Are You An Office Slob?

Justin O'Brien's office used to be so littered with papers and products that he couldn't walk around without hurting himself. But the CEO of SunFun Corp., a sporting-goods catalog business in San Carlos, Calif., has--for the most part--cleaned up his act. O'Brien claims he tossed away 750 pounds of unneeded stuff. Conquering clutter has not only saved O'Brien's shins and elbows. The time it takes him to process a customer order has also fallen from two weeks to two days.

American workers are messier than ever, according to the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), an outfit that grew from five office straighteners a dozen years ago to more than 800 today.

PAYING PROS. Yet O'Brien and other "recovering chaotics" have seen what a little neatness can do toward tidying up a company's bottom line. Rather than drown in a sea of spreadsheets and sticky notes, many "messaholics" are paying $20 to $200 per hour to hire professional organizers whose effectiveness varies as widely as their fees.

But imposing order may not require professional help. With a little resolve and a lot of trash bags, even a slob can do it.

This may be the age of computers and digital scanners, but a decidedly low-tech approach is the first step toward combating clutter. "Learn the art of wastebasketry," says Barbara Hemphill, a professional organizer in Raleigh, N.C., and author of Taming the Paper Tiger ($13, Kiplinger Books). In her experience, 80% of office clutter belongs in the trash. "Take no prisoners," Hemphill says. Pitch items that are not time-sensitive, that are available elsewhere, or that have no tax or legal implications.

Next, place papers in one box and objects such as staplers, punchers, souvenirs and the like in another, advises Karla Jones, a professional organizer in San Mateo, Calif. Sort through the boxes with a 30-gallon trash can at the ready, and if you find yourself agonizing over whether to keep a file or a report for very long, you can probably deep-six it. Although it sounds severe, pare down family pictures and personal items as well. "More than one momento equals clutter," says Jones.

If raking everything into two piles seems unwieldy, "start with just a corner of your desk, and when you get to a clear spot, start working on another part," says Stephanie Winston, author of Stephanie Winston's Best Organizing Tips ($11, Simon & Schuster). Organizing can be done in stages. Try dedicating just 15 minutes a day to the cause.

A decent filing system helps too, of course. File by project, date, or even color (red folders for bills, blue for clients, etc.) If your system results in file folders that contain only a page or two, you're being a bit overzealous. On the other hand, files with more than 30 pieces of paper should be broken down into subcategories. Stamp a date on documents so it's easy to tell if the information is fresh. Whenever handling a file, check if there are papers inside that can be tossed.

Schedule time to purge files at least once a year. Two possibilities are the period between the yearend holidays or on slow Fridays in the summer.

Think also about novel ways to store the stuff you feel compelled to keep. Stacks of neatly labeled cardboard boxes or milk crates will often suffice. And standard shoe bags, draped over the side of a cubicle or hanging from a wall hook, can provide numerous nooks for storing envelopes, computer disks, and other office necessities. "People really don't consider the storage possibilities of walls," says Sally Schulman, who specializes in maximizing space as owner of White Rabbit Home Offices in Deerfield, Ill.

To unclutter further, stop jotting down thoughts, to-do lists, or phone numbers on the backs of envelopes, sticky notes, or other bits of paper. Instead, consolidate jottings in a daily planner or spiral notebook. Personal information-management software programs (Lotus Organizer, Starfish Sidekick, Day-Timer Organizer) also provide a paperless means for storing notes and phone numbers. Take a pair of scissors to all those magazines piling up and clip out articles of interest. "Stash them in a file that you can grab on your way to catching the train," says Stephanie Denton, an organizing consultant based in Cincinnati.

After things are thrown out or put away, remember that remaining orderly is a never-ending battle. Managing office clutter is like weeding a garden, says O'Brien, the SunFun CEO. "You've got to stay on top of it because clutter, like weeds, just keeps on coming." The trick is to yank it up before it spreads.

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