Client: What’s your secret for being so organized?
Me: Sort-later boxes.
Client: What are sort-later boxes?
Me: Whenever I expect guests, visitors or clients at my office, I take all the loose papers and junk from atop my desks and dump them into a box that I’ll go through and file or trash after my appointment.
Client: That’s smart. How long after a visit do you wait to go through the box?
Me: Remember the stacks and stacks of boxes you saw in the garage when you came in earlier?
Clients and other visitors to my home office often ask the secret, if there is one, to the tidiness of my workspace whenever they visit. Of course, they’re generally not there when I’m actually working in the space, lest they be exposed to flying piles of papers everywhere. Guests are given the nickel tour their first visit, so they’ve already seen the war room (garage) before settling into the office. So my answer to how the office stays so neat is that just before a client visits, I dump all my desk clutter into a sort-later box. “What’s a sort-later box?” guests invariably ask. It’s any empty box big enough to hold clutter out of sight until after the client leaves. After my meeting or consultation, the idea is to use some down time to sort through the box, file any keepers, and trash the rest. Clients ask how soon after a meeting I sort through the box. I reply, “Remember those stacks and stacks of labeled boxes you saw in the garage when you first came in…?”
I share that (fairly common) interaction with a hint of humor, though there is a lot of truth in it. Of course, there are stacks and stacks of boxes in my garage that could well use the sort-later treatment; they are not from times when guests have visited my offices. They’re just the accumulation of stuff that piles up in the natural course of running a business and managing a household… under the same roof and for many years. Sort-later boxes are a real thing in my business, though, and they are the #1 motivator for me to stay organized.
About 12 years ago, I was busy with several projects – a growing photography business, a new online magazine, after school programs, community service projects, to name a few – and operating from my home office meant separating house and home from office and studio. No easy task. As a result, there were times when I would entertain friends and family on the fly. To maintain the appearance of a clean house, I had to take the work from several ongoing projects off my desk and stash it out of sight for the duration of the visit. If I entertained clients, I had to keep up the same appearances for them, too. Who wants to bring new business to someone who seems unorganized, overcommitted or swamped?
Enter sort-later boxes. I would dump, not too ceremoniously either, everything from my L-workstation into a box large enough to hold everything until I could sort it later. About a week after the visit was over, I’d retrieve the box, sit down with a clear head, and start to sort the items in it. 80/20 came into play a lot during this exercise: 80% of the stuff in the box was trash, and only 20% was really needed to continue working or to finalize open projects and tasks. Of course, 100% was on my desk prior to being carted out of view from guests. The thing that motivated me most to make hard decisions about what to keep (file) and what to trash was having a sort-later box tucked away in the corner of my bedroom until after my appointment had ended.
Now, I realize that most small- to medium-business owners have far more sophisticated systems for getting and staying organized. In fact, I wouldn’t wish sort-later boxes on my worst enemy. Instead, here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from the process of sorting through those boxes that I hope will help some poor, unfortunate souls who are trying to figure out how to streamline their home offices.
Don’t create piles. I’m notorious for paper pile-ups. As I type this post, here are piles currently spread, albeit neatly, across my workstations: weekly/monthly planner, models’ head shots, miscellaneous notes on diverse scraps of paper (big no-no), software I’m going to install on client computers on their next visits, books I’m in the process of reading, plastic sleeves I took out of a briefcase in order to give the case to a client who needed something for her laptop, some Instax prints from the two new Instax cameras I’m testing, two Instax cameras, last year’s calendar pages with important birthdays yet to be transferred to a database, loose recipes atop two recipe books, and holiday cards received from family, friends and clients this past Christmas. (My desk right now looks very much like the featured photo, taken a few weeks ago, except the printer in the middle of the shot is now on a stand beneath the desk.)
Do keep files. Instead of piles, keep files based on how you need to work. File finished paperwork right away and keep only an inbox/in-bin on your desk for things requiring initial or further action. There will inevitably be some papers that just sit there, glaring at you, daring you to make a choice between keeping them and throwing them out. If they require no action now and won’t likely require your touching them again, trash them. Consolidate notes on loose sheets of paper (yeah, I can preach it really well…) into a single notebook or into your planner’s notes section. Or be tech savvy and store them on your computer. (Keeping computer files in order is a future topic, by the way.)
Take action. I mentioned an inbox or in-bin. This can also be a single section of your desk or workstation that you designate for the same purpose as an inbox. The only reason for this pile (I’ll allow it) is for you to have a place to tackle items requiring your input or action. New mail goes in this pile until you open it and file or discard it. Loose slips of paper on which you’ve written reminders to yourself go in this pile until you have added them to a consolidate task list or to your calendar for scheduled action. Then they get discarded. Important tax documents go in this pile until you have filed your taxes and submitted your payments. Then they get filed with a copy of your submission. New cash/debit card/credit card receipts go in this pile until you have recorded them to your accounting system and either scanned or filed them. (If you’re digitally advanced, you likely scan and discard, I’m sure.) Get the idea? Once a week, scour the inbox or in-pile for things that have lingered there longer than you care for them to or at least since the last time you scoured your inbox. Make hard choices about discarding stuff.
Play a board game. Cork board, that is. My home office has four moderate-size (3′ x 2′) bulletin boards, each with a different purpose. There’s also a vision board near the office steps to remind me of goals toward which I’m working. The vision board is nothing more than a wood picture frame I recovered from a neighbor’s trash (no shame in my game) with a piece of poster board stapled to the back of it. I use it to pin pictures of cameras, lenses and books I want to purchase. The cork boards are for flyers and postcards of upcoming events (reminders), for ongoing or upcoming projects, for organizing photo shoots, and for storyboarding and photo book mockups. Some stuff on your desk probably belongs on a board in plain view (YOUR plain view) to serve as reminders. Maybe those loose slips of paper can be pinned together in a corner of your board. What fits your work space and ultimate goals? If a board fits into your picture, make use of one to help keep your mind clear, your workstation clean, and your projects organized.
Recycle. I think one of your best friends, among office supplies, will be a recycling bin. There is a pile I didn’t mention because it’s not on my desk, but on a table across the aisle from me. There are three or four magazines, the final issues of some recently cancelled subscriptions, that I keep around for client entertainment while they’re waiting to work with me. (Models also use them for reference between scenes.) If you subscribe to magazines that you barely have time to read or that contain some article or other of interest to you, I suggest recycling the magazines or first clipping the articles you want to keep, filing them, and then recycling the rest of the publication.
One could go on and on about how to organize a home office. In the coming weeks, please return here for more specific topics like going through an action pile, creating a filing system that suits your needs, making use of other (unconventional) storage and filing options, and more. In the meantime, thanks for reading and please feel free to share your own tips, hints, and fair warnings in comments below.