Try this exercise: the next time you walk into your office, imagine that you’re a prospective client visiting for the first time. What do you notice? Is the space neat and well ordered, or is it cluttered and chaotic?

The condition of your workspace tells people a lot about you, says Isolde O’Neil, Toronto-based president of Getting It Together Organizing. A well organized office creates the impression that you have things under control; a messy space makes you look unprofessional and disorganized.

The image you project to others is not the only reason to have an organized office. Research indicates that, on average, executives lose one hour a day looking for lost or misplaced information, notes Jane Veldhoven, president of Get Organized! Professional Services in Halifax.

“Keeping your office tidy and well organized helps you work more efficiently and productively,” Veldhoven says. “It also boosts morale and reduces stress because you can find what you want when you need it.”

Here are some tips for creating a tidy, organized work area:

1. A place for everything
Make a home for absolutely everything in your office, Veldhoven says. Despite the rise of email and digitization of documents, paper is still a part of our lives and a major source of clutter.

Go through all of your papers and categorize them. Designate piles for client correspondence, receipts, project ideas, etc. Some papers must be archived, while others should go into your core filing system, which should be kept within reach. Others can be disposed of. If you’re unsure about something, set it aside to tackle later.

2. Track your projects
Create a work-in-progress management system that allows you to keep track of things as you work on them. O’Neil puts all work-in-progress in clear sleeves, which go into a large magazine holder. An alternative is big-bottomed hanging files.

At night, all work-in-progress should be locked in your filing cabinet. Once a project is complete, shred as much paper as possible.

3. Keep boardrooms clear
Boardrooms — frequently the site of client meetings — are often less than pristine

because they are used to store old files and prospectuses. The clutter distracts clients and makes it difficult to focus on the business at hand.

Much of the stored material is probably outdated and can easily be dumped. What you keep can be stored in an area designated for that purpose. If space is limited, paper files can be stored at a secure off-site location or scanned and stored electronically, which is much cheaper than storing paper data and easier to archive.

4. Scan what you can
Veldhoven is a “huge fan” of scanning files, but notes that the task can be time-consuming.

“If it can be delegated, that’s great,” she says, adding that individual firms have rules about the maintenance of paper records.

When moving to electronic storage, make sure you have a good backup system in place. Also, have a disaster recovery plan and make sure you adhere to Canada’s privacy laws and those of the Canada Revenue Agency, which requires you to keep records for seven years.

5. Keep it that way
Once your office is in good shape, the challenge is to maintain it.

“Spend a few minutes tidying your desk at the end of the day,” Veldhoven says, “even if you don’t feel like it. And work from a clear desk by putting things away as you finish with them during the day.”