Simple steps for organizing a home office

Today we welcome guest blogger Jason Womack, a workplace effectiveness and productivity consultant. You can find him on his corporate website at womackcompany.com.

If you’ve decided to quit your commute and work from home, one of your big challenges may be maintaining the sanctity of your work area. When your office is disorganized, it can easily become a magnet for bills, toys, receipts, homework papers and even dirty laundry. This clutter can quickly bring your productivity to a screaming halt.

In order to stay one step ahead of the chaos, keep your workspace as productive as you are. Here some ideas to keep a clean desk and a clean path to productivity:

  • Make processing a priority: Processing your inboxes (voicemail, email, paper, and files) clears the deck for your life and work. Every five days, you need to make processing your focus. This weekly overview will enable you to create the space you need in order to work the way you would like.
  • Get it: Take everything out of your briefcase or bag and put it on your desk to tackle.
  • Supply it: Go through your travel and business supplies and replace or restock anything that is low. Also purge and restock an area or two on your desk (fill printer with paper, stapler with staples, water a plant, check the electric plugs by the floor to make sure they are in contact, etc.)
  • Gather it: Put any as-yet-unprocessed notes into the in-basket. These can be from anywhere – meeting notes, Post-its, business cards you have picked up, email messages, or other mail.
  • Update it: Review any papers in your “pending” file to make sure their status is up to date. Also open and review your current project folders.
  • Find it: Check your calendar and your to-do list. On your calendar, look two weeks back and four weeks ahead. If you have any reminders in there, add them to your to-do list. Add to your to-do list by going through the notes in your inbox or other reminders you have. Check off anything you have completed.
  • Assess it: Finally, take an overview of your outcomes and inventory your incomplete goals. Reassess your commitment and decide if there is an action that can be added to your to-do list in order to reach that goal.

If you undergo this weekly assessment of your workspace, you can spend a lot more of your time on your actual work in your home office.

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Tools of the Trade

Do you keep a stapler on your desk? How often do you use it?

What about the other objects taking up real estate on your desk? How many items could live in desk drawers or cupboards instead of on your work surface?

If the top of your desk is cluttered, start by looking at all of the equipment, peripherals, and doo-dads occupying space and decide if some of the objects could find better homes someplace else.

I started this post by mentioning the stapler because most people don’t use them on a regular basis. Paper clips, photocopiers that staple documents automatically, and double-sided printing have reduced the amount of stapling people do at their desks. Clearing the stapler — or broken printer or obsolete Rolodex or whatever you are not using on a daily basis — off of your desk and storing it in a desk drawer is a simple way to give yourself more work space. Except the broken printer… feel free to get rid of that altogether!

You don’t have to make your desk sparse and uninviting, but giving yourself room to move can help boost your productivity by clearing distractions and frustrations from your line of sight. Are there objects on your desk that don’t belong to you? Do you have a small collection of dirty coffee cups and used utensils? What can you do right now to clear the clutter and create a more useful work environment?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

How a home office should function

Reader Amanda recently contacted us with the following question:

Could you write on the idea of how a home office should function?

It seems like an innocuous question at first. Obviously a home office should be used for, um, home office, uh, stuff …

But, it turns out, it’s not such a simple question. Identifying all of the reasons why a person might have a home office and then all of the possibilities for how that home office should function are quite extensive tasks. The specific requirements a single, graduate student, working on his dissertation might have are far different than those of an active family with four children where both parents work outside the home.

It is possible, however, to write about over-arching ideals that should be present in a home office. Here are the big picture goals I believe all home offices can strive to achieve:

  1. Welcoming. Strive to create the most comfortable, productive, inspiring, and organized environment that you can for your work space. You want this area to make boring tasks like filing home owners association documents as pleasant as possible. If your stress level rises when you walk past this space, you’re not going to use it.
  2. Flexible. The demands that you put on this space can change from year-to-year, or even day-to-day. You want your space to be able to adapt to your needs. This means that you need to have room on a shelf and in a drawer to grow — at all times. If your space is completely full, then it becomes a museum or library instead of a functional office. You want your files to be able to accept new entries and your desk to be ready to handle your next big idea.
  3. Consistent. The more consistent your office systems are, the more likely you will be to maintain them. Save files on your computer and in your filing cabinet using names and categorizations that makes retrieval quick and possible. Keep the learning curve low and let it reflect the way you think and work. Additionally, be consistent about putting objects away when you’re finished using them so that you will be able to find them the next time you need them.

