Thursday, May 27, 2010

4 Ways to Spend Less Time Processing Paper

Being a Certified Professional Organizer, I actually enjoy working with paper – I know, I’m strange! Even so, I don’t want to spend too much time on it; like you, I have many other tasks on my to-do list. One of my big goals for 2009 is to reduce the amount of paper that I have to process. Here are a few ways to do it:

Don’t print emails. Really, what are you going to do with that email you just printed out? Save it, maybe? Well, it’s already on your computer or on a server, so it’s already saved. If you’re worried about losing it or it being deleted, create a backup archive on your computer or an external disk. Better yet, use an online backup service like Mozy and you won’t have to worry about backups, they’ll happen automatically. If you’re printing out an email to use as a reference for an upcoming trip or event, start a small file for the trip, and when it’s over, shred or recycle the whole thing.

Don’t print web pages. Many of us print web pages for later reference, but even with the best of intentions, we may never review these documents. By printing these out, we’ve used ink and paper, spent time waiting for the page to print, and now have a new piece of paper on our desk that we need to deal with – a document that we may never even use, or may be outdated by the time we get back to it! Instead of printing, try creating folders in your web browser by topic, and bookmark pages that you’d like to revisit at some future point. If you’re worried that the page may no longer be there later, try a web page capture tool like the free Evernote Web Clipper, which lets you capture and save entire web pages for review later – without printing them out.

Don’t print your faxes. And I mean don’t print the one you’re sending OR the one you’re receiving. “But Josh,” you say, “I need to print it out in order to send it, right?” In most cases, no. If you have a printer/scanner/fax multifunction device, or a fax/modem built into your computer, you can usually “print” directly to the fax function (check your owner’s manual). Doing this bypasses the actual printer and sends your document straight to the fax function, without ever using any paper. Additionally, it takes less time since the fax doesn’t have to scan your document, and the quality is better on the recipient’s end. As far as receiving faxes, try using an internet-based service like eFax where you can view incoming faxes on your computer before you decide whether it’s worth printing.

Scan paper documents. Once you’re done working with a document or a file, studies show that once it’s in a file drawer, it’s VERY unlikely that you’re going to use it again. If that’s the case for your documents, instead of filing, you might want to scan them instead. Tools like NeatDesk can scan up to 50 pages via an automatic document feeder, and can convert those documents into searchable PDFs. What I like about this is that so many of us are used to doing searches online, that it feels really natural to search for our own documents – but this can only be done once they’re on our computer in some way, either as an entire document or as an index. I personally think scanning and automatic conversion to PDF is the easiest method.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

3 Things Every Home Office Worker Needs

When you spend as much time as I have working with different folks in their various at-home workspaces, you start to notice some of the things that consistently are important to being a successful work-at-homer. Of course, some of the things that help people do their best work are big, obvious things, like staying organized, managing one’s time well, and the like. But I’d like to shine a light on some of the things that are smaller and more easily overlooked – but are also, in my experience, very helpful. In fact, these are things I recommend to every person I work with in a home office:

- Everybody needs a label maker. Labeling files, containers, and drawers helps to define where your stuff and your paper live, and makes their homes more official. When things are clearly labeled, it’s easier to put things away and to stay organized. Label makers aren’t too expensive – some of my favorite Brother models can be found on sale at many office supply stores for under $30. Keep your label maker and extra label cassettes handy, and as soon as you create a new file folder or put stuff in a container, create a label immediately.

- Ensure the safety and security of the data in your business. Every person who uses a computer needs a system for regularly backing up their data. Imagine what would happen if your hard drive crashed or your laptop was stolen. How long would it take you to reconstruct your client database, your calendar, and your financial information – if you could even do it at all? If you’ve taken the time to create anything on your computer, it’s worth spending the time to back it up. Now, I realize that adding one more task to your already busy day isn’t the advice you were hoping for – but there is a solution. More and more, I recommend automatic online backup services, like Mozy, that work while your computer is idle and upload your data to a secure offsite server. Also consider keeping hard copies of key documents in a safe location offsite.

- Invest in insurance. This is probably the least fun thing in the world to spend your hard-earned cash on, but I believe having the right insurance is key to any business owner sleeping well at night. I’m consistently surprised how many of my clients just don’t have insurance – most just haven’t thought of it – and why should they? After all, if you already have homeowners or renters insurance, your home office is covered by your existing policy, right? In most cases, wrong. Many insurance policies require a special rider or provision for home offices and home-based businesses to cover the material owned by the business, such as inventory, computers and other equipment, and supplies. Additionally, you might want to consider general business liability insurance and/or specialized insurance for your profession. It’s a good idea to check with your insurance agent to see what can be added or modified on your existing policy to cover both you personally as well as your business.
Probably not the three things you were thinking of… but all are important to your home office. Of course, there are a great many other things that are important to creating successful home office, and they are all important to different degrees. These three are easy to take care of and can really help you create a strong foundation for your business.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Switching from Laundry Mode to Work Mode

My friends get pretty jealous about me having an office in my home, saying it must be cool to be able to sit around in my sweats and do all sorts of errands during the day. Well, while there are definite perks to working from home - spending nothing on gas (a big benefit in $4/gallon San Francisco) and eating a healthy lunch that I prepare – it’s important to remember the work part in the work-from-home equation. For most of us with home offices, it’s key to our success to find ways to put the “office” back in “home office.”

