Create a workable home office

These days my home office serves many functions: from coffee room to diaper-changing area to bill-paying headquarters to gift-wrapping space. Oh, and I do a little bit of work in there too.

But the more functions that room serves, the more pieces of paper there are. It needs some major reorganization so I consulted Betsy Fein, president of Clutterbusters, for some tips on re-doing my office space.

What's the point?

Figure out the purpose of your home office. Make sure you configure the office in a way that gives you easy access to frequently used items and buy a comfortable chair that fits your desk. Think about lighting and decoration. "If your walls are white, hang shelves or pictures to cut down on glare," says Fein.

Pick a winner

Make sure you pick out a good spot for your home office. Fein says the dining room table never works. But if you don't have a room in your house that could be used as a home office, there are other less predictable spaces to set up camp, such as a large closet, an attic or a space in the garage. "You do need something a little separated and quiet," Fein says.

The Three Rs

Before you go out and stock up on paper trays and pen holders, look around the house for things that might be re-purposed. I use a small white trash can for my recycling bin, a basket for my work papers and a napkin holder for the monthly bills.

Get unconventional

Fein says some of the best places to buy home-office equipment may be the most unpredictable, like Safeway, where she recently found a set of baskets for $10. She's also had luck at HomeGoods, Michaels, Ikea and Target.

Which desk is best?

Picking out the right desk is vital. Fein discourages people from shopping online for a desk because you'll want to test it out and judge whether it will be too big or too small. She also says it should have at least two regular drawers and a file drawer. Consider an armoire as a good alternative to a desk.

RAT system

Every home office needs a filing system for papers, whether it be a metal file cabinet or boxes. Keep the documents that you access most frequently nearby and store the other documents, such as old tax papers, in a separate storage room or even an off-site storage area. Fein urges people to use the RAT system, which means when you come across a piece of paper, you Retain it, Act on it or Toss it. RAT can even be used for e-mails. "If they don't have a paper system in place or files, then they all intermingle and it becomes a problem," says Fein. "A lot of times we're coming into houses because of paper."

What to toss

Here are Fein's guidelines on what to keep and what to toss: Never throw out annual financial statements, corporate documents, income tax paperwork and cleared payment checks. Hold on to bank statements, voided checks, purchase records and sales records for six years. Personnel and payroll records should be kept for four years.

Tip 8: Think before you hit the "print" button. A big contributor to home office clutter is paper and if you can cut down on how much of it you print out, then you won't have to deal with it. Fein recommends asking yourself, "Will that information be available in the future on that Web site or elsewhere?" and "Will you read it if you print it out?"

Tania Anderson writes the "Shop to It" blog on This article is adapted from the blog.

Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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