Regardless of what type of work you need to do in your office, having a welcoming, flexible, and consistent environment will make it a functional space. The better your office can work for you, the better work you can accomplish in your home office.

How does your office measure up to these standards? Let us know in the comments.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

The big picture: Organizing work files

When I was in college, I served on the International Board of Officers for a community service organization. More than 10,000 kids across the world were members of the organization and 11 of us served on the Board the year I was a Trustee. Being on the Board was an incredible experience and it taught me a great deal about leadership, running a large organization, and time management. I was traveling nearly every weekend and I was constantly struggling to stay on top of my school work and other responsibilities.

A girl named Lisa was one of my fellow Trustees. She is one of the most naturally organized people I’ve ever met. If you say that you need something, she will reach into her purse and retrieve whatever it is you requested. You say that we should schedule a meeting, and her calendar is already open. Nothing is left to chance in Lisa’s world. And, since I was completely disorganized, she was definitely a positive influence on me.

At a meeting early in our year of working together, Lisa chided me for having a horrible filing system. I had four notebooks with pieces of paper shoved into them and referred to them as my “files.” After the meeting finished, she pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received:

“This organization was here before you were a member and will continue on after you graduate. If your files are messy, it’s fine for you now, but you’re not thinking of the people who are to serve after you.”

She was right. At some point, I would have to pass along my “files” to the next group of Trustees. I didn’t plan on being on the Board forever. When I inherited my files from the previous Board, they certainly didn’t look like they did when they were in my possession. I wasn’t inconveniencing myself, I was making things harder on the people who would serve after me.

I went home and immediately organized my files.

Since that day, I’ve always kept organized files for the exact reasons Lisa outlined for me years ago. Eventually, I’ll leave a job and someone else will have to come in to do the work. Or, if I need to take time off, a colleague might need to access the files without me there to point the way. Some files may have personal use, but, on the whole, work files are there to serve as a record for those who come into the job after you leave.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Understanding how you process information to help you get organized, part 2

Now that you’ve taken the quiz to determine if you are a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic/tactile acquirer of information, it’s time for the next step in the process: taking action.

Knowing yourself and your information processing preferences can help you create an organization system that works best for you. Obviously, we can’t cover every possible solution, but these suggestions will hopefully get you headed in the right direction.

Visual processor:

  • Scheduling programs like Google Calendar might work well for you so that you can input and then see all of your appointments on your agenda.
  • In your closet, you’ll want to have a lot of space and only the current season’s clothing on hangers. A hook on the back of a door can be good for displaying your next day’s outfit. You might also benefit from having your folded clothes on a shelf instead of hidden in a dresser drawer.
  • Try your best to have an office with a door. You’re likely to go batty in cubicle land — especially in cubicle land with only waist-high walls.
  • Carry a small digital camera or a cell phone with a camera in it with you at all times so that you can take images of things you need to remember. You may want to use Evernote to process this information.

Auditory processor:

  • Consider setting timers or audio reminders on your computer to help alert you of meetings and other scheduled events.
  • Carry a small recording device with you so that when you have an idea you can record a message to yourself. Most smartphones also have this ability.
  • If you need to share an office, try to get an office with someone who works while wearing earphones. When you talk to yourself, he or she won’t be distracted when you need to talk through ideas.
  • Keep all of your files in alphabetical order to help you find them more quickly.
  • Have a headset for your telephone since you interact more reliably with people over the phone than you do by email.

Kinesthetic/Tactile processor:

  • Feel comfortable pushing your office furniture against the walls so that you have space to move when you need to.
  • Explore non-traditional desks when looking for office furniture. A drafting table or adjustable height table might work better for you than something that has a fixed height and angle.
  • Keep a space for a small fan on your desk and a space heater under your desk.
  • Exercise before going to work in the morning.
  • Have as few objects on your desk as possible so that you’re not tempted to pick them up when you need to concentrate. However, you should also have a stress ball quickly available to squeeze when mulling over ideas or talking on the phone.
  • You probably like to try on different outfits before choosing the best one to wear, so be diligent about returning the non-selected items back to their proper home.