Reduce distractions. Here’s a scenario: even though you hate doing laundry, as soon as you sit down to start your workday, suddenly your laundry jumps to the top of your must-do list. You get out of your chair, collect your laundry, sort it, put it in the machine, and before you know it, you’ve lost 20 minutes that was supposed to be spent on an important project. Sound familiar? Most of us have distractions in our homes that can divert our attention from the work that we have in front of us. For us work-at-homers, it’s super-important to combat these distractions. True, we can’t make them go away, but look for ways to shift your focus back to your work. For instance, putting all non-work-related items out view of your desk, closing the door to your office, and turning off the ringer on your home phone during the day have all proven helpful to people I’ve worked with.

Set the scene. Is your home office set up to help you do your best work? If it isn’t, take some time to get the space organized, comfortable, and conducive for how you like to work. For instance, if you have trouble getting started each day because you can’t find your papers, take an afternoon and set up a paper management system. Are your frequently-used supplies all the way on the other side of the room? Move them closer so you spend less time getting up and interrupting your workflow. Does the space itself reflect your personal aesthetic? How things look and feel can play a big part in how much (or how little) we like our workspace, and when we like our space, we do better work. Spend some time “dressing up” your work area or desk with items that reflect who you are and the things you like.

Dress for work, not for home. Even though it might seem working in your home office in pajamas or sweats is a good idea (you’re already wearing them, right?), doing so doesn’t lend itself to enhancing your productivity or helping you do your best work. Your pajamas may be silk and your sweats designer, but chances are you’d never see a client or go to an office wearing these decidedly not-work garments. Dressing up helps us shift our mind into another state – in this case, dressing for work helps make the mental shift into work mode. I’ve seen people work much better when they dress as if they may be called off to a client site at any moment. For example, a client says when she puts on her shoes, she knows it’s time for her to go to work (even though her office is just down the hall from her bedroom). What outfit can you change into to signal work time?

Find the things that you can do, whether it’s putting on a dress shirt or closing your office door, to create a physical or mental “workspace” that is distinct from your home. When you do, you’ll find yourself being much more productive and enjoy your work more.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

3 Top Tips for Dealing with Noise Pollution in Your Home Office

“If I do my invoicing, I’ll be able to reach my monthly cash flow goals, but I can’t concentrate with all the traffic noise!”

“I’d love to work on that proposal, but my neighbor’s dog just won’t stop barking!”

“Is that baby STILL screaming? I need to get this project off my desk!”

If any of these sound familiar, then you’ve run into one of the unique challenges of working from home – dealing with residential noise pollution.

Home office workers face a variety of challenges related to distraction, but noise is one that is typically overlooked. Most large offices and workspaces have a symphony of office chatter, the hum of copiers and other office machines, and even the low rumble of the A/C, all of which generally become a type of “white noise” – which we can usually tune out and stop hearing. At home, however, there typically isn’t any background noise – it’s usually just you and your trusty computer – and any outside noise can be especially jarring and make it challenging for us to focus.

In order to get our work done, we home office types need to find strategies to help us manage the noise pollution that can encroach on our productivity. Here’s a few tactics that I’ve found successful with my organizing clients:

The hills are alive… Well, maybe not the hills, but your home office can be alive with the sound of music. For many people, having the right music as background noise can help to get us “into a groove” and make our tasks go faster and seem more enjoyable. I emphasize having the right music, because background music while working is not a one-genre-fits-all affair. Some people find music with lyrics can be distracting while doing verbally-related tasks such as writing, reading, and editing. For these task types, you might want to choose instrumental or electronic music, or even nature sounds. Other tasks, such as organizing your office, might be perfect for that Top 40 song you just can’t seem to get out of your head. Match the music to the task at hand, and you’ll focus less on outside-world noise distractions.

The tech. As with most things, technology is there to help us deal with noise pollution. Noise-cancelling headphones can silence all but the most piercing of outside noises, and can create a quiet zone for us to work in. Sometimes, just having “white noise” can help us ignore the more unpleasant background noises. White noise generators, which create a static-like tone, have been used in therapy offices for many years, and help to drown out or mask things we don’t want to hear. You can find both noise-cancelling headphones and white noise generators online.

