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4 “Spring Cleaning” Tips to Keep Your Office Mess From Becoming a Distraction


During a private coaching session, one of my clients expressed frustration because she hadn’t been able to get started on the priorities we had laid out for her practice.

She is a successful advisor and as we began our work together I could tell she was truly motivated to take her business to the next level. But something, as yet to be determined, was getting in her way.

As we discussed this problem, I asked her to pull out a document she had printed following one of our prior calls. After several minutes, she simply couldn’t find the paper she knew “was here somewhere.”

“Aha,” I thought, “maybe this advisor needs to consider some basic office organization.”

Since most of my coaching work is conducted by phone, I had never seen this advisor’s office. Based on her professional demeanor and past success, I would have never guessed that this advisor would have a highly disorganized office.

So I asked her, “Can you see the top of your desk?”

And she replied, “Robb, I’m not even sure what my desk is made of.”

Then, for the next several minutes, my client described all the pent up frustration she was feeling because she had let this “obvious problem” go unattended for so long:

  • She felt unprofessional — it had been years since she had held a client meeting in her office (instead she used a conference room) and when an occasional client saw her office she felt embarrassed. Many of her colleagues avoided her office.
  • She was easily distracted — because she constantly had to go through piles of “stuff” to find material for her current projects, she often found herself taking inordinate lengths of time to get things done. For example, while looking for a report for an appointment, she might come across something else that was less urgent and spend time tinkering with it.
  • Her assistant felt helpless –the chaos in this advisor’s office kept her assistant from doing a major part of her job. The advisor often found herself saying, “I’ll do it,” because it was easier for her to sort through her mess than it was to tell her assistant where she might find a file or report.

The bottom line — disorganization was getting in the way of progress.

Now, I know you may be thinking, “My office is messy, but not this bad.” And I hope you’re right. But my experience tells me that at times most advisors suffer from some of these same feelings of frustration.

Do you ever?

  • Spend a Saturday doing a major office makeover. Perhaps once or twice a year you’re forced into a major clean up session to make up for the sloppiness of the prior months.
  • Lie to yourself about your filing system. Maybe you tell yourself that the stacks of paper on your office floor are really a filing system. In truth, you’re not really sure how the stacks got started.
  • Tell others you like having your important papers within easy reach. When in truth, you haven’t the slightest idea why some of the stuff that’s on your desk got there in the first place.
  • Empty your inbox into a drawer. Of course, you do this, to make yourself feel like you’ve gotten something accomplished.

If you never find yourself questioning your organizational skills with questions like these, you may not need this article. Stop reading and pass it along to someone who will benefit. You know who they are! (They could be on your team.)

For the rest of us, here are a handful of “spring cleaning” tips to keep your office mess from becoming a distraction:

1.  Start with a giant trash can (or recycle bin) — As you get started; you’ll feel better if you can quickly get rid of a lot of your visible clutter. Don’t hide it in a drawer or a closet, throw it away. Here’s the type of stuff you can probably get rid of most quickly:

  • Prospectuses and sales materials you receive in the mail or left behind by a wholesaler. You may have saved these colorful brochures for “future reference”, but now that they’ve inhabited your office for months without your attention they are a primary target for disposal. After all, if you need another copy, your strategic partners will gladly send you one.
  • Newspapers and magazines. Will you really need that Wall Street Journal from 1999? Is last year’s “office organization” issue of your favorite advisor magazine really going to be read?
  • The e-documents you printed. Okay, I know it’s sometimes easier to read a printed copy of an email or a research report, but this doesn’t mean you need to keep it as a permanent decoration for your office.

2.  Get your assistant involved — Now that there’s actually room for 2 people in your office, ask your assistant for some help. After all, helping you keep your office organized is probably part of the reason you hired him or her in the first place. And when left to do what they do well, most assistants will shine.

Think about it:

  • Who knows more about your daily work habits (good and bad)? Who knows more about the likes and dislikes of your clients? Who makes the best jokes about the mess in your office?
  • Who hears most of the complaints about your disorganization?
  • All kidding aside, to make this process work AND LAST, you need to develop an organizational system that is understood by more than just yourself. If you allow your assistant to take charge or at the very least offer major input, you stand a better chance of being successful.

3.  Don’t create an overly complicated file system — If you take this “spring cleaning” process too far, you can cause more harm than good. Don’t try to turn simple organization into the world’s greatest filing system. Dewey already invented the decimal system and your office is not the local library.

Here are the main (and possibly the only) files you need to keep:

  • Client files — Your largest file cabinet should be dedicated exclusively to your client files. After all, your clients are the lifeblood of your business. You stand a better chance of keeping these files in tact when you put your assistant, not yourself, in charge, so keep these records near his or her desk.
  • Compliance and financial records — Another obviously important grouping of files are those you use to satisfy your regulatory and financial requirements. Keep these records separate from your other files.
  • Research and sales material — This is NOT the file for the stuff you should have deposited in the recycle bin. But you probably have research reports and marketing materials that you use on a recurring basis. Keep them together in one location so you can easily put your hands on them as needed.
  • Current projects — The only files I would keep in your desk drawers would be those that relate to your pending projects or upcoming appointments. Otherwise, they should be filed in (or go back to) the categories referenced above.
  • Weekly reading — Get a basket for the reading material that crosses your desk (or dedicated email box) on a daily basis. If you don’t need or read it right away, deposit it in the basket for the quiet times you dedicate to research and reading. At the end of each week, clear this basket out by depositing unread material in your circular file. If it wasn’t important this week, it probably won’t be important next week or the week after next or…
  • Goals and priorities file — Finally, keep a single file folder with your business plan in your top desk drawer. You need to be able to quickly reference your goals and priorities. This will help you stay organized by staying on task.

4.  Adopt the clean desk rules — Now that your office is free from clutter and your files are organized, live by the clean desk rules.  Repeat after me, I will…

  • Avoid distractions by only keeping my most current project on the top of my desk.
  • Replace each file after use or put it in a “to be filed” box for my assistant.
  • Always remember that my assistant is crucial to my success and office efficiency, so I will consult with her (him) before I change my organizational system.
  • Never be afraid to throw “stuff” away, keeping it around doesn’t make it more important.
  • Dust the top of my office furniture weekly to keep my workspace free from clutter and avoid the return of bad habits.

The client I referenced at the beginning of this article has reported great strides in most of these areas. She is feeling more relaxed and is ready to tackle new challenges for growing her business. Plus, her assistant now feels even more like she’s part of a team.

She recently told me, “I love walking into my office now and seeing how nice everything looks. It looks a lot more professional.” Isn’t it funny how we can sometimes turn the simplest of problems into mental blocks that affect the direction of our businesses?

Is it time for you to break out the trash can and the dust rags?

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