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 thisĀ 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!