Clear Your Office Clutter

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As a small-business owner, I like to start the new year right.

So I have a long-standing tradition: Once a year, during the slow period between holidays, I clean up my desk.

Normally, I'm a person who piles, not files. But that means sometimes it's hard to see my desktop, not a good way to begin a new year.

In a small business or when you're self-employed, you gather a lot of clutter during the course of a year. When I worked by myself, all this stuff could become paralyzing. I learned I had to make sure that at least once a year — at the beginning of the year — I felt organized.

So I slip into the office when it's closed, on a holiday or weekend, turn up the music, and seriously get down to decluttering my work space.

Please join me in my small-business tradition, especially if you keeping saying to yourself, "One day, I have to clean up this mess." Let's get ready for the new year. Here's how.

First, get the right tools handy. Here's what you'll need:

•Comfy clothes. You're going to get dusty and perhaps get down on your knees to clean out files.

•Two trash cans, one for trash and a bigger one for recycling. You're going to be throwing a lot of paper away.

A shredder. It's not safe to throw some stuff into a recycling bin, such as papers with personnel or financial information; pre-approved credit card offers; job applications from people you didn't hire, especially if they have their Social Security numbers on them. (Legally, you're required to shred documents with this kind of information).

•File folders, file drawers, and a label maker. Believe it or not, you're going to put stuff away.

•A contact management system, business card reader, or some method to turn info on physical cards into digital data. If you're like me, you have a stack of business cards from people you've met in the past year. Either enter them into a database, add them to your email newsletter list or throw them out.

Next, you'll need an attitude adjustment.

You don't need to hold on to absolutely everything unless you want to end up on an episode of that TV show, "Hoarders."

As you pick up each piece of paper, make a decision: Is this something I really need? If it is, decide what you're going to do with it. If not, toss it NOW.

OK, so now we're going to get down to the hard work of making decisions about what to keep and what to toss.

Here's the basic rule: When in doubt, toss it out. Most of the stuff on and in your desk is clutter. You're never really going to use or need it again.

Those stacks of industry trade journals? Out! The agendas for staff meetings? Out! Anything printed that you have an electronic version of on your computer? Out!

Get rid of most of it, and you'll feel much better. Believe me.

Of course, some things you need to hang on to, especially when you're self-employed or own a small business. Here's a guide of some stuff to keep:

1. Financial documents. I've got a pile of taxi and parking-lot receipts. Do I really need those? Actually, yes.

My accountant told me to keep supporting documents for business expenses for at least five years. Many documents you may want to hold on to indefinitely, such as tax returns, stock and investment statements (to establish your basis for taxes once you sell these assets).

But get a locking file cabinet, and put them away.

2. Legal documents. Hold on to any contracts, business licenses or incorporation papers, critical correspondence with suppliers or customers, and anything that might involve a legal action on which the statute of limitations has not run out.

3. Personnel records. Payroll records, insurance documents, performance reviews.

4. Bids. Hold on to suppliers' bids until the work is finished. It's also useful to retain bids for the past year or two to keep track of pricing. But then toss them out.

So join me. Clean off your desk, and you'll feel ready to face 2012 with a fresh start.