121614_organize_bankers_boxesDecember can be a slow period for freelance writers. Editors go on vacation, just like anyone else. When editors take time off, assignments stop flowing. You should always keep a pool of money set aside to fund slow times. But this post isn’t about money.

Take advantage of downtime to organize your office

Some writers think they can swan off to recess on the playground if they have no paying assignments to work on. Don’t do that. Does the guy who owns the hardware store lock the doors for a few hours if there are no customers inside the shop? Of course not!

As a small businessperson, you have plenty of administrative and marketing tasks to fill your time if you’re not engaged in billable activities. In fact, many of those administrative activities are easy to put off and leave undone for months at a time. Filing, anyone?

December is the ideal time to start closing out the previous year and getting set up for the coming one (assuming your fiscal year runs January 1 to December 31, as mine does). Here’s what I do.

Close out old projects and put them in storage

Some people prefer to do things as paperless as possible and use something like a Neat scanner to keep digital copies of all their records. I prefer a paper system. The important thing is to have a system of some kind, any kind.

My system starts the minute I take on a new client or project. Here’s how it goes:

  • Sign contract
  • Create paper client file; put contract inside it
  • Keep all client-related paper documents within the folder for the lifetime of the client
  • Periodically cull old projects and papers from the folder and place them in a manila envelope labeled with a black Sharpie: Client Name, Year
  • In December, empty the folder (except for active projects) into the manila envelope
  • Fold the top of the envelope and employ the brass clasp
  • Create a Bankers Box; label with current year
  • Place manila envelope into Bankers Box
  • Place Bankers Box into storage (in my case, this is a closet attached to my home office)

Usually, one Bankers Box will last me for several years because I only work with maybe 12 clients per year. Also, off-site storage is always a nice idea so your records are retained in case of fire. I prefer not to think about that.

Note I do not print out invoices. Because I do my billing through Xero.com, all invoices are automatically retained in the cloud.

Archive financial records

I follow a similar process for my financial records. My desk contains the following Pendaflex folders:

  • Revenue
  • Expenses
  • Tax-related forms & documents

Into each file, I place relevant materials throughout the year. For example, when a client pays me I staple the check stub to the deposit slip and place them into the “revenue” folder. I place all receipts for business-related expenses (including receipts I print out for purchases made online) into the “expenses” folder. The tax-related items folder contains copies of reports my accountant has filed on my behalf, the prior year’s business tax return, communications from the IRS or Texas secretary of state, and so on.

At the end of the year, I place the contents of each file into a manila envelope, labeled “EXPENSES – YEAR” or “REVENUE – YEAR” in the upper-right corner. Then I place these envelopes into the corresponding year’s Bankers Box.

What to keep, what to toss

You can look up information about how long you need to keep business expense receipts, and so on, but I have an easier system: I keep it all forever. I mean, I hardly generate any physical records in my little business at all. I can hold five years’-worth of stuff (at least) in a single Bankers Box. Why throw it away, ever? I’d rather keep things simple and tote a little extra paperwork around for the rest of my life than to discover I accidentally threw out something I really needed to keep.

That said, not every piece of paper makes it into the manila envelope. Here’s what I toss:

  • Old project notes more than 6 months old (such as interview notes)
  • Notes for projects that never happened (such as client interviews that didn’t result in a contract)
  • Background or research information I printed out

Basically, I keep anything financial or legal in nature and use my best judgment on everything else.

So stop procrastinating on that filing! Take care of it now, and then get everything from 2014 boxed up to make way for a new crop of clients and projects in 2015!

Wishing you well!