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Eight Easy Ways to Keep a Clutter–Free Office

Is there too much paper in your life? If you're like most people who work in an office, there's probably a continuous flow of paper across your desk each day. Keeping your desk and files clutter–free in a paper–filled environment isn't easy, but technology, in addition to a little planning and practice, will help.

Manage your "to read" pile

The paper littering our desks and files is "mostly mail or things colleagues send... stuff that people are meaning to read, but never get to," says Jane Yoos, a professional organizer who sets up organizational systems for small businesses. Yoos advises her clients to make a plan to discard the paper as soon as they receive it. "You need to build in a system for throwing it out," she says.

Yoos suggests putting these non–urgent "to read" items in large file folder. Use a few folders if you have different "to read" categories, but make them broad categories. As you receive new items, place them in the front of the folder. When the folder gets too full, Yoos advises, "Take the back handful and toss it without looking at it because it's the oldest. That way you always have current stuff that might go back a month or two, that you can pull out if you have time to read."

While you may be concerned that you'll throw away something vital that's unlikely to happen.

Think before you print

You can't blame all of your clutter on mail, unfortunately. We also create a lot of the paper piles on our own. With so much information at our fingertips as we surf the Web, it can be tempting to print every interesting thing we find. But stop and think before hitting the print button. Will that information be available in the future on that site or elsewhere? Most likely. Will you read it if you print it out? Probably not.

Says Yoos, "You don't go out to the grocery store and buy all you can afford; you only buy what you're going to eat. You shouldn't be downloading and printing out lots of stuff from the Web that you don't have time to read." Instead of printing, bookmark any interesting pages that you find.

Learn to filter and toss

The need to accumulate information, whether it's online or offline, may be a habit that's difficult to break, especially if you're a Baby Boomer. "There's a real mind shift that's happening now, particularly among the Baby Boomer generation," says Yoos. "We grew up needing to go out and find information. We clipped articles, we went to the library and researched. It was about finding and getting. The way we work now, there's too much coming at us all the time. We have to learn the opposite skill. It's easy to go out and find it especially on the Web, but the skill we need now is filtering."

In addition to changing the way we find and filter information, the Internet has changed the way we file. Ronni Eisenberg and Kate Kelly, in their book, Organize Your Home Office!, explain that you don't need to keep as much as before because so much is available electronically. "You still need to create a file system, and you still need to keep up with it, but today's technology is going to let you toss more than ever before," Eisenberg and Kelly write, "Because new and better information is constantly accessible to us via the Internet, there's less need to maintain all types of files."

Create a record retention policy

Despite technological advances, there are certain files, such as personnel records and corporate documents, that you'll need to keep for an extended period of time, or possibly forever. According to Iron Mountain, a national records management company, approximately 5% of a company's records need to be kept indefinitely. The remaining 95% of your files can either be thrown away immediately or kept for a defined period of time, then discarded. To manage this process, you'll need a record retention plan. The following simple file management guidelines are outlined by Barbara Hemphill in her book, Taming the Office Tiger:

  • Keep indefinitely: annual financial statements, corporate documents (including corporate charter, deeds and easements, stock, minutes of board of directors' meetings, labor contracts, trademark and registration applications), and income tax paperwork and payment checks.
  • Keep for 6 years: bank statements, voided checks, purchase records (purchase orders, payment vouchers, vendor invoices), and sales records (invoices, monthly statements, shipping papers and customers' purchase orders).
  • Keep for 4 years: personnel and payroll records.
  • Keep for 3 years: monthly financial statements.

Send them away

Use off–site storage for those files that you don't refer to everyday, but that you can't discard immediately, such as purchase orders or bank statements. This type of storage will allow you to keep your office space free of the files, but you will still have the information if you need it. Professional organizer Yoos is an advocate of off–site storage that allows you to assign a destroy date to each box that you store. "Anything with built–in destruction is appealing," she says. A destroy date forces you to make a decision about a certain set of documents, something that you might not do if you had the files on–site.

Cost should not be your first priority when evaluating off–site storage options. A facility that preserves your documents is most important. Take a tour of the facility before you make your decision — look for a location that is secure and protected from the elements. Ask whether the building is earthquake, flood, and fire–proof. Your documents are vital to your business; if they were destroyed inadvertently, either by a natural disaster or mistreatment, no amount of money could replace them.

Additionally, because on rare occasions you may have an immediate need to see a particular document, it's helpful to know how quickly your stored files can be brought to your office. Ask if the storage company will work with you to implement your record retention policy, and find out how the facility destroys records. Those that shred and recycle your outdated files are best for your privacy and the environment.

Before sending your files away, be sure to cull through them and discard anything duplicative, non–essential, or past its "keep" date according to your retention policy. Because you're paying by the box, you don't want to send any unnecessary bulk.

Invest in equipment

The right equipment and supplies can make a difference when you're dealing with large amounts of paper. If you have documents that you need to keep, but you don't use everyday or don't have the room to store, use a scanner to create an electronic copy on your hard drive or disk. If discarding confidential documents makes you nervous, causing you to resist purging your files, run anything sensitive through a shredder before it hits the recycle bin. You'll feel more comfortable about discarding private information if you know that it's illegible. Do you have business cards strewn across your desk, or don't know what to do with the cards when you receive them? Try filing them in a business card book, or use a a business card scanner to keep electronic copies of the cards, which can later be searched by name or keyword. To file effectively and quickly, you need to have the essentials: plenty of file folders, file labels, cardboard boxes and bins, plastic crates and carts, and file cabinets. And don't forget wastebaskets and recycling bins for the items that you choose not to file.

Organize your corporate culture

You may have sentimental items relating to your business, such as photos, letters from clients, awards, etc., that you don't want to send off–site or throw away, but don't know how to organize. Yoos suggests putting all of those sentimental odds and ends into a box or album. "Everyone should start a memento box or photo album when they first start their company and collect those little gems — pictures of the first office party, thank you letters from their first few clients," Yoos advises. Keep the box or album in a designated area in your office.

Think of your office as... your kitchen

Once your office is organized, you'll want to keep it that way. A major part of maintaining order is the way you approach the task. Yoos believes that most people have the skills needed, as evidenced by the way they handle their kitchens. "People generally have very clean kitchens and offices are really no different," she says. "Food rots so you clean it up and you wipe your counters. If you can use those same skills that you already have in your office, then you'll maintain it."

To prevent future paper accumulation, treat the paper in your office as if it's perishable. Don't pile it up, telling yourself that you'll deal with it when you have time. You wouldn't do that with food in your kitchen. Make decisions on the paper immediately. Keep a recycle bin and a wastebasket next to your desk and use them frequently. Keep filtering, filing, and tossing and you'll keep enjoying a clutter–free environment.

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