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Workspace Organization

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo / kurapy


Workspace organization can be a real challenge, especially if you’re in startup mode or a solopreneur. With a gazillion things going on at the same time it’s sometimes hard to find your desk and it all adds to the feeling of overwhelm.

Today’s guest, Kathi Burns, is a board-certified professional organizer with a few tips on how to organize our workspace AND gain productivity in the process.

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What You’ll Discover About Workspace Organization (highlights & transcript):

Master Your Muck

* The best place to begin workspace organization [2:55]

* 2 Ways to tame your email inbox for more workspace organization [4:48]

* How to file emails for more workspace organization [7:55]

* Easy ways to conquer paper for better workspace organization [11:58]

* The ideal workspace design to optimize workspace organization [15:24]




Hanna Hasl-Kelchner: [00:00:00] Workspace organization can be a real challenge, especially if you’re at a startup mode or a solo printer with a gazillion things going on at the same time, it’s sometimes hard to find your desk and it all adds to the feeling of overwhelmed. But I have some good news for you today because my guest is a board-certified professional organizer with a few tips on how to organize our workspace and gain productivity in the process.


Announcer: [00:00:29] This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matters to your bottom line.


Hanna: [00:00:40] Welcome to Business Confidential Now, I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today’s guest is Kathi Burns, a board-certified professional organizer, image consultant, author and speaker. Kathy’s the founder of, a professional organizing and image consultancy. Her mission is to help clients remove their exterior obstacles and unnecessary baggage so that it can become energized and create a life of purpose, ease, joy and success. Now, doesn’t that sound great?


Hanna: [00:01:15] Kathi’s also the author of two books, and I particularly like the one titled How to Master Your Muck, Get Organized as Space to Your Life and Live Your Purpose. Her advice has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart Living and many more. So Kathi is here today to give us a few organizing hacks to help us move forward towards our business goals with less stress and more work life balance. So let’s get to it. Welcome to Business Confidential Now Kathi.


Kathi Burns: [00:01:46] Thank you so much for having me. I so appreciate your time. And we are going to have a really fun conversation.


Hanna: [00:01:52] Yes, absolutely. We are. Definitely. Definitely. And let’s look at the big picture for a minute, because I don’t think anyone would deny that having an organized workspace helps their productivity and decreases stress, especially when you have a lot going on. It’s nice to be able to just put your finger on it. Bingo.



Hanna: [00:02:10] But in your experience, why is it so hard to get organized and then stay organized? If it’s so obvious, why don’t more of us do it?


Kathi: [00:02:22] Well, I think that oftentimes we have too much muck, so to speak. Thank you for the kudos for my title, by the way. You know, everybody has muck in and sometimes when you have too much of it, you can’t even see your way clear to knowing where to begin. And that’s the main thing that I find with clients is they don’t know where to start. They know they need to be productive. They know they need to put systems together, but they’re looking around themselves and they’re going to have no idea where to even begin. So knowing where to start, I think is step one.




Hanna: [00:02:55] Well, that’s great. So where is step one? Where do you start? You know, I can just see there’s piles of papers or stuff. And if someone like you, and I’m not necessarily picking on you, but if someone comes in with all good intentions to help get organized, says, “well, what about this?” And you’re like, oh, no, no, no, no. I like that pile just where it is. I mean, how do you overcome that?


Kathi: [00:03:17] Well, you know, we I always start with the end goal. Why does the client want to work with me? Why did they feel the need to call to begin with? What is it that is their biggest pain point. And once I know that I can begin to kind of edge around the surface of their desk or the emails in their inbox and you kind of figure out what’s the biggest pain point, and we start there.


Kathi: [00:03:43] So, you know, a great place to start, no matter what, is to clear off your desk because a messy desk, you can’t tell what’s going on and you become overwhelmed just even sitting down at your desk. My rule of thumb is to have 60 percent of your desk surface open for business. So what I always say, if you have 60 percent free and clear, you have the ability to think more clearly about what you need to do for that day. So I always start on the surface and some people are very married to their piles.


Kathi: [00:04:13] I will admit that some people are like, “don’t touch that pile.” It’s like, well, let’s at least move it a little bit away from the surface. Perhaps we could start slow and do a side table with paper files in the exact order that they are used to having them, but at least having the desk surface open for business is step one always.


Hanna: [00:04:34] Well, that’s really interesting because instead of 60 percent clear, I have to admit, I’m guilty of maybe six percent. I’m missing a zero there. But you mentioned something there a second ago.




Hanna: [00:04:48] I’d like to follow up on email inboxes. They have a way of exploding and in a very unstructured way. What systems can we put in place with respect to electronic documents, including our email? What do you what advice do you have on that?


