Do your homework! Transform that cluttered workspace into a structured spot where your whole family can achieve

Once Real Simple magazine’s style editor Elizabeth Mayhew got her hands on the papers, CDs, books and odds and ends cluttering Katie Couric’s home office she helped Couric, in her own words a “pile” woman who tends to stack stuff rather than file it away, put everything in its own perfect place.

There are several common denominators, according to Mayhew and other organizational gurus, to set up an office or homework center and keep it in tip-top shape. Almost any room can be converted for work.

The first rule of thumb is to dedicate an area for this purpose, which may not always be a separate room if you don’t have a spare bedroom or family room, kitchen, basement or study. It should be roomy enough to put out some books, papers and maybe a laptop. Select a practical, cleanable surface such as glass, laminate or wood, with something to protect it if you’re writing, says Lisa Kanarek, a Dallas-based organizational expert and author of Home Office Solutions (Rockport, 2003). If you regularly work at a laptop or PC, you might want to mount a separate keyboard underneath the surface, which makes typing more comfortable and less of a strain.

If you don’t have enough room on your desk, counter or other work surface for all your other equipment, consider a movable cart or bookshelf, says Pamela O’Brien, a Houston-based design consultant with Room Redo.

Be sure the room or area has enough grounded outlets so you can plug in the necessary cords and don’t overload old ones, says Kanarek. O’Brien recommends at least one outlet per wall and more than one if you know where the work station will be. “When in doubt, add, especially if you’re building or remodeling,” she says.

Whether you accumulate a lot of papers or a handful, you may need additional bookshelves or file drawers. Err on the side of too many, O’Brien says. Once you choose, decide on an organizational system within the storage unit, such as hanging files, stacking bins (clear, so you see through them) or rattan bins (best for magazines but not everyday items), Kanarek says. The key to success is choosing a system that fits the way you like to organize and developing a regular time to organize new papers and purge old ones, O’Brien says. The goal is to touch each piece of paper as little as possible, but know that once usually isn’t enough.

If you glance through the numerous books available on home offices, you’ll find other amenities you may wish to include, if space and budget permit – a bulletin board, containers for pens, pencils and paper clips, maybe a TV if it’s important for your business, a CD player and large wall clock.

If it’s your office and you don’t want others coming in unannounced, be sure you have a door that shuts tight or put up a “Do Not Enter” sign. Consider locks for file cabinets if materials are confidential.

Use many of these same principles if you’re setting up a homework center in a child’s bedroom or a multi-child center in a separate room. Workspace for a child should be placed away from high-traffic areas of the house, Kanarek advises. The kitchen should rank among your last choices because of the noise and activity. At the same time don’t locate the workplace in a room that’s too isolated from the rest of the family. A family room is fine as long as siblings and parents refrain from watching TV or chatting on the phone during homework time.

How do you know if a work center is successful? If the room is busy and gets used, you’re golden, says O’Brien. Kanarek says you’ve succeeded if you don’t find yourself moving your work to another area, such as the kitchen table or your bed.