Shift your space. Recognize when it might be helpful to just get out of your chair, leave your office, and go someplace else to work. A change of scenery can shift our energy and allow us to focus in a different way than when we’re at our usual workspace. This can be an especially helpful tactic when you need or want to work on a specific task. Let’s say that you need to write an article for your newsletter, but it’s simply too noisy at your home office. Try taking a trip to your local coffee shop, library or park and do your writing from there – you might just find that you write a lot better in that environment. Sometimes, tying a specific type of task to a physical location can help reduce our distraction level and help us focus on the task at hand.
As I’m writing this, two sirens went off outside my window, a dog started barking, and a plane is flying overhead. I know what I’m going to do to get my focus back – what will you do the next time you’re distracted by your noisy environment?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Terminating Your Tolerations

Four Steps for Minimizing Life’s Little (and Big!) Annoyances

Irritated. Annoyed. Frustrated. Do these words describe your daily life? If so, chances are you are putting up with a lot of tolerations – things that irk you regularly, but that consciously or unconsciously you have decided get to be a part of your life. Well, they don’t have to be! Follow these steps to reduce the amount of frustration you feel at life’s little (and big!) annoyances:

1. Make a list. Instead of feeling like you have lots of undefined things in your life that are driving you batty, start writing those daily tolerations down. Sit down for a few minutes with a notebook, and make a list of the tolerations in your life. Carry around the notebook with you for a few days and write down all those things that you regularly put up with – all the distractions, clutter, rude co-workers, the slow-draining sink – whatever is a bother to you, make a note of it. Write down not only what is bothering you, but why you feel bothered by it.

2. Evaluate and strategize. Once you’ve spent some time noticing and writing down your tolerations, it’s time to start looking at them in a proactive way. At their core, tolerations are problems waiting to be solved. The key to defeating your tolerations is to look beyond the problem, and focus on potential solutions. For instance, if you’ve grown tired of the clutter on your desk, one way of dealing with it is to get organized. The problem co-worker could be an opportunity for you to practice your communication and management skills, and so on. For each of your tolerations listed in your notebook, write down a few potential solutions.

3. Prioritize. Now that you’re solution-focused, start separating your tolerations by how easy they will be to solve. In your notebook, make one column for easy fixes (lubricating the squeaky door, taking the pile of clothes to the dry cleaner) and one column for more challenging or time-consuming ones (organizing your closet, letting go of that commitment that no longer makes sense in your life). Once you’ve done that, you can prioritize the order that you’ll attack the tolerations. The most stressful or frustrating items get top priority in each list, and the tolerations that are less annoying get lower priority.

4. Act and Eliminate. Now that you have your list of problems and solutions prioritized, it’s time to move into action. Grab your prioritized list and your calendar, and set aside time to actively work on reducing your tolerations. Begin by scheduling time to focus on getting rid of the tolerations that are at the top of your priority list –eliminating the big ones can create a tremendous sense of accomplishment. If you have just a few free minutes a day, start with the tolerations that are on your easy list. By doing so, you’ll have freed up some of your time, and soon you’ll be able to focus on your more challenging tasks.

Reducing your tolerations can be an incredibly satisfying endeavor. Moving from annoyance into action will leave you feeling empowered and in control. In time, the amount of things that you tolerate will be far fewer, because you won’t let them enter your life in the first place.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

3 Top Tips for Protecting Your Data

One of the things I frequently work with clients on is making sure that their data will be safe in the event of an emergency. Just imagine what would happen in your business or your life if you lost all your data and your key documents. Unless you’re confident that you could re-create everything from scratch, it’s essential to have a strategy for data and information backup and restoration. Here are some ideas for how to do it:

Snap it. For insurance and recordkeeping purposes, you need to have a record of all of your belongings. Start by taking your camcorder or digital camera and going through every space in your office or home, and take snapshots of the contents. I mean open every closet, ever drawer – everything. Download the photos to your computer and store them in a special folder. As your belongings change, make sure to take new photos to keep your record up-to-date.

Data backup. If you have any data on your computer that you value in any way, it’s essential to develop a backup strategy. Most businesses and individuals don’t backup their data regularly, which in our digital age is a very risky thing to do! Backup is really simple with automated tools like MOZY ( or Dropbox (, which backup your data to a central server and keep synched copies of your data on all your computers, respectively. Whatever backup strategy you choose, just choose something and do it regularly!

Centralize your docs. In an emergency, you may need access to important documents like lease agreements, insurance papers, deeds and titles, and more. If you need to leave your home or office in a hurry, you won’t generally have time to search your files to gather everything. Use something like the Vital Records PortaVault ( to centralize your key documents so that you can grab what you need. You may even want to keep one copy in your office and one copy in your home, so that if you can’t return to one location you can still access your documents.

