The Chaos Whisperer

Helping you tame the Chaos at Home & Work


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How To Conquer Your (Paper) Inbox


In the battle against Office Chaos, paperwork is one of the more formidable foes. It spreads to cover every working surface while you’re not looking, and makes it impossible to find anything.
It’s constantly attacking – you get rid of one stack and there’s another one waiting in the mailbox. With such ongoing Chaos, how are you supposed to wade through the mess to identify the important info? If you simply ignore the whole problem, you’re likely to miss out on something very important, such as your bills or that registration renewal notice. Oops!

So how to tackle your own paper war?

It’s about setting up your own personalized inbox system that is based on action and prioritization. I already showed you how you can do this with your email inbox. So now let’s do the same with your paperwork.

Just as my Gmail star system allows me to sort my email based on the action and turn-around-time it requires, so you should have similar inboxes or trays in your workspace where you can immediately sort incoming mail in the same fashion. My recommendation (and what I’ve found most useful) is to have something like the following:

Inbox 1: To Do

This is the most important inbox, because it is for any and all paperwork that requires you to take action on it next. So this should be your top priority inbox, and where you should immediately put any papers you find that need your immediate action. And then this should be the first inbox you look through in the morning, to make sure you are addressing your most urgent papers and action items first thing. Some people like to break this out into two inboxes, one for Urgent To Do and one for Later To Do. But whatever you decide, just make sure you do have someplace to put these “action item” papers however works best for YOU.

Inbox 2: To Get Response

No doubt you have paperwork you can’t take any action on until you hear back from someone else, such as an invoice you need payment for, or a contract you’re waiting for agreement on. These should go in their own inbox so you can see at a glance what things you are still waiting for a response on, and be able to keep track of them. Call this inbox whatever you want, “Waiting to Hear Back”, “To Be Answered”, or anything else you like. Again, just make sure it works for YOU!

Inbox 3: To Reference

This is for any paperwork that doesn’t require anyone’s immediate action, but relates to current and important projects that you may need to reference and take action on in the near future. I often break these inboxes or trays into separate ones labeled for each current project I have going. So however many, and of whatever variety, of projects you may be working on yourself, make sure you have a place to collect any papers that are relevant to those and to YOU.

Inbox 4: To File (No Action)

You no doubt get lots of paperwork that has no required action or immediate relevance, but is important to hang on to nonetheless, such as your banking statements or old contracts. This inbox allows you somewhere to toss those papers in the moment, so that you can go back and file them away as you prefer later when you have more time. I won’t go into detail on a system for filing those papers here, but make sure you at least organize your files by category (work, car, medical, credit card, etc) and/or date (2011 taxes, 2012 taxes). And if you really want me to cover this in more detail, let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily write a separate post on this!

Inbox 5: Receipts

These seem to be the hardest type of loose papers to keep track of or keep in one place. They tend to spread all over the house, not just in the office, and can make balancing your accounts and updating your finances a real hassle. So I highly recommend designating a box top lid or other smaller sized tray for ALL your incoming receipts. That means every time you would have tossed them on the table or inside your purse, put them in this inbox instead. And then when you have more time later, you can go through and sort, file, balance, etc as you ordinarily do.

Remember, these are just my suggestions for general types of inboxes or trays you should have for your incoming papers. Now I want you to take these recommendations and mold them into a system that works for YOU and how you naturally operate in your workspace.

So happy inbox-ing and paper-tackling, and let me know in the comments below if you have any questions, feedback or ideas of your own!

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My Resolution #1: Work the Space

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” -Mary Shelley

My first resolution for 2012 is to tackle the area where I work and need to be most productive, organizing the clutter and Chaos into a space where I can truly concentrate and create. For me, that means the “production office” at the home of my business partner, who also conveniently happens to be my boyfriend. If that didn’t complicate things enough, the room we have to use for the production office also doubles as the bedroom. So making this an effective and efficient work space has been extra challenging, hence the resolution to really focus on it now.

In order to tackle this, I am utilizing one of my top 10 tactics to break up this resolution into smaller, actionable steps. I set aside one whole day to start breaking it all down:

1. The first of these was to sort all the clutter in our production office space into individual piles, to get a good condensed look at just how much and what range of clutter I’m dealing with.

2. From there, it was easier to sort out and categorize the clutter based on the function it serves or the action it requires. For example, I ended up with a lot of loose paperwork that needed a better system for sorting & filing. Previously, these papers had ended up just getting left out and scattered about so that it was difficult to know what to do with them and they often got forgotten about.

3. So I created a new space for these papers, which is the next step for each of the categories of clutter. I sorted the papers into filing cabinets, giving the folders new labels according to the purpose or action associated with each group of papers. Now these loose papers have a better home than in piles on the dresser, and will be much easier to find when I need them. But beyond that, I also now have a new easy & accessible means of putting away more loose papers as they come up.

Now if I can impart one piece of wisdom, it would be this: don’t force yourself into a new system of organization that doesn’t feel natural just because others say it’s the best way. You need to develop a system that works with how you already naturally operate, so that as you accumulate more things, it’s not a huge chore to continue putting stuff away.

Personally, I work better when things are categorized and put away out of sight. I hate having too much stuff lying around. If I don’t have a good system for where to put everything away, I will just end up shoving stuff in random drawers – which eventually catches up with me. So what I need is a better way to put things away so that they don’t get lost later on.

However, I also have the out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem – in that once I shove stuff away, I am in danger of completely forgetting about it. So I created my new paperwork filing system in tall, obvious filing cabinets so as to keep them front of mind. I also put the folders with the most urgent paperwork needing immediate attention & action at the front of each drawer.

Then with the less important or urgent items, I found better places to store them away that didn’t need to be as visually obvious. For example, I also found that we had a lot of film equipment and props lying around the home office that are quite bulky and take up valuable space. These items also don’t have much frequent use, since we only bring them out when we are ready to film another project.

So for these items, I chose the basement storage space below the apartment. I identified what didn’t need to be out in the open for frequent use and moved it down under there to be stored similarly in bins based on category and function, and keeping the most frequently used items toward the front.

Lastly, I encountered a great many nick knacks and miscellaneous items lying around that either are too small to keep filed or stored away, or simply don’t belong to any larger group of similar items. For these, I’ve discovered a love for cute containers. By this, I mean small woven baskets, old mugs, unused vases, decorative pencil trays – take any old or odd containers you were going to throw away and put them to good use instead.

The box you bought that pack of Christmas cards in makes a good holder for the loose receipts that you’ll need to go through later. An old mason jar is the perfect place to collect loose change. Clean out that tin can you had dinner from last night and put your pencils in it. That fun little box your mother bought you at the flea market can be a great place to toss extra paperclips, tacks, rubber bands and other misc. items on your desk.

You can’t avoid having some amount of small, loose clutter – so having different containers to put them in keeps them easier to keep track of and more pleasant to look at.

Now that I’ve started getting my work stuff better categorized and put away, I know I’ll be able to quickly locate anything I need at any time, even if it is put away out of sight. And if it’s something urgent that I need to not let myself forget, I know I’ve got it at the front of the pile (or cabinet, drawer, basement, etc), so I’ll be sure to see it first thing.

This is the system I’ve discovered I need for my work space. Now you’ve got to figure out what kind of system you need – and would work best with – based on your natural tendencies.

And it doesn’t stop there either. I’ve set up the start of a new & improved system, but it’s going to take some initial effort to remember to maintain it. As much as I focused on using a system that works well with me, it still requires some small changes of habit and self-discipline to keep it up. So I’m giving myself the rest of the year to get completely comfortable with my newly organized work space, and make sure I don’t muck it up.