Organize and Streamline Your Home-Based Business

I'm starting self-employment and will be working from home. The problem is that I have trouble focusing and physically and mentally keeping myself organized. Do you have any suggestions? —S.K., Binghamton, N.Y.

When you are working for yourself, the responsibility for staying on top of projects, communicating with clients, and collecting money you're owed falls completely to you. There's no boss checking in to make sure you are meeting deadlines, no team to keep you on track.

It helps to be naturally organized. If you're not, you can learn to be. "Most people aren't naturally good golfers, but they can be taught how to do it," says Lisa Kanarek, founder of in Dallas.

If you don't put in some effort, you'll have a tough time being successfully self-employed. Mark Miller, a self-employed marketing specialist who founded High Impact Marketing in Los Angeles, says he learned this the hard way. "I have never been a particularly organized or neat person in terms of keeping my things in order. Unfortunately, those traits did not translate well into the business world," he says.

After spending hours each week digging through "50 archeological layers" of paperwork on his desk and missing a couple of crucial project follow-ups, Miller says, he realized he needed help: "I got a couple of books and took a couple courses on getting rid of clutter." He learned to use a hard-copy planner, backed up by electronic Outlook task and appointment reminders. He combined that with a filing system that turned his horizontal layers into labeled, vertical files and has been more successful ever since, he says.

You don't need to spend a fortune or invest a lot of time implementing a complicated system, Kanarek says. "It's okay if you're not completely organized. Don't beat yourself up. Just find something that works for you and fits into your work style." She recommends a few basics: Designate a specific workspace in your home, set up a regular work schedule, and establish a filing system for your paperwork.

An Office Space Helps You Focus

With today's technology, it's easy to carry your computer and phone around and work in your kitchen, living room, or at your local coffeehouse. But if you don't have an office space with a desk and a comfortable chair, you will never feel serious about working at home, Kanarek says. "Having a home base, where your printer and your files are going to be, mentally gets you focused."

The same goes for having a regular schedule, whether you work days, evenings, or from midnight to 6 a.m. "Get up at roughly the same time every day and work out a routine. It can be flexible, but if you wait until 11 a.m. or noon to get to your desk, it's going to be hard to get any momentum going," she says.

Frequently, self-employed individuals have so much work to do that setting priorities becomes a challenge. Andrew Hindes, president of the In-House Writer, a copywriting business based out of his Los Angeles home, says he updates his to-do list weekly, dividing the tasks into four categories: urgent and important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; and neither urgent nor important.

"What I find is that the third category—urgent but not important—steals a lot of time from things that are essential to my business but don't have a deadline, like marketing and touching base with clients," he says. "I find that I accomplish a lot more by having that list and making sure I accomplish some things in each quadrant every week."

Outsource Tasks You Hate Doing

Hindes also outsources tasks that he is not good at and does not enjoy—something he has found crucial to successful self-employment. "I have a bookkeeper who comes in every two weeks and pays the bills, deposits the checks, and uses QuickBooks to track my expenses. It saves me so much time and so many headaches; it's the best $200 a month I could ever spend," he says.

Automating tasks and streamlining e-mail are additional techniques that may help you. Karl Goldfield, who worked as an independent sales consultant for four years, says he increased his efficiency by keeping his e-mail communications to three sentences maximum and establishing two blocks of time per day to read and respond to messages, unless they were urgent.

"Studies have shown that people spend 25 percent of their day stopping work to check and respond to e-mail. I had a virtual assistant who did nothing but go through my e-mail and manage my task list," he says. "I was paying her for 30 or 40 hours a week. It was a nightmare." After he began using Teambox, online collaboration software that streamlines and organizes e-mail, Goldfield liked the product so much he became the company's vice-president of sales and marketing 14 months ago. That free tool and similar products allow users to scroll through e-mails and convert them into tasks or delegate them to others. "It organized how I work. Having a centralized hub for communication makes it easier to see what's going on and find what I need, when I need it," he says.

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