What organization tips and tricks do you employ in your home and office that are crafted toward you information processing style? Please share your insights in the comments!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Understanding how you process information to help you get organized, part I

When you read a book or newspaper article, do you instantly commit it to memory? Or, are you someone who likes to pace the floor when you’re thinking? Maybe you are someone who can hear a lecture and have no need to take a single note?

How you process information has a strong correlation to how you may want to organize your home and office. Strategies that work well for an audible processor might fall flat on someone who prefers to intake information visually. Knowing yourself and your preferences can make a difference in how successful you are at creating an organization system. The two posts in our “understanding how you process information to help you get organized” series will hopefully aid you in creating your profile.

The first step is to begin by identifying what type of an information processor you are: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic/tactile. Take the following quiz to help identify where you fall in the information processing spectrum:

Directions: Add one point to your score for each statement that strongly applies to you. The category with the most points is your dominant processing style. You may have strengths in more than one category.

Visual processor:

  1. I can remember that I need to do something if I write it down.
  2. I need to visualize myself wearing something to make a decision about what I want to wear.
  3. I take copious notes during meetings and often can remember what the page of notes looks like before I remember what the notes say.
  4. I need to look at a person when they’re speaking.
  5. It has to be quiet for me to be able to complete my work.
  6. Seeing data displayed in a graph is vital to me understanding numerical information.
  7. I am horrible at remembering jokes.
  8. I can remember phone numbers if I can visualize typing them on a phone’s key pad.

Auditory processor:

  1. I prefer to listen to books on tape or to read books aloud.
  2. The more I discuss a problem with my co-workers, the easier it is for me to find its solution.
  3. In school, I only needed to attend class lectures to perform fine on the tests.
  4. I remember what people have said before I remember who said it.
  5. I like to complete one task before starting a new one.
  6. A train could be passing through my living room and I would still be able to hold a good conversation with my Aunt Sally on the phone.
  7. When I forget how to spell a word, I sound it out.
  8. At the grocery store, I repeat my list either in my head or aloud.

Kinesthetic/Tactile processor:

  1. When I take on a project, I want to start doing instead of planning.
  2. When I need to take a break from working, I have to get up and move around my office.
  3. I can work effectively in a coffee shop or in an airport waiting area — I don’t need to be at my desk to do work.
  4. I can remember a client’s name better if I shake her hand.
  5. I would like to ride my bike to work, if I don’t already.
  6. I think more clearly throughout the day if I exercise before work.
  7. I am often aware of the temperature in my office.
  8. When I pick up something as ordinary as my stapler, my mind drifts to memories somehow associated with a stapler.

Which category best represented your processing style? I am visual processor with a relatively high score also in kinesthetic.

The second post in the series will provide suggestions for how you can take this information you have learned about yourself and apply it to your organization systems. Stay tuned!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Being organized: A learned behavior

Reasons people give for being disorganized usually align with being too busy or a life changing event (new baby, death of a loved one) or general laziness. These are reasonable explanations and are obstacles that can be overcome.

Every once in a while, however, someone will try to explain to me that they are disorganized because of their genetic makeup. They use phrases such as, “I come from messy people” or “I couldn’t be organized if I wanted to.” Yes, some families are pack rats over the course of multiple generations, but those are learned behaviors. There is not a gene as far as any scientist has found that predetermines a person’s affinity for organization.*

Can growing up in a household of highly disorganized people affect your perceptions and habits? You bet. But does it sentence you to a lifetime of clutter? No!

As with any life skill — time management, cooking, walking — those necessary to maintain an organized life can be learned. You may need to practice these skills, the same way you practice a musical instrument, but you can eventually work to a level of mastery.

I haven’t always been organized. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I used to be the type of person who held onto every object I deemed sentimental. I eventually realized that holding onto so much stuff came with a lot of stress, worry, and financial expense, and that I wanted a different way of life. So, I learned organization skills, practiced them, and implemented them throughout my life. You can learn them, too.

