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Office Organization: Frequently Asked Questions

The following questions were submitted by Staples.com users like you. Office organization and time management expert, Jan Jasper, replied with the following answers.

Organizing an office that's being renovated

Q: Just wondering what you would recommend for the organization of a fairly old business that is in the process of renovation. Example: motel or business office and front desk areas.



A: If there are renovations going on right in your office, it's very important to keep dust and particles out of your computer. Either cover all your equipment very carefully, or move it to another area. To protect important files and items from unauthorized access, if possible, put them all in one area that's off limits to work crews. To keep working during all this, your best bet is to put the files you use most often into a couple of portable plastic file crates, and take them, along with a laptop computer and your cell phone, to a quiet area where you can work.

Once the renovations are completed, the basic principles for organizing an office are the same whether the business is new or old. If the office is in an area that the public has access to, the front edge of the desk should have a riser, or a hutch with a closed back, to conceal desk clutter from public view and to ensure that only employees have access to the desk.

Prioritize your time

Q: I find myself being bombarded by a constant stream of emails, suggestions of Web sites I should visit, special topic journals I should read, and phone calls. How do I get this all under control so that I can get something done during the day?



A: I suggest attacking the problem from several angles. First, you must know your priorities and use your time accordingly. Write down your goals. Then make a list of all the tasks or actions you can undertake to realize your goals.

For example, if your most important task is to improve your marketing efforts, and you have to do research to prepare for it, knowing this helps you prioritize your reading and website visiting. If you want to land a specific type of new client or nurture certain business relationships, this tells you which e–mails and phone calls are most important.

Get in the habit of scheduling time in your appointment book to work on your most important activities. Ruthlessly prune your schedule, e–mail, reading pile, and to–do list — discarding anything that doesn't support your priorities.

You may be able to reclaim hours every week by taking the commuter train or bus to work. A tremendous amount of time is wasted by driving a car. You can even decide where to live based on access to public transportation — that's what I did and it saves me hours and hours every week. Use your train time to do your business reading and make calls on your cell phone. If you have a personal digital assistant with e–mail functions, such as a Palm, you can also catch up on your e–mail.

If you can't avoid driving to work, try to arrange you work schedule so you work at home a couple days a week to cut down on your commuting time.

Be prepared for tax time

Q: I always seem to have a hard time getting it all together for tax time. Any suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated.



A: Tax time is hard enough without spending hours rummaging through drawers and shoeboxes hunting for receipts and cancelled checks. Now's the time to set up a system to make it easier next year! Get an accordion file to store tax–related papers. Accordion files come with sections labeled A–Z or 1–31, but you can add your own adhesive labels for any category you wish. Label a section for every type of tax–deductible expense. In my accordion file, I have a section devoted to each expense category on my Schedule C, as well as one for home–office related expenses and another for health expenses. At least twice a week, empty your wallet, pockets, and desk of all receipts, putting each one in the appropriate slot in the accordion file.

Organize your email

Q: It takes me forever to find old correspondence. Do you have any advice for organizing my email?



A: Few things are more frustrating than hunting for an important email message and scrolling through dozens of vague–to–useless subject headers such as "FYI," "Question," and "Information." Make life easier for everyone you work with by using more specific subject headers, such as "Agenda for Feb. 15 meeting," "The Smith account," and "Our revised agreement."

Co–workers and clients will often follow your example and begin using more specific headers themselves — then everyone benefits!

Set aside a learning day

Q: When I buy a new peripheral or software, I just want to start using it right away. How do I find the time to learn more about the printer/fax/copier or new software, so I can take advantage of the technology I just invested in? Do I set aside a "learning day"?



A: Always assume it'll take more time than you expected to get new software or equipment running optimally. Set aside time to at least skim the manual and experiment with your new stuff. You'll shorten your learning curve and discover handy features that will save you huge amounts of time in the long run. But your first step is to think about what you really need the product to do and make sure you buy the right tool for the job.

I hate to file

Q: I hate to file, partly because often once I've filed something I can't remember where I filed it. What do I do?



A: A good filing system is a powerful asset. Done right, it's easy to maintain and a pleasure to use. Filing is time–consuming only when you postpone it until there's a huge backlog. The solution is to file papers promptly — which is easy if your files are accessible. Your most frequently used files should be within arm's reach. If you have to walk across the room to file something, you'll be tempted to just leave the paper on your desk. This is how new piles are born.

File folders for current projects should be in a file holder that sits right on your desktop. These file holders — made of wire, plastic, or acrylic — hold a dozen or more file folders and are an attractive way to keep your most–often–used papers from cluttering your desk while keeping them close at hand.

The right file categories make filing — and retrieving — much easier. Label your files by topic, not by the source of the information. Keeping one file for clippings from The Wall St. Journal and a different file for similar items from Investor's Business Daily means duplicate files for similar information. This is a big reason why people can't find things after they're filed. Another common mistake is filing faxes, newsletter, and magazine clippings separately. File according to when you'll need it again, not according to where it came from.

Color–coding makes filing more fun and it's easier to see what's what. A simple color–coding system could be to use yellow folders for completed projects, blue for current projects, red for high–priority items, green for financial information, and orange for insurance policies, and purple for brilliant ideas to use someday. The less paper you keep, the easier it is to maintain your filing system. When in doubt, throw it out. You can easily track down what you need on the web, and it'll be more recent than anything hoarded in your files. So before you file anything, ask yourself "When will I need to see this again? Will it still be up–to–date?" You're considering buying Amazing Software version 2.0 so you want to clip and file product reviews. But if you don't have an immediate need to buy the software, version 3.0 will be out soon, so filing a review of version 2.0 is a waste of energy.

If your file system is extensive enough that you are short on drawer space, use box–bottom hanging files to save space. These are just like the familiar hanging files except they have depth, enabling them to hold many more folders than a standard hanging file. They come in 1", 2", and 3" capacities. They give you the benefit of hanging files while reducing bulk and saving on file drawer space.

Working from home

Q: I have three children and an at–home business. Do you separate your personal and professional organization and time management stuff or is it better to combine them?



A: You need some discipline, but don't overdo trying to separate them. If you do a batch of errands, you don't want to make one trip to buy office supplies and then drive out a second time to get a prescription filled. There are some people who need a firm dividing line between business and personal time to protect themselves from overwork. These are people who have to stop work at 5:00 for their own good, otherwise they'll work into the wee hours. But most home office workers enjoy at least occasionally taking personal time during the day and making up for it by working a few hours in the evening. To have a rigid division between work and personal defeats the purpose of working at home. You do, however, need some divisions––a quiet place where you can concentrate on your work is mandatory, and you must have a separate phone line for business so your child doesn't pick up the phone when you're talking with a client. And if you're a telecommuter with a boss to please, (as opposed to a self–employed business person) your company may require you to be accessible during normal business hours, in which case you'll need a stricter division between work and personal time.

A good filing system

Q: I've heard you should handle each piece of paper only once. When faced with a pile of papers, is it best to sort the whole pile into categories first (i.e., investment into in one pile, school stuff in another, etc.) or to take the whole pile and act on the first piece you come to, then the second, etc.?



A: When dealing with an unsorted pile, never act first on whatever happens to be on top of the pile. You'd waste time on things that, had you sorted and purged first, you'd postpone or even discard altogether. Your first step is to quickly sift through the whole pile. This gives you perspective so you can prioritize before you act. Managing the dreaded pile gets easier with time: Once you get through the backlog it's relatively easy to get into the habit of processing things soon after they come in. After you've seen the top of your desk, it's an experience you'll want to repeat. You'll feel so good you won't want to let it pile up again.


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