How to Take Control of Your Physical Inbox

If you are like me, 90 percent of your communication is digital. It is done via email, Twitter, or instant messaging. However, I still have a physical inbox. I get letters, an occasional paper memo, a handwritten note, paper reports, brochures, catalogs, etc.

Two Desktop Filing Trays, An Inbox and an OutBox - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/swilmor, Image #4729175

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/swilmor

So where does all this stuff go and how do you manage it? This may seem obvious, but a peek at a few of your colleagues desks—or perhaps your own!—will convince you otherwise.

If you are just getting started with Evernote, I suggest that you buy Brett Kelly’s remarkably practical e-book, Evernote Essentials, Second Edition. It is worth setting aside a couple hours to work through this brief, 95-page book. It will save you DAYS of learning Evernote on your own.

Over the years, I have developed a system for managing my physical inbox. Compared to processing a digital inbox, it is pretty simple. It is nonetheless essential if you are to stay on top of your business and personal life.

First, you will need a physical inbox. I use a two-tier model. The top tray is the inbox; the bottom one is the outbox. These are available just about anywhere office supplies are sold.

Next, decide where your physical inbox should reside. I have mine on the corner of my desk, within arm’s reach.

While I try to get my email inbox to zero every day, I only process my physical inbox about twice a week. Why? Because there is usually nothing urgent in it. (They call it “snail mail” for a reason.) This may be different for you, depending on the kind of work you do.

My assistant does all the initial inbox screening. She opens all my physical mail, tosses the junk, and processes the rest. The only items that make it to my desk are the ones that require my attention.

She puts everything into one of four folders. The first four are plastic folders, because they are more durable than paper. I use the Smead Inndura File Folders. In fact, they never wear out.

  • Red Folder: This is for anything that is “hot” and requires my immediate attention. Frankly, I haven’t seen this folder in months. If something is urgent, it usually comes via the phone, instant message, or email.
  • Green Folder: This is for anything that requires my signature for approval. This includes contracts, expense reports, invoices, absence reports, expenditures, etc. that are above my direct reports’ spending limits.
  • Blue Folder: This is for general, non-urgent correspondence. This includes thank you notes, letters, resumes, etc.
  • Yellow Folder: This is for non-urgent reading material. This includes reports, catalogs, brochures, etc. I often take this with me when I travel, so I can read on the plane. Increasingly, since the introduction of inflight wireless, this occurs after leaving the gate but before reaching 10,000 feet when the wireless becomes available.
  • Gray Folder: This is for meetings, one per meeting. It includes the agenda and any background information I will need. Unlike the folders above, these are paper. I use the Smead one-third cut gray folders.)

When I am processing my inbox, I take one of the following five actions. (These are very similar to processing your email inbox.)

  1. Delete—Determine if you might need the information later. If not, toss it in the trash. I follow two axioms: (1) when in doubt, throw it out; and (2) if it’s really important, someone, somewhere else in the world, has a copy of it.
  2. Do—If you can take action on the item and it will take you less than two minutes, do so now. (This is David Allen’s famous two-minute rule.) This way you don’t have to put it on your to-do list.
  3. Defer—If it will take more than two minutes, I enter the action required in Nozbe (my current to-do list software), write a “A” (for Action) in the right-hand corner of the page or on a post-it note which I affix to the page, and then place the item in my “Action” folder. If there is a deadline, I also enter that into Nozbe and also on the item itself.
  4. Delegate—If someone else is better equipped to complete the task, I delegate it by writing a “D” on the item with a circle around it. I then print the person’s name to the right, so my assistant knows who to send it to. I also write a brief note with instructions on what I want them to do. I often use a post-it note for this as well.
  5. File—If I think I will need the information later, I write a “F” on them item, along with a key word or phrase, suggesting how it should be filed.

That’s it. Simple and straight-forward. But it is key if you are going to maintain a clean desk and a productive work environment.

Question: How is this similar or different from your workflow? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YWFOPRUNCR3C72QA6PWAUR74GI Blair

    While I do not get much physical mail at work, I do get quite a few emails throughout the day. I like your ideas on deleting stuff when in doubt and the two minute rule, both very applicable for me. However, I tend to be the guy that is always looking for stuff after I deleted it and so now I hold on to a little more than I did before.

    As I said, I do not get much physical mail, but I do have lots of other documents I end up needing at my fingertips and I have found that a nice paper shelf has served me quite well. I am able to grab documents for reference and projects I am immediately working on without having to file through a cabinet or email.

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  • http://www.carynsullivanscribe.com Caryn Sullivan

    I like your system. As my world has become more digital, my physical world has become more disorganized. I am going to give your system a try!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I have found that happening, too.

  • Loren @ Life of a Steward

    I like how you organized your colored folder system with your assistant. You obviously receive way more printed communication than I would, so I could see this really helping.

    My personal system is mostly similar to yours. I use paper a fair amount – mainly to capture my own notes. So I empty my physical inbox daily. I like to do it as one of my day-ending routines.

    My wife and I work together, and I guess you could consider her my assistant. I keep a manilla folder nearby where I place any items I want to mention to her or discuss. Then we just have impromptu meetings at our convenience where we can swap our to-discuss items.

  • http://byhill.wordpress.com/ Byron

    Good practical advice. I especially agree with “when in doubt, throw it out”. I’ve always been able to find someone else with a copy if I really need one!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Me, too. I don’t think it has ever been a problem.

  • Anonymous

    A well detailed account of physical inbox management from a CEO of a company; And, a very appropriate stuff for top management people (CXOs, Directors and VPs).

    Contrary to yours, mine is very simple. I receive only a handful of materials in my physical inbox every month. I handle all those personally. I can take follow up action then and there. Among those, I file any thing that is needed for future reference. Due to very lesser volume, I don’t find any need for systematic and organized management of my physical inbox like you.

    To be frank, I rarely send physical mail officially. I transact most of my communication electronically. Nowadays, I am least bothered about my physical inbox since none of my serious business transactions take place through physical communication.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Like you, I rarely send physical letters—probably, less than 50 a year!

  • http://keepingitpersonal.com Teri Johnson

    My digital inbox has become my issue……..I’m impressed that you get to ZERO each day, WOW! working towards that – I need to become better at “if it’s really important, someone, somewhere else in the world, has a copy of it.” I feel that I’m the someone, somewhere else that is SUPPOSED to have the copy. =) This information overload!! Thanks for sharing your system, I plan on implementing the “color folders” into my email inbox, that would work for me!! Make it a GREAT day!!

    Teri Johnson
    http://keepingitpersonal.com

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Full disclosure: I don’t get it to zero EVERY day, but almost.

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  • Anonymous

    I don’t have an inbox at work. But I need to try this at home. I pay bills on line so I don’t go through my regular mail every day. It piles up on my kitchen table.

    • http://bretmavrich.posterous.com/ Bret Mavrich

      You know, it’s funny you mention, but one of the things that overtakes my inbox are paper bills. I try to pay them online, but some of them are still sent anyway. And then I dread the process of having to shred them all which erodes my will to stick with a good system.

      • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

        That’s true for me, too. I wish it were all electronic!

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, I’ve had to make sure I stop getting paper bills. But the medical field is way behind in this area. I too have a good shredder. But I don’t have a good system.

  • http://brettcohrs.com Brett

    I’m in insurance and although somebody in our office said we’re paperless, my inbox seems to flow over every day. I follow basically the same guidelines but have to do it two times a day. I’ve tried to institute the procedure at home but need to set up better folders for the items we can’t ‘delete’ or ‘do’ according to the two minute rule.

    That said–it wasn’t until the last 3-4 months that I’ve kept my paper inbox to zero and my digital inbox mostly to zero. What used to be an office with mounds of paper and an inbox with thousands of emails is now nice and neat. I couldn’t imagine going back to my old (lack of a) system.

  • Anonymous

    Fortunately I get very little snail mail. My biggest challenge right now is the “file pile” I’ve created. Ugh. I don’t seem to have enough storage space in my cube for files and the “tuck everything away” approach touted in the clean desk post. I concede that I’m a digital hoarder but the challenge with the physical mail is diversity. I guess I could just have one 3″ hanging folder and put the hodgepodge stack in there.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I heard someone refer to this as their “piling system.” ;-)

      • Anonymous

        Ha! I like that! Since it’s chronological I tend to think of it as archeological. Or geological. There was a time when it was an art form. “piling system” implies much more organization than warranted. :-)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I heard someone refer to this as their “piling system.” ;-)

  • Andy Wittwer

    Hey Michael – just wanted to say I appreciate your little product plugs (the smead folders) – I think that’s the best kind of marketing a company could get (but couldn’t possibly ever pay for).

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Great. I just want to make it easy to find the stuff you need.

  • http://www.embracepositivepassion.com Georgiana

    Thank you for sharing your detailed organization of our daily snail mail deliveries ~ Love the color-coded system that whittles down, categorizes and prioritizes! I also have a place for items demanding my immediate, sensitive attention as well as a home for my reading materials to be done in my down time. By filing my mail as it arrives, I find that everything is attended to in a timely manner and nothing is left undone. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/rickhubbelltimc rick hubbell

    Aaaargh, Mike.

    I used to use a very similar system, but it only worked when my assistant helped! Even then, the 900lb Inbox Gorilla still took over from time to time. (No – my Assistant was not the 900lb Gorilla.)

    However, on another note, since I am a fan of GTD but never heard of Nozbe, you have piqued my curiosity. I wonder if there is an Android equivalent. If so I’d definitely check it out. I looked a while back but found nothing as smooth as that looks.

    How long have you been using Nozbe and is it a keeper for you or just passing through?
    Rick

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Nozbe works similarly to Cultured Code’s Things, which I wrte about previously. The major difference is that it syncs in the cloud, so you always have your current lists no matter where you are. Cultured Code has been promising this for well over a year, but I got tired of waiting.

      As to whether or not this is a keeper for me, that depends. I like trying new tools. ;-) I will say that @MichaelNozbe, theb developer, is extremely active and responsive—unlike my experience with Cultured Code.

      Thanks.

      • http://bretmavrich.posterous.com/ Bret Mavrich

        Wow, does CC know that the CEO of a major publishing house ditched for fixable reasons? Which are totally understandable, btw: I just decided to renew my .Mac subscription next year almost solely on the basis of the fact that OmniFocus syncs over the cloud.

      • http://twitter.com/rickhubbelltimc rick hubbell

        Thank you for the update and warning.

        Rick

  • http://randyelrod.com Randy

    I SOOOOO need this information. I’m looking at the clutter on my desk at this moment. A New Year’s goal. I should put this on my bucket list—to have a clean desk in 2011. Ha!

    • Anonymous

      You will find that having a clear desk helps you to have a clear and organised mind. It’s amazing how much stress lifts off with a clear desk, even if you just pile all the papers into one pile instead of many. It’s definitely a worthy goal.
      There are great books out there to help you reach this goal – “Getting Things Done” is highly recommended.

  • http://twitter.com/MaryDeMuth Mary DeMuth

    I’m glad you’ve posted this. I often send people to your previous post about email, particularly when folks ask me how/why I keep my inbox at or near zero. It is possible. Thank you for serving us by sharing how you’ve done it.

    • http://bretmavrich.posterous.com/ Bret Mavrich

      I’ve had people actually recoil in horror when I tell them how I do email. Once, I even got a talking-to, something along the lines of irresponsibility. Have you ever faced that kind of kick-back?

  • http://twitter.com/doughibbard Doug Hibbard

    I’m going to take a stab at organizing myself this way. Not having an assistant, but needing to be able to delegate to volunteers, I think I’ll be using one folder for stuff that needs to go out to committees, and one for stuff coming back in.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielHarkavy Daniel Harkavy

    Great post Michael. Just yesterday, my Exec Assistant, Lynne Brown and I met and we got rid of my physical inbox. It was just another collecting pile. She is now working to convert us to being completly digital with scanning, email and using our physcial workflow system for active projects being worked on.

    Good stuff and very timely!

    Merry Christmas to you, Gail and your family Mike!

    Daniel

  • http://bretmavrich.posterous.com/ Bret Mavrich

    First things first: how did you obtain a picture of my personal inbox for your post?

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    That’s it. Simple and straight-forward.

    Two trays, five folders, and five different actions per item in each folder to choose from? And that’s just the snail mail? Don’t get no simpler than that.

    As for my personal system, all my snail mail goes on a stack on a shelf. As soon as the stack gets too high, I toss it in the paper recycling bin.

    Point being, if you would like to pay me a million dollars, please don’t mail me a paper check.

  • http://bretmavrich.posterous.com/ Bret Mavrich

    I’m trying to get a grip on the GTD system. I’m using OmniFocus (for Mac and iPhone) to try to get things flowing in that general direction. Since I started, I’ve developed a filing system just like David describes in his book. I’m still learning that whenever I sit down to do work I MUST force myself to look at OmniFocus. Otherwise, it’s all for naught and the time I’ve spent learning, gathering, processing, filing, etc. means nothing.

  • http://www.christaallan.com Christa Allan

    Workflow? That’s an oxymoron in my life. Thanks for these practical ideas.

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    I really like your colored file folder idea, Michael. I’ll have to implement something like that. Something that works good for me is a good size recycle bin under my desk. Unless the item absolutely has to be filed away, the item goes into the recycle bin when I’m through with it. When the bin gets close to full, I take the bottom third and recycle it. This gives me a buffer for things that are hard to throw away. If it has been in the bin for a few weeks, it’s much easier to throw away. It works just like the recycle bin in Windows. I used to spend hours filing things away only to find that I never looked at the item again. With the recycle bin, I save a lot of time by having a buffer. At the end of the day I clear my desk and anything that I’m not sure about goes in the bin. If I really need it I know I still have it for a few weeks.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I have also found that I rarely refer back to things again. I am much more judicious about what I file today. Often, it’s just not worth the effort. Thanks.

  • TNeal

    I should apply these principles to the guest room chair. If we ever have guests again, I’ll have to clear a lot of stuff out. Now I’ve got a method.

    • http://www.gospellab.com Gospel lab

      lol
      TNeal, I instantly thought you were going to apply the principles by getting different colored chairs. That way you could handle your guests accordingly.

      If I am ever your guest, please do not tell me what the color means for my chair. :)

  • Brian Stewart

    Hi, Mike. I always take your product recommendations seriously. Thanks for the tip on the Inndura file folders.

    By the way, your link to the Smead gray folders does not work.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I just fixed the link. Thanks for reporting that.

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  • Skingsly

    Simple and Neat. Thanks for sharing

  • http://twitter.com/LawrenceWilson Lawrence W. Wilson

    Michael, I use a similar system but use a drawer rather than an inbox. It keeps my desk neater, and keeps low priority items out of my view.

  • http://www.liveonpurposecoach.com Dwright

    Thank you for the reminding me to manage my most important commodity well-my time!!I have not deleted emails as soon as I should. Consequently, I spend more time reviewing unnecessary information.

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Great insights. I don’t get that much physical mail in my job. So my inbox stays pretty empty. I can go days before there’s anything in it. But the principles, along with your post on processing digital mail, are great. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I have a hanging basket on my desk where I put “inbox” type things. I try to clean it out every month or so. If something is URGENT, I keep it with my agenda or set it on top of my keyboard to be sure to deal with it ASAP.

  • http://www.adaptationsoflife.com/ Jack Heimbigner

    Hey Michael, great post! This actually will help my current system! I only check my physical inbox once a week, and its ends up being reference materials most of the time. However, the different folders would help clean things up quicker, instead of one great big stack. Thanks for the insight!

  • Dshick

    Mike – I appreciate it when you share your tips on productivity. So, you go into meetings with a gray folder which includes the agenda and background info. Does that include your personal notes from previous meetings? I remember reading that you took notes electronically and they reside on the Evernote cloud. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve decided to abandon paper notes…in favor of the electronic kind….but I always seem to go back to paper. I’d be interested in knowing more about what you do…and how others handle this. A blessed Christmas to you, your family and the many other readers to this blog.

  • http://twitter.com/todddoubleu todddoubleu

    Michael … Some good stuff here. My suggestion for all with regards to #5 – File is this: “Don’t File!” For many of us, that’s the part of the equation that consumes a lot of time and prevents us from tackling “the pile” in the first place. If you are looking to make the leap to digital, consider using Evernote as your personal filing cabinet. For everything. Coupled with a Fujitsu ScanSnap (or equivalent,) you can convert nearly everything to an electronic form and you will never look at paper the same way again. Because Evernote is searchable, if there’s something you need to locate, you’ll be able to find it so we can check that potential panic off the list. And if you still want to label things, you can add tags to any document. Bottom line: There’s a huge productivity gain to be made from not filing (and this includes e-mail to a great extent as well,) and instead relying on search. The strategy worked nicely for Google and it can work for you too. All the best in the year ahead! Todd

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I use Evernote as well for all my digital filing. What I haven’t done is make the leap to scanning physical documents and sending them to Evernote. I need to figure out a workflow for this. Thanks.

      • Andy Jolls

        I use a sc

        • Andy Jolls

          Sorry about that.  I use a ScanSnap scanner which uploads the documents to two places at once – my favorite feature.  I use Evernote and Dropbox to save them and that puts the slow part of scanning – the OCR piece – off the scanner and on the app.  This makes scanning so fast, the workflow is painless.  Watch this video [not mine fyi] on this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdPXj3Y-boo.  Skip ahead to see the scanner speed. 

  • http://twitter.com/ThatGuyKC K.C. Procter

    I’m pretty good at the digital organization, but definitely need help with my physical desktop. It’s a mess.

    Thank you for the advice. Definitely going to use it at work AND home.

    Hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas.

  • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

    I’m terrible at managing my physical inbox (but pretty obsessed about my email inbox). Good tips. Thanks for sharing. Need to apply some of this stuff.

  • http://www.christopherscottblog.typepad.com/ Christopher Scott

    Michael, thanks for another informative post.

    Like you, only check my inbox a few times a week. (As a middle level employee, I get much less mail than you.)

    Do my best to keep my inbox at a minimum, but sometimes material lingers in there if I can’t act on it yet.

    My favorite two actions to take on to-do items are to delegate them to someone else or throw it away. It always amazes me how much material I get to throw away.

  • PoulAndreassen

    Excellent article for managing physical mails at work.The uniqueness of your article is indeed something that is influential in nature if probed deeply.

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  • Bugsypugly

    You offered great tips for someone like me, who is organizationally-challenged. Now where can I find one of those assistants?