If you’ve convinced yourself that you are destined to a life of disorganization, try changing that attitude! Put in the time, effort, and practice necessary to become the more organized person you desire. No need to go overboard, just find the best level of organization for you that allows you to live the remarkable life you desire.

*I want to note that there is something actually called a Disorganization Gene, but it has nothing to do with clutter. It’s about birth defects and cellular mutations involving the actual genetic code of an animal becoming disorganized. || Image courtesy of wikipedia.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Creating a minimalist workspace — from Zen Habits

We are delighted to have Leo Babauta of Zen Habits as a guest columnist today. Please give him a warm welcome and check out his awe-inspiring website afterward.

How minimalist is your workspace? An uncluttered workspace is a thing of beauty.

I write a lot about minimalism on Zen Habits, including guides to creating a minimalist home, minimalist housework, and beating clutter entropy.

On Unclutterer, my favorite feature is the Workspace of the Week, with its cool setups.

Today, I thought I’d share my pretty minimalist workspace, and share some thoughts on how to go about creating one of your own.

What’s a minimalist workspace?

That question will have different answers for each person. There can be no single definition. The ultimate minimalist workspace, I think, would be to have no desk or papers or computer or anything of the kind — just yourself. You’d think, and talk, and maybe sit on the floor.
Of course, that won’t work for most of us, so it’s more useful to look at our minimum requirements, and focus on creating a workspace that addresses these essentials and nothing more.

So the first step is for you to consider your requirements for working, and what’s essential to your workflow. If possible, streamline and simplify that workflow and those requirements. Then, once you’ve got that down to a minimum, see what the minimum setup would be for those essentials and your workflow. Eliminate everything unnecessary.

What are your requirements?

It’s interesting to note that what you think your requirements are might not be the minimum. They might just be what you’re used to doing.

Taking myself as an example: I used to work with tons of paper, files, sticky notes, and all the usual office tools (pens, pencils, notebooks, pads, stapler, hole puncher, whiteout, calendar, personal organizer, etc.). But then I realized that it’s possible to work without paper, and I’ve eliminated the need for all that stuff. In fact, as I’ve eliminated paper, I’ve eliminated the need for drawers.

Now, you might not have that luxury, and I’m not saying you need to go that extreme. Your needs may be different than mine — but the point is to see if it’s possible to change the way you work, so that you still get the essentials done, without all the same requirements. It’s worth some thought at least — and if you make changes, as I did, you might find that changing things in small increments is better. I didn’t do away with paper altogether. I did it in steps, eliminating different needs for paper one at a time.

My Minimalist Setup

Basically, I have an iMac and a table. No need for papers, files, drawers, other tools.

I work from home these days, and I do everything online. I do have a phone (elsewhere in my house, so it doesn’t disturb me) and a cell phone (also elsewhere), but I don’t have a PDA, an iPod, a printer (though my wife has ordered one for her needs), a scanner, a fax machine, or anything like that. I don’t print anything and I don’t use fax (an outdated technology).

On my computer, I mostly just use Firefox, as I do nearly everything online. I also use text programs for writing (TextEdit, WriteRoom mostly) and a couple other utilities such as CyberDuck for uploading files, Quicksilver for everything, and GIMP for photo editing.

All my organizing needs are taken care of on the computer: Address Book, Gmail, text files for to-do lists and errands and ideas and projects, Gcal for scheduling.

Tips for Creating Your Own Minimalist Workspace

You won’t need to have my setup, but once you’ve determined your minimum needs, here are some tips for making your workspace as minimalist as possible. Not all tips will work for you, so pick and choose which ones will work best for your workflow.

