For three days, Sally Bishop and Tom Brohard examined and sorted every single piece of paper stacked in Brohard's disorganized office.
"We unpacked two moving boxes with papers I hadn't looked at in five years," said Brohard, an owner and manager of Willdan Associates, an engineering and planning firm in Industry, Calif.
"I had stacks of paper, but I couldn't put my hands on what I needed," said Brohard, who is paying Sally Bishop, a partner at Insight Consulting Group in Santa Monica, Calif., thousands of dollars to get himself and his 145 employees better organized.
Getting organized is on just about everyone's "things to do" list, but few people, especially busy entrepreneurs, actually take the time to do something.
Yet professional organizers say business owners overwhelmed with undone paperwork lose money and business because they have lost control over their lives.
"If you really dread approaching your desk, that feeling of dread will impact on what you do that day," said consultant Beverly Clower, owner of Office Overhaul, in Santa Monica.
Professional organizers said many entrepreneurs are overwhelmed with paperwork because they are so busy running the business that they don't have time to deal with the paperwork.
Time management consultants estimate the typical manager has 35 to 42 hours worth of work within arm's reach of his or her chair, yet only 10 hours available each week to do it.
Stephanie Winston, author of "The Organized Executive" and founder of The Organizing Principle in Manhattan, often calculates exactly how much money her clients lose each year by spending valuable time looking for lost papers or proposals.
While digging through her client's stacks of unread material, she often finds letters and proposals that add up to lost business.
Professional organizers all have their own pet systems for handling paperwork. Winston said, for instance, there are only four things to do with a piece of paper: "Toss it, refer it, act on it, or file it." It's her TRAF system.
Organizers' theories differ, but all advocate handling a piece of paper one time only. Stephanie Culp, author of "How To Conquer Clutter," suggests setting up four baskets, marking them: To Do, To Pay, To File and To Read. The File basket might be a large wicker basket stashed under your desk.
The To Do and To Pay baskets should sit on your desk for immediate attention, but the To Read basket should be kept behind or beside your work area to be carted off later. Some people also like to add a Calls to Make basket and a To Buy basket. And forget a Pending basket -- work could languish there forever.
The last, and probably most important basket, is the Trash basket. Write to Jane Applegate at the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.