Kathi: [00:05:05] Yeah, I’ll talk about systems in a minute. But what I would do and remind me if I forget, sometimes I go off. But what you have to realize, #1, is that your e-mail or any email you receive is something that wants you to do something. So if you go into your inbox, you are going into reaction mode. You are not going into a proactive mode. You’re going in to see who wants you to do what. Do they want you to respond? Do they want you to quit? Do they want you to forward? What do they want to do? Whatever.


Kathi: [00:05:33] So you have to realize, for starters, that any time you hit your inbox, there’s going to be a bunch of people screaming at you to do something and take some type of action. So for starters, it’s always good to only check your inbox a couple of times a day at predetermined times. And actually, if you can’t, at the beginning to actually set a timer and don’t stay in any longer than thirty, forty-five minutes at the most, because what happens is you will get absorbed. You’ll get sucked right into your inbox and you’ll be out in la la land clicking on links, trying to do a project that wasn’t even on your agenda for the day to make someone happy or so on and so forth. So the number one system is to figure out when you’re going to check your inbox and stick to it.


Kathi: [00:06:19] You know, maybe you’re going to check your inbox. I always say a good thing is right before lunch and right before you finish the day. Right before lunch, because, you know, you usually want to eat and you don’t want to eat at your inbox. So you’ll be a little bit better prompted to get out of there. And right before the end of the day, because you’re over, you’re overworked.


Kathi: [00:06:37] And even though we’re all working from home, you know, setting up specific start and end times of your day is really critical and break times as well. You know, eating at your desk is not necessarily good. And I know that a lot of us set hours and not eating at your desk is really super important, getting up and moving as well.


Kathi: [00:06:56] So have a set time that you’re going to check your inbox. If you have to have a timer. I always say start with the timer. Start with a 30-minute timer that’s going to bing you  in the ear and tell you to get out of your inbox. So those are two really important things to do as far as systems, that I think really the most important thing is realizing that when you get in there, it’s reactive. You’re not doing anything for yourself necessarily. You’re going to be called to do actions for other people that want you to do something for them. Does that make sense?


Hanna: [00:07:29] Oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And, you know, it’s amazing how rude people can be in terms of call to action. I actually got one email yesterday where somebody said, have you looked at this attachment yet? It’s like, hello, you just sent it to me. Let me just drop everything, because now you want me to look at your attachment. And it was a pitch. So it was like it was a bit much.


Kathi: [00:07:52] Yeah, yeah.


Hanna: [00:07:53] So that got filed.




Hanna: [00:07:55] But let’s talk about filing and organizing our emails because they come in in such an unstructured way. And like you said, it’s one thing how much time we devote to them, which is some great advice, you know, let’s limit it, not just in terms of the amount of time, but when we commit the time so that it doesn’t break our workflow as much. So that’s really good.


Hanna: [00:08:21] But we don’t always just answer an email and then delete it. A lot of times we keep them and that box just kind of blows up after a while, even the emails we’ve read. Right. So whether it’s an email or another type of electronic document, which email is, what are some good ways to organize them?


Kathi: [00:08:41] Well, when it comes to email, I recommend that all of my clients read their emails within Gmail. I’m a big Gmail proponent. There’s a bunch of reasons for this. And I have, you know, you can have all your email addresses going into your Gmail account so you can have your Web addresses or whatever. But what that does is Gmail automatically organizes for you. And so it puts it into four different buckets, whether it could be I can’t remember the name. It was like your inbox. There are updates, there’s offers, so on and so forth. So it will automatically do that for you.


Kathi: [00:09:17] So that helps because actually when I go into my Gmail, I just go right into the number one thing, which is my inbox and see what’s going on. And then I will go into update and I can literally skim them, ping them all and then delete them. Also, Gmail will automatically delete all your trash. So that that was something that I really, really like, having it already kind of pseudo organized for you.


Kathi: [00:09:47] Another thing about Gmail is that if you if you have an important conversation, like, take for instance, I have clients that contact me. If I archive their conversation, I can find their conversation instantly. I can find out exactly who said what when by going into their contact within Google contacts. And I can see who said what, when and where we’re at in the process just by clicking on recent conversations. So I no longer have to keep all of that stuff in my inbox, which is huge for me because I’m always like, OK, I talk to somebody here six weeks later. Like maybe you and I, where are we in this conversation? I say, “Oh, she’s waiting for me to send her something” or I’m waiting for her to send me something. But I can see that in following up in the conversation, assuming that I have you as a contact in my Google contacts. So the whole Google Suite kind of really plays well together for enhanced productivity.