  1. Have one inbox. If paper is a part of your life, keep an inbox tray on top of your desk and make sure ALL papers, including phone messages and sticky notes, go into this tray. You might have to train your co-workers if they’re not already used to this. Don’t leave papers scattered all over your desk, unless you’re actually working on them at this moment. You might also have a “working file” folder for papers you’re working on but not at this moment, but put this working file in a drawer, so that it’s out of the way. Clear out your inbox each day — nothing should go back in there after you process them. It’s not a storage bin, but an inbox. Read more on clearing your inbox.
  2. Clear your desktop. Aside from your computer, your inbox tray, your phone, and maybe a nice photo of a loved one, there should be nothing on top of your desk. No papers (again, unless you’re working on them), no notes, no stapler or pens or other junk. Clear as much of it off as humanly possible. If you want to include a couple other essentials, you should, but be sure they absolutely must be there. Keep it as clear as possible, as a clear desk is a relaxing workspace.
  3. Get rid of knick-knacks. This goes with the above item, but many people don’t even think about all the little trinkets they have on top of their desk. They’re usually unnecessary. Toss ’em!
  4. Clear the walls. Many people have all kinds of stuff posted on their walls. It creates visual clutter. Get them off your walls. If it’s a reference guide, put it on your computer and set up a hotkey so you can call the guide up with a keystroke when needed.
  5. Clear your computer desktop. Many people also have tons of icons on their computer desktop. It’s the same principle as a real desktop — clear it of everything unnecessary, so you can have a nice simple workspace. Keeping icons on your desktop is usually inefficient. It’s hard to find them among a jumble of files. If they’re necessary to open many times a day, file them away and use a hotkey to call them up. Quicksilver for Mac or Autohotkey for Windows are my favorite programs for this.
  6. Re-examine your paper needs. I started doing this a little over a year ago, and one by one, I realized I could eliminate my different needs for paper. I stopped printing stuff out to read (duh!) and just kept it on the computer. Yeah, that’s obvious. I also stopped keeping paper copies of files I had on the computer, as they just took up more space. Also fairly obvious, perhaps. I also asked people to stop faxing me stuff, and to email it instead. That should be obvious, but I think a lot of people ignore this step. I also asked people to stop sending me paper memos, and use email instead. Stop circulating documents by paper. I stopped bills and notices coming in by paper that I could get online. I stopped catalogs and newsletters coming in by mail. I still get some mail, but for the most part I toss it. You might not be able to eliminate paper, but you can probably reduce it.
  7. Eliminate unnecessary tools. Think about each tool you have in your desk, in your work area, and even in your office. Do you need a stapler and hole puncher? Do you need all those pens? Do you really need a fax machine? Or a scanner? You might not have control over all these types of tools, but if you do, eliminate the ones you don’t really need, maybe one at a time.
  8. Simplify your filing. As mentioned above, it’s unnecessary to keep paper copies of files you have on your computer or can access online. Back stuff up online if you’re worried about losing them. Having stuff digitally makes them searchable, which is much better than filing. Just archive, and search when necessary. If you do need paper files, keep them alphabetically and file immediately, so that you don’t have a huge “to be filed” pile. Once every few months, weed out unnecessary files.
  9. Go through each drawer. One drawer at a time, take out all the contents and eliminate everything you don’t need. It’s much nicer to use drawers if you can open them and see order. Have a designated spot for each item and make sure to put those items back in that spot immediately, every time.
  10. Use a minimalisk desk. As mentioned above, I just use a table, as I don’t need drawers. While you might not want to go to that extreme, you can find desks without too many drawers or contraptions or designs. Simple as possible is best.
  11. Clear the floor. There should be nothing on your floor but your desk and chair. No files, no boxes. Keep it clear!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

A place for everything. Seriously.

Once you unclutter, the next step in getting organized is, well, getting organized. The key to personal organization, in my experience, is developing processes that take the thinking out of organization and sticking to those processes. What this means is that getting organized once — tidying up everything — won’t do unless you can keep it organized.

We’ve all had the experience of letting our spaces get so cluttered and messy that we had to stop and put everything away, throw out useless items, and make the space clean. This tells us a couple of things. For one, the mind can only take so much messiness in its environment before it rebels and says, “I can’t think until this place is cleaned up!”

Without organization, you can’t be productive. Suppose you’re working on a project that requires certain tools, such as paper, pens, a ruler, scissors. If you have to stop every minute to think were the scissors or pens are in your mess, several things happen. First, and most obvious, you’ll waste time (as the scientific management school showed us). Second, you’ll never get into a productive flow that will allow for creativity.

