When your home office is a mess, you might be tempted to use a leaf blower inside to push aside all those piles of paper correspondence, invoices, and sticky notes. Well, don’t. Cleaning your office isn’t terribly time-consuming or tedious—especially when you consider the benefits, which include a more efficient workspace and a more productive you!
Tackling the job: Clutter goes first
Are you a file-a-phobic? Got more piles than files? Maybe you’re keeping too much stuff. The classic paper test is ‘handle each paper only once.’ This sounds pretty drastic to those of us who are pack rats by nature. Consider this kinder approach: Make a “maybe” file.
As you’re filing, consider -hard—whether you need to keep something. If you just can’t part with it, but can’t justify just WHY you need to keep it, put it in the “maybe” file. Then choose one “maybe” day on your calendar, no more than three months in the future. On that day, deal with everything in the file. Chances are you’ll be able to toss it all by then.
Now, what about that other stuff? Some generally-accepted practices for record-keeping—meaning generally accepted by insurance and legal representatives, are these:
- Keep for one month: phone, utility, and credit card statements
- Keep for seven years: any record pertaining to your tax filing (i.e., receipts for office equipment you’re depreciating, records showing donations made and claimed on your income tax)
- Keep for the life of the vehicle: a log and receipts for repairs and maintenance to your automobile.
- Keep for the life of the home: any receipts for improvements made to the home. Why? These can be added to your base price, decreasing your taxable gain when you sell the home. Similarly, you should keep records of expenses related to selling your home as you can deduct them from your capital gains.
- Keep for life: Divorce and child custody, life insurance, retirement investment, and living will/power of attorney documents.
- Keep 7 years if these are your only receipts for items you deducted as business expenses on your taxes.
It’s wise to keep a copy of these documents in a home accessible safe—NOT a bank lockbox—to protect them from damage in a flood or fire. If you keep them in a bank lock box, and you are temporarily incapacitated, you’ll want someone acting on your behalf to be able to access these important papers. That’s almost impossible when they need to access your bank lockbox.
Some bad news about record keeping: the IRS definition of the ‘burden of proof’ (proving that you are justified in taking certain deductions) is pretty vague. To rest easy, get good at record-keeping AND filing.
Get extra-wide hanging file folders to group similar files—under “auto” for example, you should have a file for “auto insurance” “auto maintenance,” and “license fees.” Those wide files fill up pretty fast. And speaking of filing tools, don’t skimp on regular hanging files, either. The more you have, the easier it is to file and find a document within your file.
If you can’t manage the “handle it once” habit when it comes to paper, at least get in the habit of filing once a week. Plan ten minutes before lunch or on Friday before ending your work week—turn on the music and listen to the beat while you file. Filing is tedious, but it can save you in countless ways, both financially and time-wise, if you can locate the piece of paper you need quickly every time.
Now that you’ve dealt with the paper tiger, it’s time to tame the rest of the environment. When you clean, remember to dust first, before you vacuum. Use only approved cleaning cloths and agents on your computer screen, and use a can of compressed air to clean keyboards, printers (inside and out), scanners, fax machines, and phones.
Improvements for Next Time
Want to reduce the amount of work you can expect next time you clean up the office? Good plan. Look around, and consider how you can streamline your work environment.
Is the printer close to your desk where you process mail? Speaking of mail, are the stamps and envelopes handy, or do you have to cross the office to get them? What about the fax machine? Is your telephone book or card file near the phone, or do you have to retrieve those numbers from somewhere else? A good rule of thumb is to keep everything you reach for daily within arm’s reach. The rest should be stowed in drawers, files, and shelves.
Too much on your (physical) desktop? Try this trick: pick a couple of great snapshots and put them in appealing frames. Place them front and center on your desk, alone. You’ll be encouraged to keep your desk neat because you don’t want to distract from those photos.
Studies have shown that people with uncluttered desks work more effectively, and are less worried about their workload and bills. Why? Probably because they’re able to work mindfully on one thing at a time. Apparently, multi-tasking works better for computers than it does for people.