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Clear home office of stressful clutter

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As home offices go, Dianna Lovelace's work space wasn't the messiest. But every time the Rancho Cordova, Calif., mother and pastor's wife wanted to pay a bill, do some writing or work on a project, the clutter crowded out her ability to concentrate. • Like many of us, the energetic mom, who also runs a women's ministry and teaches motivational workshops, could never find the time to get on top of her home office clutter. And in her otherwise spotless home, it showed.

The desk was covered with family photos, piles of paper, bills, school notices. The wall-to-wall shelves were crammed with books, binders, phone books, magazines, even a wedding bouquet. And the floor? A holding station for household stuff: last year's Christmas wreath, a comforter, the vacuum cleaner, Goodwill donations, to-be-shredded papers and 15 years' worth of women's conference materials.

"All I want is peace . . . and to be able to multitask a little easier," said Lovelace, who ultimately hired Tonya Piper, a professional organizer.

"It's overwhelming for many people. Sometimes they just need permission to get rid of their 'stuff,' " said Piper, owner of Control C.H.A.O.S., a former engineer who has been a professional organizer for churches, homes and offices for the past five years.

A home office, even if it's just a corner table, is where every document needs a place to roost. Getting it organized can free up usable space, and result in less time and money spent looking for or replacing lost items.

The mantra of every personal organizer: Everything in your house needs its own home, including every piece of paper. Even then, we keep too much.

"People like to pile instead of file," said Ann Nagel, the Elk Grove, Calif., owner of Organize With Ann, who has seen clients' homes with paper piled on 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," says Nagel, who turned to professional organizing after 30 years as a secretary.

Getting started

When tackling a home office organization, there are two necessities: a good filing cabinet and a commitment to purge paper. Plus an understanding that it's often ugliest at the start.

To begin, spread your piles on a bed or floor and sort by category: taxes, insurance, bills, etc. Put a sticky note on each pile as you go.

Once they're sorted, create subcategories. 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," said Nagel.

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 organizing tip: Put incoming papers in one place. It can be a letter tray, basket or box. "If it's all in one spot, you stand a much better chance of dealing with it when you're ready," says Nagel.

She gives clients two brightly colored file folders: red for "Take Action" (phone calls to make, insurance companies to contact) and money-green for "Bills to Pay." They're intended to sit prominently atop a desk as visual reminders.

"So many people don't pay bills on time and get late fees because they lose their bills or they're hidden in a pile somewhere," Nagel said.

Freed from clutter

Lovelace's office transformation took about 12 hours, not counting "homework" assignments to weed out unneeded papers in binders, boxes and piles. She enlisted her son's help to shred pounds of paper. The files she uses most often are now at her fingertips. A wire basket for bills sits atop her desk, along with a few family photos. Everything on the floor went to designated areas. The result: a place for every object, including the wedding bouquet.

And because so much was discarded, donated or relocated, Lovelace now has six empty bookshelves and space for her sewing and scrapbooking projects — as well as freedom to write the motivational women's book she has been planning.

"With all this clutter, I couldn't ever focus on it. Doing this project has shot up my self-esteem," says Lovelace. "One of my slogans is, 'Do it scared, but just do it.' That's just what I did here."


More tips from professional organizers

Dawn Cannon


Try a 15-minute de-clutter exercise. Pick a room and walk through with a garbage bag, looking at what's visible, like the teacup collecting dust on your mantel for five years. Ask yourself: Do I love it; do I use it; does it bring me joy? If not, it goes into the donate bag. Involve your kids. They'll let go of stuff more easily if they help decide.

Magazine pileups: While watching TV, flip through old magazines, tearing out articles you want to read. Date and put in a "To Read" file. If they're not read in 30 days, toss. Another option: Bookmark articles to read online. Donate clean magazines to libraries or used-book stores.

Holly Graff


Take 10 to 15 minutes daily to tackle one project: Empty a junk drawer, file some papers, delete 10 e-mail messages.

Always open mail near the recycling bin or shredder. Dump all junk mail before it lands on countertop or table.

Schedule a Saturday family de-clutter date, even if only for 30 minutes. Start small: a closet, a drawer, a desktop. Pull everything out and sort into piles for tossing, recycling or donating.

Ann Nagel


Use descriptive names on files. Never label a file "Miscellaneous." File new papers in front so oldest stay in back.

Keep a "To Be Filed" folder on your filing cabinet. At least weekly, file the accumulated paperwork.

Don't use paper clips. They fall off, catch on other papers and cause misfiling. Use a stapler or metal clips for thicker documents.

Tonya Piper


Spend an hour at the computer going through folders: Delete unneeded documents, apps, sound files, photos.

Looking for assistance?

If you want outside help in organizing your home, office or garage, check the National Association of Professional Organizers' website: It has tips and links to local organizers. Organizers might charge $50 to $120 per hour, depending on the job's size and complexity. Some offer specialty services: home downsizing, kids' rooms or helping those with chronic disorders such as hoarding.

Clear home office of stressful clutter 02/13/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 12:57am]
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