There are many things you can do to help prepare yourself for an emergency at home or at work. Being prepared is all about being ready – and the more ready you are, the better you’ll fare in the event of an emergency.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Top Organizing Tips for Creative Professionals

As someone whose previous career was in the design industry, I know how much of a challenge it can be for busy, creative people to get and stay organized. When you’re faced with meeting client deadlines and marketing yourself to find your next gig, it can seem like getting organized is just “one more thing” on the ever-growing to-do list. But taking the time to get organized can help you – and your business – in a variety of ways:

Recognize the benefits of getting organized. When I work with creative professionals of any stripe, one of the concerns they raise is that getting organized could stifle their creativity. In fact, what I’ve seen with my clients is that getting organized can enhance creativity by letting you focus on what’s important to you – rather than the details of “where’s that important client file” or “under which pile of stuff is my extra printer ink.” Getting organized takes a little time and focus up front, but can save you lots of time and stress down the road.

Set aside time to organize. I know you’re busy with design projects for your clients, but remember, taking care of the administrative end of your business, including managing paperwork, billing, and email, is critical to the success of any endeavor. Unfortunately, your admin and organizing-related work won’t do itself, so schedule time to work on your organizing projects. Once they’re completed, build a regular appointment with yourself into your calendar to maintain your systems. One rule of thumb – it takes about 15-30 minutes each day to deal with that day’s worth of new paper. Make sure you have enough time set aside to process your paper – especially client billing!

Get creative with your organizing tools. When I’m working with designers and other creative folks, I frequently hear this refrain: “but the organizing tools are so ugly!” Unfortunately, it’s mostly true – many of the containers and other organizing gizmos out there are pretty bare-bones and focus on functionality over form. That said, there are ways to make sure that your organizing tools match your aesthetic sense. One technique I like to use is to get clear containers, and then line them with decorative paper from a high-end paper store. By doing this, you can completely customize the look of your storage, rather than trying to find an off-the shelf solution that fits. Look for organizing tools that you can customize in various ways – either by decorating, painting, or using in new and unexpected ways.

Give things a home. One of the most important concepts when you’re organizing is to recognize when your supplies, files, and other stuff don’t have assigned homes, they simply can’t be put away – they have no homes to go back to, and they become clutter (or “homeless stuff,” as I like to think of them). Make sure to take the time to assign homes for each of the things that are around your design studio or office. That way, when it’s time to find things, it’s easy to do so – and it’s equally easy to put things away when you’re done with them.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

What to Do with Your Unwanted Stuff

A frequent by-product of the organizing process is usually a bunch of stuff you’ve decided you no longer want, love, or use. Getting rid of all this stuff can sometimes be a challenge – but don’t let that stymie your progress! Here are three ideas of what to do with your castoffs:

Sell them. If your belongings still have financial value – for instance, electronics in good condition, designer clothes, or antiques – you might be able to recoup some of their cost by selling them. While having a garage sale might seem like the easiest way to sell your stuff, I generally don’t recommend it. Garage sales take a lot of prep work and planning, not to mention the time you have to spend staffing the sale. Unless you live in a densely populated area and expect most of the stuff you’re putting out will sell, skip the garage sale. Instead, try posting your most valuable items on eBay or Craigslist. You can do some research online to see how much you can expect your goods to sell for – helping you decide whether it’s worth your time to sell them or not.

Give them away. For stuff that isn’t saleable but is still in perfectly good condition – clothes that no longer fit, the extra microwave that’s been sitting in the garage, etc. – it’s best to donate them so someone else can use them. Your local Salvation Army or Goodwill are great places to start, as they generally accept a variety of items – call them before driving over to see what they’re currently accepting. For things they won’t accept, get creative – other places may still value your stuff. For instance, if you’re getting rid of stacks of magazines, why not drop a few off at the gym or at a hospital waiting room? Have extra TVs or VCRs? See if a local shelter could use them. Many things that you think aren’t valuable may in fact be desired by someone else – try posting on Craigslist in the “free” section or on Freecycle – the results may surprise you! With clients, I’ve found that when we match their donations to places which will actually use them, they feel much better about letting those things go.

Recycle them. Some of your stuff may not have any more useful life left and should be discarded in an environmentally-friendly manner. In many communities, recycling options abound for items like paper, plastic and aluminum, but what can you do with the rest of the stuff you want to recycle? This is where you have to get creative and do a little legwork. For electronics, some Goodwill locations and places like GreenCitizen will recycle your goods (sometimes for a small fee). See if old clothes can be used as art scraps at a local sewing center or school. Try calling your garbage company and see if they offer any resources or referrals for recycling beyond what they regularly pickup. Your local NAPO-affiliated Professional Organizer can also be a great resource for recycling and reuse ideas.