Life Audit

Dead Letter Office

  • Print.

Nina Cowen is the founder of Chicago-based Organizational Design Services. She works with individuals at home and in their offices to create organized spaces that can be easily maintained.

Position Solo practitioner, McLean, Va. GOAL Cleaning up an office that is overrun with paper

Cecelia TaBois could be called the clipping queen.

The Washington, D.C.-area estate planning and tax attorney likes to clip articles that she thinks will be useful for her law practice. Sometimes she reads them, but mostly she just saves them to read for that elusive rainy day that never seems to come around.

Until recently, TaBois says, her pack rat tendencies were not a problem: She shared a large office with another lawyer and had a legal assistant who kept everything organized. Last year, following the death of her office mate, she decided to give up both the 1,100-square-foot space and the legal assistant.

She now works out of a 200-square-foot room in her home. And the clutter–clippings included–is starting to close in.

The clippings are filling up storage boxes and spilling over onto work areas from a growing number of piles and stacks. A closet is already filled with old magazines and books that she’s also saved. “The fact that I had a bigger office before made the paper not such a problem,” she laments.

TaBois knows it’s time to let go. Problem is, she just doesn’t know how. “I do not have the space now,” she says. “But I cannot seem to let go of these interesting articles.” Life Audit home/office organizational expert Nina Cowen says TaBois’ problem is not a shortage of space. It’s the luxury of once having too much space. “The more space you have, the more you collect,” Cowen says. And when that space suddenly disappears, she says, organizational challenges arise.

Clearing The Decks

Cowen wants TaBois to work toward creating an office that’s a clean slate, meaning that any clipping not truly necessary has got to go. “The goal is to have a clear, streamlined working space where everything is in its place,” Cowen says. “You have to be motivated and willing to go through the process to create a clean slate for yourself.”

TaBois is certainly motivated and willing. Standing in her way, however, is a formidable stumbling block called time. In addition to her law practice, TaBois has begun a financial consulting business that takes her out of her office most days. When she does return, it’s already evening and she’s too tired to even begin thinking about organizing her home office.

Not that she hasn’t tried before. “I’ve been trying to get at it incrementally and it will not work. It’s never worked,” TaBois admits. Cowen has a simple solution: Dedicate one entire day to getting it done.

The longer she puts it off, Cowen says, the worse the problem will be to solve. “In the next three months, when you think you are going to read this one article, you are going to clip out 100 more,” she says. And clearly, doing it in piecemeal fashion only flops.

Instead, Cowen wants TaBois to devote an entire day to the project a day with absolutely no distractions. That means no work, no phones, no e-mail and no television. Just TaBois, the stuff in her office, and a supply of trash bags and recycling containers.

And maybe a friend, Cowen adds. An objective third party is often helpful when it comes to making decisions about what should stay and what should go. “You need someone to objectively confront you and say, ‘I know you think you are going to read this article, but it’s 11⁄2 years old.’ ”

Cowen suggests that TaBois start at one point in her office and move inch by inch. “Don’t move until you’ve cleaned out that inch. Only keep articles that you will absolutely read in the next week. And if it’s really difficult to throw something out, keep in mind that there are so many ways to get information on the Internet,” Cowen says.

When TaBois has filled two trash bags, she should immediately remove them from her office and dispose of them. That way she won’t feel overwhelmed or start having second thoughts about what she is getting rid of, Cowen says.

If TaBois can concentrate and work steadily, Cowen guarantees her that the task will be accomplished in a day.

Cowen suspects that, during the process, TaBois will find some useful articles that she wants to keep and others that, for one reason or another, she just cannot part with.

For those that are truly useful–and that she has read–Cowen suggests organizing them in binders. For everything else, Cowen will allow TaBois exactly one box to serve as rainy-day reading.

Keeping It Clean

Even though the process may be difficult, Cowen says the payoff is more than just a clean and uncluttered office. “Once people clean out their office, the universal reaction is that they are more productive, more efficient, thinking more clearly and enjoying their space more.”

As further encouragement for TaBois to stay the course, Cowen wants TaBois to make her office the kind of place that she wants to keep looking good and functioning well. Getting TaBois’ office cleaned up is half the battle. The other half is not allowing her to fall back into old habits.

To prevent that, Cowen says, TaBois needs to live by certain guidelines. For clipped articles, Cowen wants her to keep them only if she’s read them first and then has an organized place to store them.

For publications, Cowen’s rule of thumb is to dispose of them before the next one comes. If it’s a weekly, throw it out before the new one arrives. For monthlies, TaBois can hold on to them for three months, max.

Cowen also suggests that TaBois consider canceling subscriptions to publications if she cannot keep up with all the reading. “You can always go out and buy them. The fact that you may have to buy one for $5 instead of [getting] a year for $12 does not matter,” she says.

Periodicals that come with memberships also can be canceled simply by calling the organization that publishes them. The organizations also will always supply them upon request or for a fee if needed, Cowen says.

And remember, Cowen says, there always will be more to read. But you cannot read what you cannot find.

WE NEED YOU! Got some room to improve? Get free advice from the experts on health and fitness, finance, work-life balance, entertaining, travel and wardrobe plus your mug in this mag with Life Audit, the Journal’s monthly lifestyle feature. It’s fun, fast and free. If you would like to participate in a future Life Audit, please e-mail Jill Schachner Chanen at [email protected]


Life Audit HOT TIP: TAKE 10 No matter how neat and organized the rest of your office space is, a messy desk can make you feel disorganized and overwhelmed, says Life Audit organizing expert Nina Cowen. Take control of that clutter by devoting 10 minutes at the end of each day to cleaning your desk, organizing paper and preparing for the next day. It will make you more productive and more efficient, Cowen says.

Bust That Clutter!

1 Devote a distraction-free day to the task.
2 Invite an objective third party to help you sort through the clutter.
3 When in doubt, throw it out. Keep only what you’ve read and need.
4 Remember: You can always find the information again. 5 Once the clutter is gone, keep it gone.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.