Hanna: [00:10:42] Ok, I throw a caution out there for people who are working, maybe not as solopreneurs, but in a little larger organization because of document retention requirements and also confidentiality issues.


Hanna: [00:10:57] Your company, or if you’re a business owner you may not want your employees forwarding emails outside of your systems to something like Google for several reasons. But that’s not to say that the organization that Gmail offers couldn’t be used in in other types of email environment.


Kathi: [00:11:21] Yes.




Hanna: [00:11:21] So I still think there’s some good nuggets there. But I do want to caution people  when they take stuff off the reservation, because there could be a lot of confidential information in those emails that that now suddenly become vulnerable. And that’s not a good thing for someone’s career or for their business necessarily.


Kathi: [00:11:41] Yeah, I agree. I agree with that. And, you know, if you use Outlook you can use a similar thing. If you go into a recent conversations with the person, you will see their recent conversations. You don’t necessarily have to keep them in your inbox in Outlook as well.




Hanna: [00:11:58] Now, I know when we’re talking about electronic documents, a lot of people aim to go to a paperless office. But I don’t know too many people that have been able to make that conversion 100%. Paper still has a way of multiplying like rabbits sometimes. So what kind of systems are good to keep paper in its place and staying organized? Sometimes people wrestle with what kind of filing system makes sense.


Kathi: [00:12:27] Yes, and that’s a great question because papers do just magically manifest six days a week from the post office alone. That’s not even counting work. Right?


Hanna: [00:12:38] Right.


Kathi: [00:12:39] So I use a system called FreedomFiler®. FreedomFiler, and we can put a link below this, FreedomFiler is the best filing system I’ve ever seen in the world. It took the gentleman who developed it six years to figure out what is a piece of paper. What are the categories? What does Uncle Sam what? How do we remember things? So it’s color, it’s alpha. It’s all the ways that we’ve learned how to store information anyhow. And it’s the only self-purging, self-retaining file system that I’ve ever seen in the world. And I’ve researched all of them.


Kathi: [00:13:11] So I have corporations on FreedomFiler. I have single people on FreedomFiler. I have retirees, small business owners. It works for everybody because it breaks down the system. There are only five categories that any piece of paper can be. And once you realize the five categories then you know how to file them. And they are all by color and it’s all alpha within each category. So it makes it very simple to retain and to remember where the papers are.


Kathi: [00:13:41] And in a corporate environment, why I love it, is it once . . . . Like I have a marketing communications department within a big company that’s on this system. What’s great about it is if Shelly is gone from her office, like out for whatever, six months, someone can go into her office and find the document that she has filed away because they’re all on the same exact system.


Kathi: [00:14:05] So I can’t speak highly enough for FreedomFiler. I’d say everybody check it out. It’s And it’s the best filesystem that’s ever been invented in my opinion. And I research all of them when I became a pro-organizer. And this is the only one that teaches you how to get papers out, because typically papers, 80% of the papers that you file away into a file drawer never see the light of day again.


Kathi: [00:14:32] I’ve had several companies call me on several occasions saying we need a different file system. We need to buy more file cabinets because we have too much paper. And by the time that I’m done with them, they decrease their amount of file cabinets. And it’s a system that anybody can easily understand.


Hanna: [00:14:49] Well, that sounds great. We’re definitely going to have a link to that on the episode page. So anybody who’s doesn’t have a pen or paper handy or something to jot this down, no worries. Come on over to and the link will be there. That that does sound like a really valuable system. I love the idea that somebody else can find it because that is a serious issue when the person who has the file, who pretty much has ownership of it, is it available. And then someone else tries to find it and they come up empty. So that is really a good thing to have.




Hanna: [00:15:24] Let’s talk about work space design. How can we optimize that, especially with more of us working from home instead of a formal office where someone else may have created the workspace designed for us already? What should we be looking at to improve our efficiency?


Kathi: [00:15:41] And the great question, that’s what everybody is up against right now. The ultimate ideal office setup is an L shaped desk, if you can get it. And if you can’t do an L shaped desk, you need at least six foot of space to work on. Because we have computers, we have a mouse, we have we have everything now. We have our printer. There’re so many things that we need to have in our workspace. So an L shape why I love that is because you have six feet of regular surface for you to work on with your laptop and whatever you have. And then over on the side, you have a place for your printer and paper and possibly file drawers.


Kathi: [00:16:23] Having a lateral file cabinet, I think, or any kind of file cabinet is critical. What I found is that most people in business need a lateral, which would be a two draw. It’s the height of a desk. And why I like it’s the height of a desktop is because then you can then slide your printer over onto it and get it off of your regular desk.


