her office naturally led to organizational decisions. "I pared down my nonvital supplies and references," she says, "and the smaller space keeps me from gathering too many `things.' I've found that when people have too much room, they often fill it--and when you work on a kitchen table, it's easy to let your business creep into the rest of your house."

2. Streamline your most important work area--your desk. Kanarek says that an uncluttered desktop eliminates unnecessary distractions and helps you keep your mind on tasks that need immediate attention. Keep only the items on your desk that you use daily or weekly, such as a tape dispenser, business-card holder, pen and pencil holder, desk lamp and phone.

3. Utilize systems to manage what you have. Beyond cleaning, organizing is choosing a way to manage by selecting "systems"--habits or tools--to manage what you have, according to Kathleen Donoghue, general partner in the Buffalo, New York-based training and organizational development business Another Alternative Resources and member of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Two systems she suggests homebased business owners consider using are in/out-baskets and a paper-sorting system.

The in-basket includes lists of tasks and/or actual documents you intend to complete by the end of the workday, and should be empty by the time you leave your office. Your out-basket holds items ready for distribution to others. Instead of taking a vital work hour to return a form to someone, place it in the out-basket until you have enough to warrant a trip out of the office to deliver them all.

Donoghue recommends using a five-slot vertical organizer, that is near (but not on) your desk, as a paper-sorting system. Label slots within the sorter as "to do," "read," "await an answer," and "file." With a clean desk and only a pile of papers to sort through, start by picking up each paper and deciding in which category it should be placed. After you've sorted all the papers, place ongoing projects in a separate place near your work surface, such as in a desk drawer. If you have time, file the papers in your "file" section.

When creating a filing system, Donoghue suggests picturing yourself walking into a library. She says, "Recall the Dewey decimal arrangement of major subject areas interfiled with subcategories." One way of arranging a file system is to divide the file drawer into major categories, such as "customers" or "equipment," followed by tabs indicating the subcategories--the company or individual's names for customers, or the types of equipment. Typical categories might include "clients," "vendors," "accounts receivable/payable," "equipment" and "operations."

For Kathy Lawless, owner of the homebased Woodjie's Bakehouse in Vienna, Maine, organization includes not only keeping track of profits and losses, but also filing all her recipes--for rolls, scones, coffee cakes, and 30 types of breads. Lawless keeps her business plan handy in the front of her filing cabinet. Interfiled in the plan are her mission statement, balance sheet, resume, customer correspondence, and equipment-related documents. "I can track my business at a glance by reviewing my business plan when it is filed at the beginning," Lawless says. She keeps her recipes in two master cookbooks, rather than on individual recipe cards, and hasn't yet lost a recipe.

4. Let equipment and technology help you organize. As a homebased business owner, Kanarek uses a contact-management program with an alarm that reminds her of appointments. The program also holds a template of a typical business letter from her business enabling her to create letters quickly. She backs up her computer files each day so that she now has three (rather than eight) file drawers, and plans to run a "paperless" office by mid-1997.

As the owner of Hospitality Basket, a welcome-basket company based in Milford, Delaware, with representatives in 25 communities, Diane Lane oversees employee records for her own company and maintains inventory communications with businesses across the country that furnish merchandise samples for the baskets, ranging from maps to pens to bakery coupons. Her advice? "Resist writing phone numbers and messages on scratch paper and the backs of envelopes," says Lane. "Write all numbers in a big spiral notebook. I've looked back a year later and found numbers I needed."

To assemble welcome baskets in her kitchen, Lane uses a shelving unit, usually used for papers, that consists of 75 9-by-11-inch cubbyholes. She keeps a current list of items to include in the baskets taped to the side of the shelving unit. "I can see all my inventory and know when to restock," says Lane. "While assembling, I start at the top of the shelving unit and move down, checking the list to make sure I don't miss any item."

5. Utilize services to help maintain organization. Kanarek finds that receiving her business mail at a professional mail service helps her to stay organized. "My personal and office mail never mix," she says, "and I feel safer not giving everyone my home address."

Kanarek also subscribes to one of several voice-mail services that are programmable, so that if she is using her phone, calls are instantly diverted to her voice mail. She feels that hearing the "call waiting" signal on a business line is intrusive to business transactions. Her office phone also rings only in her office, so that business calls don't become intermingled with her family's personal telephone calls.

"Organizationally impaired" homebased entrepreneurs may also find that a weekly housecleaning service frees them from becoming inundated by clutter and disorder. Because a house cleaner often requires that surfaces be cleared so he or she won't have to "clean over papers," a homebased business owner may be more inclined to include organization in their schedule the day before the housekeeper arrives. Also, a cleaning service eases your responsibility for cleaning tasks outside the confines of your office, freeing your time for home-office organization. As with all organizing efforts and services, there is a cost--but the payoff is almost always worth it.

Carolyn Campbell, a home-office entrepreneur for 20 years, has written more than 200 magazine articles.

Time Managers

Consider using these time-management tools to help budget precious business hours:

  • Calendars. Each Sunday, Jackie Iglehart, publisher of the "Penny Pincher" newsletter, plans her week using a standard format, week-at-a-glance calendar that includes hour and half-hour spaces for each day. She writes both personal and business appointments on the same calendar. "I find that it's a relief not to have to carry my schedule in my head," she says. "I plan my week and I don't forget anything important that needs to be done."

  • Planners. Professional organizer Kathleen Donoghue advises her clients that planners are an essential aspect of organization. While not advocating any particular planner, she suggests that goal-oriented planners are often effective in motivating sales entrepreneurs; "universal" planners (such as Day Runner) often work best for workers who shift gears frequently and are best helped by an "action sheet" for every day. She adds that less detailed versions may work better for homebased business owners whose daily schedules don't require a lot of description.

  • To-do lists. After scheduling her week, Iglehart prepares a daily "to-do" list of important tasks. "Feel successful if you accomplish some of the jobs," she says, "and don't feel you've failed if you have to move some ahead to the next day. At least they'll be at the top of the list tomorrow!"

Worth Reading

Pam and Peggy: Keeping In Touch, A Series of One Hour Tapes Featuring Monthly Organizing Projects and Ideas, $49.95, for six-month subscriptions. Sidetracked Home Executives also offers a variety of other organizational books and materials. To order, call (800) 238-8840.

You Can Find More Time For Yourself Every Day and How to Get Organized When You Don't Have the Time, both by Stephanie Culp, founder of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO); $12.99 and $10.99 respectively; available through professional organizer and NAPO member Kathleen Donoghue at Another Alternative Resources, (716) 893-9905.

Contact Sources

Another Alternative Resources, 707 Cayuga Creek Rd., Buffalo, NY 14227, (716) 893-9905.

Hospitality Basket, 439 Kings Hwy., Milford, DE 19963, (302) 422-0937.

Lisa Kanarek, 660 Preston Forest Center, #120, Dallas, TX 75230, (214) 361-0556.

Sidetracked Home Executives, P.O. Box 5364, Vancouver, WA 98668-5364, (360) 696-4091.

Woodjie's Bakehouse, RR1, Box 950, Vienna, ME 04360.

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