A home office, whether it's a corner table or an entire room, is the place where every document of your life — from tax forms to bills to health care to school — needs a place to roost. Getting it organized can free up usable space, and result in less time and money spent looking for lost items or buying replacements.
The mantra of every personal organizer: Everything in your house needs its own home, including every piece of paper you keep. And even then, we keep too much.
"People like to pile, instead of file," said Ann Nagel, the owner of Organize With Ann, who has seen clients' homes with paper piled on window sills, dining room tables, bathroom floors and just about any flat surface. The most typical — but worst — place, she says, is the kitchen counter, where papers easily get wet or spilled on.
"About 95 percent of what we file we never look at again, but it's taking up valuable real estate in our home office," said Nagel, who turned to professional organizing after 30 years as a legal and corporate secretary.
When tackling a home-office organization, there are two necessities: a good filing cabinet and a commitment to purge paper.
To begin, spread your piles on the bed or floor and sort by category: taxes, insurance, bills, owners' manuals, etc. Put a sticky note on each pile as you go.
Once they're sorted, create sub-categories. For instance, under "Insurance," you might have separate files: "Insurance-Health," "Insurance-Life," "Insurance-Home."
Ultimately, those piles should go into a permanent home inside labeled folders in a filing cabinet.
"It's not rocket science. Everyone has the same stuff, but with their own special needs," Nagel said.
Create a filing system that works for you. Some need a file for resumes, airline rewards, gym memberships, Social Security. Some like organizing files alphabetically, by color (green for finances, blue for medical, etc.) or category.
Another home-organizing tip: Have a single place to store incoming papers. It can be a letter tray, a file folder, a basket or even a box. "If it's all in one spot, you stand a much better chance of dealing with it when you're ready to take action," Nagel said.
She always gives clients two brightly colored file folders: a red "Take Action" (phone calls to make, letters to write, insurance companies to contact) and a money-green "Bills to Pay" folder.
They're intended to sit prominently on a desktop as visual reminders.
"So many people don't pay bills on time and get late fees," said Nagel, "because they lose their bills or they're hidden in a pile somewhere."
Another common clutter contributor is sticky notes that often proliferate on desktops or computer monitors.
Instead, keep a small binder or spiral notebook on your desk to consolidate all your to-do lists, phone calls, followup reminders and sticky notes, said Holly Graff, owner of Clutter Control Angels in Sacramento, Calif.