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Organizing Your Home Office: Getting Started

Sylvia Sheehan writes for www.ework.com – a Ms.Money partner.

Editor's Note: This article is Part 2 of a two-part series. If you missed Part 1, click here.

Everyone plans to be ultra-organized when they start working from home. After all, you no longer have to deal with co-workers who pile mystery papers onto your desk, raid your files or steal your stapler. It's just you and your stuff, and it shouldn't be that hard to keep it all in order, right? But many IPs end up being just as messy--or even messier--than their counterparts back at the office. Without a boss or co-workers to shame you into some level of tidiness, things can get ugly. Warning signs include a desk piled high with paper, and a floor stacked with books and file folders. Most home offices could use a healthy spring-cleaning no matter what time of year it is.

Maximize Your Available Space

You may have ample room for everything you need to run your home-based business. Then again, you might be operating out of a hallway nook or in the dining room of your apartment. Configure your office in a way that maximizes your available space. Start by finding a desk that is the right size for your workspace and your work habits. If it is too large, it could turn into a giant garbage dump; if it is too small, you won't have enough space to keep important items handy. Make sure your filing cabinets, bookshelves and printer are all easily accessible. But at the same time, be sure to give yourself room to breath. If your work area is too crowded and cramped, even a small mess will cause you to feel overwhelmed. Remember, it's your office--if you're not happy with the current setup, think of ways to rearrange or otherwise improve on it. You might even be better off moving the office to a different part of your home.

File It Now, Find It Later

It's a fact of life that papers pile up no matter how well intentioned you might be about filing them. Remember how frustrated you were the last time you couldn't put your hands on some important document? If you had filed it, you would have found it right away. Establish a filing routine: put everything in its rightful place at the end of the day (or at least at the end of each work week). Make sure your filing system is logical, at least to your own mind, so that you'll be able to access things later.

Periodically Clean Out Files

Your file drawers will eventually be brimming with papers, to the point that they become difficult to close. At least once a year, use a slow work period to go through your files and toss out everything you no longer need. Remember that for general tax purposes, you should keep bank statements, canceled checks, receipts and other financial documents for at least three years. (Be sure to consult an accountant or financial planner about the legal details of financial record storage.)

Save Receipts in an Accordion File

Independent professionals are always collecting receipts for tax and reimbursement purposes. If you have to open the filing cabinet every time you have a receipt to save, you're less likely to do it, and lost receipts can end up costing you money. As an easier alternative, purchase an accordion file that allows you to sort receipts either by month or by type. Keep it in a prominent place, and toss in each receipt as soon as you bring it home.

Keep Frequently Used Items Close at Hand

Do you have to get up from your desk to grab the dictionary, or cross the room to consult a price guide? Books, reports and other materials you use on a consistent basis should be within easy reach. If you don't have room for a full bookcase next to your desk, consider putting in a wall-mounted bookshelf within arm's reach, or find a desktop credenza that has enough space for your favorite tomes.

Minimize Tech Sprawl

Some home offices can start to look like computer warehouses if not well organized. Find a cart or other piece of office furniture that can accommodate your CPU, printer, scanner and other hardware. Tame cords by lashing them together, store disks and CD-ROM's in stackable containers, and archive disks and other materials that are no longer in use.

Put Up a Notice Board

Bulletin boards are great for pinning up important items that might otherwise get lost on your desk. Also consider mounting a chalkboard or dry-erase board to your wall, to list your essential work goals for the day or write yourself reminders.

Keep Work Areas Free of Non-Work Related Items

Perhaps the biggest threat to the IP is the intrusion of everyday life. Thus, you need to keep non-work related items out of your work area. Bills, junk mail, magazines, and the latest draft of your screenplay should be kept in a separate area. If possible, use another desk, in another area, to store and work on these items. This will greatly decrease the likelihood of filing your unpaid credit card bill with your work invoices.

Bless This Mess

You may find that, despite your best efforts, your workspace maintains a certain level of creative disorder. Not everyone's a neatnik--just get things in shape as best you can, and keep the slob factor in check so that your productivity isn't depleted. If you do great work with a Nerf football rolling around on your desk and dirty laundry draped over your printer, good for you. The point is to not lose valuable work time or make mistakes on a project due to inefficiency within your office environment. Decide what level of organization makes sense for you, and do your best to achieve it.

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