Kathi: [00:16:45] There’s the Pyramid of Influence, right, just like in a kitchen, you want to have all your tools within arm’s reach so that you can grab the paper, the file, the pen, the scissors, whatever it is you might need to continue working, especially working from home, because the average person that gets up and leaves their home office to go find a ream of paper, or whatever they’re trying to find, it’s going about eighteen minutes, which is a lot of time, of lost productivity.


Kathi: [00:17:13] So if you can have everything within your circle of influence right there, which is why I love the L, then you’re good to go. You don’t have to get up and try to find things because everything that you need is at your fingertips. So that’s always what I strive for, at least in L, if not an L shape, a six-foot desk with a lateral file cabinet off to the side, which is actually what I’m using right now.




Hanna: [00:17:38] Perfect. Now your book, How to Master Your Muck. This is a very unique title. What would you say is the most popular organizing hack in your book? The one where listeners get the most bang for the buck?


Kathi: [00:17:53] I’d say the papers in action part of the first chapter is all about how to handle your paper deluge. Everybody seems to have paper challenges. So I became a certified paper specialist only because everybody has that challenge, not because I love paper. So my clients are saying, you’re weird. I’m like, no, I don’t really like paper. I like to get paper gone. So. So the first chapter.


Kathi: [00:18:16] Your paper is in action is really critical, knowing how to handle those. So take, for instance, your papers in action are generally one of eight categories. You have bills to pay. You have calls to make. You have current projects. You have data entry; you have upcoming events. You have pending. You’re waiting for responses. All of these are papers that you  have to do something with. And that’s generally what the piles are.


Kathi: [00:18:43] If you even look around your own desk, there’s probably a project or a pending or upcoming event or something like that. Right? So if you can handle and somehow get those papers in action vertical on your desk, I like to use a vertical stepped paper holder, then they’re right there. But they’re not piled there. They’re filed visibly in front of you so that you can find your papers in action very quickly.


Kathi: [00:19:12] And the idea is you pull out one type of action at a time, and when you’re done paying your bills, you’re going to put that folder back. When you work on your book, you’re going to bring out that folder, then you’re going to put the folder back. So I think being able to handle the papers that you have to deal with, which we lovingly call the papers in action, is really the kicker that will rock your world if you can figure out how to deal with those, you’ll get rid of most of the piles that are around you in your office space.


Hanna: [00:19:44] Sounds like a good plan. It reminds me of a friend who said that they like their piles and they actually have a bookcase that’s pretty much empty. And on each shelf at each section of the shelf is a different pile. That’s how he keeps organized.


Hanna: [00:19:58] So it just sounds like . . . a sort of . . . Oh, testosterone laden example of your organizing files on steroids.


Kathi: [00:20:12] Right when you said that it really reminded me of one of my clients. She’s a visual person, so she didn’t want to file anything in a drawer.  Like she couldn’t take it. She was an artist, creative author. She’s like, “oh, no, I can’t do it.” So what we did was we did get her a bookshelf and we put vertical files, stepper units, on each shelf. She ended up with 12 vertical stepper units on her bookshelf, and she could see instantly every single file without even having to get up off her desk. And she was elated and that helped her.


Kathi: [00:20:45] So, you know, again, I’m always, and pro-organizers will always say, “don’t pile, file.” It allowed me to file with her, but still keep it all out so that she could see it and not flip out because a lot of people are “out of out of sight, out of mind” type of people. And so they’re very scared to put things in the file drawer. So this allowed me to, like your gentleman, I would want to up his game and I would say, “OK, I love this that you have your piles on each shelf, now let’s organize them vertically.” Because I guarantee you that there’s probably multiple categories within each one of his piles. And then we would organize each pile, make it vertical and put each one on the shelf. It’s a great idea.


Hanna: [00:21:29] Yeah. And I think your point about the categories within each pile is probably one reason that that people kind of flip out a little bit. It’s like, “OK, how many categories, how many files?” And that’s where some of the overwhelm comes in.




Kathi: [00:21:45] Mm hmm. Yeah. Trying to make the decision, perfection, you know, the people can go OCD that it has to be absolutely perfect. But the good news about the action files is you can hand write on the manila folder what it is and you can always stick a Post-it® over it if you change the name. So, you know, nothing is permanent and nothing is ever perfect.


