It's tough to focus on growing a small business if walking into a cluttered home office raises your stress level. Clutter has an ugly way of creeping into your head and the only antidote to its negative effects on your energy and entrepreneurial spirit lies in taking the initiative to banish it. You can't close your eyes and wish it away but the tidy-up process doesn’t need to be as tiresome or frightening as it first looks.
Not All at Once
You took longer than a day to create office clutter. You need at least as much, if not considerably more, time to unclutter it. Inertia is the enemy, but if you try to organize your entire home office in one session, you create unrealistic expectations that breed failure. Instead, do a bit at a time. Add a productivity app to your tablet or smartphone. Carve out 15 minutes a day for organizational tasks, triggered by a smartphone alarm. By nibbling away at a large endeavor, you build momentum that gradually enables you to do more of it at a time.
Before & After
It's tough to get where you want to go unless you know where you are. Pull out your digital camera or camcorder and document the state of your home office. Print out photos or stills and mark them up with notes about the problems you see and how you want to solve them. Divide your space into zones–quadrants if you use an entire room, segments if your office occupies a corner of a room–and decide what goes where. Before you invest in cabinets, folders and the rest of the trappings of organization, figure out what you really need for the task at hand, be it boxes for camera memory cards or flash drives, storage units for DVD-Rs, other optical media or shelving for office supplies.
A Place for Everything
Establish a file box in which you place the items you can't part with but don't use frequently. On the principle of "out of sight, out of mind," revisit the contents of the box periodically. You'll discover that absence makes the heart indifferent to many things you thought you had to keep. Most importantly, find homes for your things or get rid of them, which can mean consigning them elsewhere in your house or out of your life. The right place to store your office "stuff" should be where you can find it, either where you instinctively think it should go or where you always expect it to be.
Now, Not Later
In the midst of a busy session of responding to client correspondence or preparing work proposals, getting out of your chair to file something seems like an enormous imposition on your concentration and the flow of your efforts. In reality, it only takes a moment. If you find yourself constantly getting out of your chair to retrieve and file items, that may be your signal that you've stored them in the wrong place. Keep constant-use materials within arm's length and less-frequent needs farther away.
Digital or not, keep your documents in good array. Develop a filing system for everything–bills, letters, copies of proposals–and stick to it. Use a comparable filing system for digital documents, creating nested folders to organize your paperwork in ways that make what you want easy to find. If your filing strategy turns out to be the wrong one for you, change it. Organizing bills by payee makes perfect sense to some people, whereas others want to look at expenses by month.
Substitute digital equivalents to limit your reliance on paper files. Invoice clients digitally if they'll accept billing through email attachment. Switch to online bill payment and email-based statements with vendors so you can let your computer do the work instead of adding a new file cabinet–and scan existing paperwork on your multifunction printer so you can shred the paper itself. Adopt a consistent backup strategy that preserves your digital data in the event of a natural disaster or equipment failure. You can store disc-based backups in a safe deposit box or online archives through a cloud-based storage service, but don't keep your only copy of important files in the same place as the originals, or the disaster that destroys your master copies takes out your fallback position with it.
Getting Organized vs. Staying Organized
After you document your office clutter and tidy it up, you can breathe a sigh of relief at completing a complex, stressful, often unpleasant set of tasks. That happy ending only marks the beginning, however. Clutter usually returns to infest your office space again, unless you maintain the order you imposed earlier. Organizational efforts require incremental movement out of disorder and staying organized takes an everyday commitment to putting things away. For reinforcement, print out your before and after photographs and post them where you see them each time you sit down to work.
Photo Credits: Kate Van Vleck/Demand Media
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