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Personal Finance > Saving and Spending
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Spring Cleaning: Organize your office
What's it take to get on top of those piles of paper? Perhaps less than you think.
March 1, 2002: 12:33 p.m. ET
Staff Writer Sarah Max

graphic NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If your home office is spilling over into your home life, swallowing overdue bills and forcing you to spend more time excavating tax documents than actually doing your taxes, it's time to introduce some order to your workspace.

An entire industry has sprung up around the science of office organization, complete with books, seminars and consultants who, for $500 to $2,000, will do the dirty work for you.

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But most people -- even those who think they're incapable of being organized -- can accomplish the same results on their own in the better part of a day, with a relatively modest outlay of money. The task is simple, provided you have the right tools and understand that there is always a place for everything.

Assess your space

Expert organizers say that it's essential to have a dedicated space for storing and conducting household business, even if it's a converted closet or the corner of a bedroom. Before you set up an office or re-organize an existing one, you'll want to think about the purpose of this space. Once you understand who will be using it and what they'll be doing in it, you can plan accordingly.

Many of the tasks you do in a home office inspire procrastination, so it's particularly important that you like being there. Make sure you have a comfortable desk chair and proper lighting. If your walls are white, hang shelves or pictures to cut down on glare. Most important, make sure you have adequate workspace. "A lot of people keep too much stuff on a desk," said Carol Halsey, president of Business Organizing Solutions. "A desk is not a storage space."

Round up the right tools

It is essential that you clear your office of piles and put all documents in an upright position so that you can quickly locate them without digging. Whether you use filing cabinets, filing crates or filing boxes is a personal choice. Just make sure you have some sort of filing system.

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You'll want to lay out your space so that the files you use most can be stored close to your desk, while the files you access less frequently can be stored farther away. If you don't have a lot of space, you can store the files that you almost never need, such as old tax documents, in another room entirely.

"In" and "out" boxes are also important for managing the paper flow, says Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger books and software. She recommends that you have two in boxes -- one in the spot where you first drop your mail and one in the office itself. You'll also want an outbox for items that need to be mailed or faxed and a "to file" box for items that need to be filed. You can take this theme further with a "to read" box, a "to pay" box and separate boxes for each member of your family. Just take care to make sure that you go through these boxes regularly, lest they become future piles.

There are no rules concerning what office supplies you must have -- though file folders are pretty essential. What is important is that you keep them in one place (think of it as your own supply closet) so that you don't have to search for items or buy duplicates.

Dive in head first

Only after you have organized your space and gotten the proper tools can you begin creating a filing system. Hemphill recommends that you start by going through the most recent documents and making files for them as you go. If you start with the old stuff, which is what most people are apt to do, you'll waste time creating an irrelevant filing system attuned to what you were doing then rather than what you're doing now.

Though you'll want to file alphabetically, how you should label files is entirely up to you. "When you label a file, ask yourself where you would look for this if you need it, not where should you file this," said Halsey.

She also recommends that as you put things in files, you place the most recent documents in front so that when you open a file you're looking at the most relevant information. If you are filing a document that has a limited lifespan, make a note in the upper corner of the page to discard it after a certain date.

Also, as you're going through paperwork and deciding whether to file it and where, it's not a bad idea to highlight the essential pieces of information, said Kate Kelly, co-author of the book Organize Your Office!: Simple Routines for Managing Your Workspace. Next time you look at it you'll know exactly what it is and why you saved it.

A lot of the paper that comes into your office will be bills, so it's not a bad idea to come up with a specific routine for handling them. Halsey has a couple of solutions. As bills come in you can open them right away to see when they are due, note that date on the outside of the folder and stack them so that the bills that need to be paid first are on top. Alternatively, you can create two folders, one for bills paid in the beginning of the month and one for those paid in the middle of the month.

Repeat: Everything needs a place

As you clean out your office and deal with future paperwork, consider the mantra of every organizational guru -- everything needs a place. Even if that place is in the recycling bin. Hemphill recommends that you apply the mnemonic "FAT" to each piece of paper that crosses your desk. That is, you should file it, act on it or toss it.

These same rules apply to e-mails and electronic files. Your computer desktop is not the place for documents to be floating around; they belong in files. As e-mails come in, you should delete them, file them, or read them and reply immediately.

If you're used to wading through your office, achieving this level of organization may seem like quite a reach. Once you make the initial sweep, however, maintaining order should be a relatively easy routine. "If a week gets away from you, make a point of setting aside time to go through everything and put it in its place," said Kelly. graphic





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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.

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