Kathi: [00:22:05] I tell people this all the time, you know, we’ll create the system and there’s going to be a little bit of tweaking. Maybe you don’t even resonate with the word that we called it. Just change the word. It’s no big deal, you know, etch it out, put Wite-Out® over it.  Throw another Sharpie® on top of it and call it something else. So don’t get stuck in what the nomenclature of it all is just try to figure out categories are going to work for you.


Kathi: [00:22:31] So as just an example, the gentleman’s pile. He might have a pile. It’s like, OK, this is his book that he’s working on. Right. And so how are you going to organize the pile? Well, I would say by chapter or by topic or by reference. How does he think about things? And that’s a beautiful part of organizing.


Kathi: [00:22:50] That’s what I love being an artistic, creative, professional organizer. It’s every system’s a little bit different and it’s all about how the client thinks. And that’s the way that we make the system because there’s no cookie cutter solution when getting organized. It’s all really specifically about the client, how they think, how they use their space and what’s going to work for them. And there’s always a little bit of adjusting. You know, after the first session, there’s always an adjustment.


Kathi: [00:23:17] Take for instance when I started a FreedomFiler, when I created my own system, you know, seventeen years ago, he had it called travel miles programs. I could not the life of me remember that. So I named a frequent flier, which is what I think of it as. And then boom, I can always find it under F instead of T. So there’s always a customization. You just have to think about what words do you use? Like on papers in action, do you think of pending or do you think of waiting for response? I think of waiting for a response. A lot of corporate people consider it pending. It doesn’t really matter what you call it as long as you know what’s in there.


Hanna: [00:23:58] You know, that is the key. I remember working in an office one time and they had a particular format for how files were supposed to be named. And I remember there was one file. It was generally known as sputtering targets. You know, this is a very specific type of thing, but that’s not what the official name was. You think we could find that thing? Oh, my God. You know, and then when it was found, it was like, “Eureka. Oh, my God, here it is. Don’t forget what it’s called.”


Hanna: [00:24:25] And what happened three months later. We forgot what it was called. “You got that sputtering targets file? No.” So, yes, naming it something you can remember is really important because otherwise you can’t find it.




Hanna: [00:24:36] So, Kathi, I think you talked earlier with me before we went live here about a link for your book. Would you like to share that?


Kathi: [00:24:45] Absolutely. I am giving away a copy of an actual paperback copy of my book How to Master Your Muck. You just pay me a little bit to get it shipped to you and I’ll ship it to your mailbox. It’s How to Master Your Muck – Get Organized. Add Space to Your Life. Live Your Purpose! It has all the systems that I’ve found entrepreneurs and business people need, like how do you handle your contacts? How do you handle your inbox? How do you handle your papers? How do you do goal setting? It’s all the stuff that we need to think about as professionals doing business. And so each chapter is dedicated to that. And that’s available to all of your all of your listeners for free, just a little bit for shipping it out and I’ll even autograph it.


Hanna: [00:25:29] Well, now that’s a hard offer to turn down. And we’re going to have the link on the website. But if you’d like to give it now, that would be wonderful too.


Kathi: [00:25:38] Sure. It’s. Well, hold on here, because now it’s turn. Well, I’m at, but the actual giveaway is and we’ll have that on the website as well.


Hanna: [00:25:56] Absolutely. So website will have that link for you with Kathi’s other contact information, including how to follow her and join her on social media. So, Kathi, it has been a delight to have you on the show. Thank you so much for sharing your tips on how we can get organized and your gracious offer for a free copy of your book, how to get organized and gain productivity and generally master our muck. Thank you.


Kathi: [00:26:25] Thank you so much. You all have a great day.


Hanna: [00:26:28] That’s our show for today. But don’t go anywhere. I have a really easy ask for you. Would you please open your podcast app and give us a five-star review and leave a comment about what you love most about the show? I do read them all and it’ll take you less than a minute. And while you’re at it, share this episode, tell someone about it, because the best way to grow our audience is by word of mouth. And if you want the detailed show notes, links to connect with my guest or stuff that we talked about, even if you want to ask a question, have a show idea. Come on over to I’ll catch you on the next episode. And in the meantime, have a great day and even better tomorrow.

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Guest: Kathi Burns

Kathi BurnsKathi Burns a Board Certified Professional Organizer, Image Consultant, Author and Speaker. Kathi is also the founder of Organized and Energized, a professional organizing and image consultancy. Her mission is to help clients remove their exterior obstacles and unnecessary baggage so that they can become energized and create a life of purpose, ease, joy and success.

Kathi is also the author of two books, the most recent being How to Master Your Muck: Get organized, Add space to your life and live your purpose.  Her advice has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart Living and more.

Kathi has a few organizing hacks that will help us move toward our business goals with less stress and more work/life balance.

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