Organization is having a place for everything and making sure everything is in its place. I know that cliche sounds trite, but think about it. When you cleaned up, where did you put things? You put them in their place, right? That means most things have “their place” (not an objective universal place, just a place you’ve decided is where they belong). Why did you put them in their place? Because you want to be able to — unthinkingly — find them when you need them without interrupting your flow or creativity.

The other thing that has to be unthinking is putting things back in their place after you’ve used them. First, you have to have a place for everything. If you don’t have a drawer or shelf for DVDs, then when you finish watching one, you’re likely to leave it on the coffee table. Some places are better than others, and I hope to get into this in future posts, but for now just make sure you have a place. Also, remember we’re talking about things after you’ve uncluttered, so hopefully all that is left are things that are useful or enjoyable. Second, you need a process for staying organized. Having a place for everything does no good unless you regularly put everything in its place.

Processes can be as simple as a commitment to throw out clutter and put everything in its place in your work area before you leave for the day. When you come in the next day, everything will be calm and you’ll be ready to start the day smoothly without a jarring messy desk looking at you first thing in the morning. What makes this a process, however, is making it a habit and doing it regularly. In the posts to come I hope to look at good places and good processes.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Preparing for tomorrow’s work day

Years ago, when I was in my first year of teaching, I was in constant fear of getting sick. Kids would cough near me in the hallway, and I would rush to my desk to apply hand sanitizer. I wasn’t afraid of germs, instead I was afraid of missing work.

Missing a day of school for a teacher is actually a lot of work. If you’re a decent teacher, you prepare lesson plans so that teaching and learning can still take place in your absence. Getting ready for a substitute teacher can take a good chunk of time, and doing this while running a 101 degree fever isn’t fun.

I poured out my fears of getting sick one afternoon to a veteran teacher and she offered me advice that has proven to be valuable even in my professional life since teaching.

She suggested that at the end of the work day I do two things. First, I should clear my desk. Papers should be filed, my stapler stored in a drawer, coffee cup cleaned and returned to the kitchen, etc. Then, for my second task, I should make a stack of all of my photocopied handouts, materials, and lessons for the next day and put them where no one could miss them. By doing these two simple things, which usually took me no more than five minutes, I only had to call in my absence and then fall back to sleep.

Even though I’ve been out of the classroom for years, I continue to follow this procedure. At the end of the work day, I clean off my desk and then I organize everything that I need for the next day. For example, if I were to have a morning meeting, I’d have my agendas photocopied and in a labeled folder at the center of my desk. This way, if I were to be stuck in traffic or sick and attend the meeting over the phone, it’s easy for someone else in the office to grab the agendas and pass them out in my absence.

A clean desk and organized materials also are worthwhile if you do make it to work on time and healthy. This preparation allows you to hit the ground running when you arrive at work. Five to 10 minutes of organization at the end of the work day will have you on your best footing tomorrow morning.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Gadget ‘gas station’

Anthro, an office furniture company, has a product for sale that appeals to both my techie and minimalist sensibilities. The eNook is a “gas station for your gadgets that has channels for you to plug in and charge all your gear.”

Not only does this look like a fantastic docking station, but could easily be used as a fold-away desk. In its compact state, it sticks out only 7″ from the wall. In my mind, this would be perfect in a studio apartment for a traveling consultant or in a busy family’s kitchen.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Home office in a box

CI DeskIf you are strapped for space and you need a workspace for your house or apartment, you may want to check out the CI Desk from Creative Industrial Objects. Its small design and compact storage drawers offer a welcome alternative to a space-hogging desk.

The CI Desk looks a bit like a storage unit on wheels, but it is more than just a way to store your office supplies. The top flips out to supply you with a solid place for your laptop to rest, instead of using your lap. From Creative Industrial Objects:

A multi-functional home office on wheels, in its handy size and elegant shape, adapting to the flexible working habits of the individual at home or in the office. Through a 180-degree turn of its top, it unfolds into a small workstation for laptop users. The smooth contours of the desk cube in fact reveal the delicately inbuilt wooden drawers that open to the front and sides. CI desk provides mobility and a practical working space for any busy individual.

If one was to go this route in a home office, you would more than likely have to keep all clutter out of your streamlined desk. There just isn’t enough room for a junk drawer or desk top toys and trinkets … which is probably a good thing.

(via Apartment Therapy)

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.