One of the biggest challenges of working at home is staying organized. Not only do you have to ignore the laundry that needs washing, but you have to find a way to stay organized and on top of things amidst the chaos of home life. It can be a challenge for all of us, but add in a less traditional office space and it can create another layer of chaos and frustration at home.
In our house we use laptops and a large desk in our living room for an office, however we also have desks throughout the house so that everyone has a quiet space to work when we need it. All of our paperwork, office supplies, and my business supplies are all on shelves in this shared space. So it’s a must that this space stays organized, personal and business items stay separate, and I find a way to manage it all without interfering with family life.
In one of my previous incarnations I was a professional organizer. It’s still something I love, but running an organizing business is one part psychology, one part focus, and one part energy. It can be a challenge to take on, and I find my current career is more suited to my personality even if I occasionally miss my old profession.
While I’m sharing my tips for getting and staying organized when you work from home below, know even someone who loves to organize often has a messy desk. It’s all about making the time to get it back to square one before you get busy with projects and family obligations. In other words don’t expect you’ll find a perfectly organized desk every time you pop by. Real life (and work!) get in the way of that most days.
Block Off Time
Whether my former clients were desperately cluttered or just holding on to too much stuff, they often needed the motivation of paying someone to make the time to get organized. To start, you just need a block of time when your energy is high (for me that’s mid-morning), and your distractions are at a minimum. Beyond having an organized space as a reward it may help to have an external reward (like a long lunch with a friend) to get you motivated.
Don’t go into organizing empty-handed. You need supplies to get started. Having the below items on hand will make cleanup and organization much speedier.
Must-haves for Organizing:
- Trash bags: A must.
- Recycling bin: Essential for paperwork, plastic, and other things that can be recycled.
- Donate box or bag: For all items that go to charity.
- Dust cloths: I recommend microfiber rags from the automotive section-cheaper than microfiber cleaning cloths and super effective.
- Old clothes: For you to wear. Include comfy house shoes too.
- Cleaning spray: I like Method all-purpose cleaners, especially grapefruit.
- Notepad and paper: To keep track of items you need to purchase later such as office supplies, bins or baskets, etc.
Sort it Out
Start with your desk, and then move on to shelves, piles on the floor, etc. You want to focus on one small area at a time so if you have a large desk start with one section. Once that’s done, dust and clean it and move on.
You’ll want to sort paperwork in several ways: File, Shred, and Recycle. The goal is to touch the paper a maximum of twice. Once to see what it is and put it in a pile, and once to file, save or shred it. Keeping your shredder and recycling bin next to you as you work makes the process go even faster.
Tip: If you have a ton of paperwork to file, put it in a basket and set aside time to file it later.
For all the other ‘stuff’ you can sort into: Keep, Donate, and Trash. Again having a bin or bag on hand for items that you are trashing or donating can save you a ton of time.
You can also take this a step further if you share the space with others. I like to have bins or bags for each family member. I place their items in the bin and then hand it over to them to sort or put away.
In most cases we need less and less real life storage. Look at digital storage options for photos, documents, and even books. One of the most important ways to organize your work from home space is to ensure that everything is backed up properly and in more than one method.
During your initial organization and weekly followups you’ll want to make sure that you are backing up files, photos, and important documents more than one way. We prefer both a cloud-based backup as well as an external hard drive. This allows us to have two very different options should our computers fail. Trust me you don’t want to lose those precious photos or that important contract either!
Give it a Home
Now you’ve sorted the paperwork, the books, the odds and ends. It’s time to make sure everything has a home. Don’t worry if you need more storage options like baskets just yet. Find a home for everything you can, and then make a list of needed items. If you don’t have the ability to spend on those items now it’s worth scouring your house to find something that will work in the interim. For instance an old dresser can work well for storing everything from craft supplies to extra envelopes.
Rinse and Repeat
If your space needs more time than you can give it in one chunk, don’t worry. Just know you’ve started the process and come back to it again tomorrow when you have more energy.
You’ll also want to set up a weekly time to sort paperwork, clean and tidy your space, and return items to their ‘homes’. This will allow you to keep on top of things without having to worry about things getting disorganized.
You knew I had to go here, right? It’s even more important to keep your finances in order when you work from home. While I have more advice on the blog about managing finances, here are a few quick tips.
- Use business accounts for checking, savings, credit card, etc.
- Track income and expenses weekly but at a minimum monthly.
- Keep paperwork and bills for your business in a separate folder or filebox than family paperwork.
Tips for Organizing:
- Try music that’s upbeat to keep you going.
- Make sure to have plenty of water to drink.
- Take breaks every 20 minutes or so to assess your progress, and refocus on your intention for the space you’re organizing. I know it sounds new-agey, but visualize it or use a one word reminder as you take a few deep breaths.
- Don’t be afraid to take a break.
- Enlist help if possible. For instance my kids often shred documents for me or help find their own things to put away.
SmugMug: online photo storage backup for $60/year. You can also share photos with others from here. We love how easy it is to upload images in bulk, and it even allows us to backup videos!
Western Digital: external hard drives, we use this one. It’s great that it connects to all our computers so we don’t have to worry about hooking anything up, it does all the work for us!
Expandable File Folders: Target One Dollar Spot has some cute ones (chevron anyone?). I love the small one for storing coupons, frequent buyer cards, and receipts. The larger one houses paperwork and has a small section for bills that come by mail.
Organization Supplies: Martha Stewart collection at Staples, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, and Target offer great supplies from bins to paper sorters.
Printer: HP 4500 All in One wireless printer, copier and scanner. I can not express how much affection I have for this machine.
DropBox: Dropbox.com allows you to store files digitally, and create shared folders. This is perfect for working at home since it allows you to send documents to colleagues, share paperwork with your kids or spouse, and store important documents in the cloud.
What advice, tips, and tricks do you have for staying organized?
This is part of the Work at Home Series I started in response to questions I get about how I manage my time and obligations with my family life and businesses all in one space.
Previous posts include: