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 ©, Image #4729175

Photo courtesy of ©

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.

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.