Inboxes are a ‘natural’ basic element of all functioning organisational systems.
In all areas of our life, we find places and containers that act as inboxes which help us get things done and efficiently organised.
We want to focus our attention and discussion on those inboxes that help us organise key elements of our daily life – our time, space, paperwork, projects, and tasks efficiently.
Today, I start the discussion with
The paperwork inbox.
Many organisational inboxes allow us to follow our preferences and choose a physical or a digital version.
Like, for example, the inbox for our notes. We can choose a physical notebook to collect and organise our personal notes or decide to use a digital note app.
It’s different with our paperwork inbox. Usually, we can’t decide to have only one paperwork inbox:
Most of us need to keep a physical and a digital inbox:
- If you prefer to keep your paperwork management system in physical form, you will still have to manage some information digitally. You probably receive a range of important documents – like clinic reports, online-shopping invoices, and investment reports – in digital form. And even if you decide to print those out, you need a place to temporarily collect/store them digitally.
- If you decided to organise and store all your paperwork digitally, you will still need a physical box where you can collect important information and data that enters your home on paper. The next step is then to scan and digitise the data you want to keep and transfer it directly to your digital folder, or first to your digital inbox.
The physical paperwork inbox is a very basic form of an organisational inbox.
That’s why I chose it as the starting point for our discussion of the inboxes that help us organise our daily life.
As we have seen in the second article of this series, even the simplest inboxes require consistency and reliability/commitment from our side. They can’t function properly if we don’t treat them properly.
Let me go through the 3 rules of efficient inboxes and apply them to the physical paperwork inbox to demonstrate what I mean.
The RULE NUMBER 1: “Everything and always!
Everything that belongs into a specific inbox must always end up in that inbox.”
You could have a functioning (although very simplistic) paperwork-organisation system even if you decided to do nothing else with your papers (no sorting, decluttering, filing, etc.) but just stuck to Rule 1.
As long as you always put every piece of paper that comes into your home in your paperwork inbox, you are in a safe place. Because you can be certain that you will always be able to find any piece of paper you need to find.
That’s good to know, I think.
Many of my paperwork-overwhelmed clients find huge relief in the idea that they actually don’t have to organise their papers if they don’t want to. They just must be committed to collecting them reliably in one place.
And yes, the idea that we need to follow only one simple and easy rule to manage our paperwork is super-attractive.
However, the simplicity and ease come at a price.
These are some of the disadvantages of the ‘one inbox & one rule’ paperwork-system:
You know exactly where all your papers are, yes, but you have no certainty about what’s exactly stored and potentially hidden under the piled papers in your box.
Over time, you not only accumulate huge amounts of paper, but you also pile up a lot of clutter. Because much of the information and data we receive on paper has an ‘expiry’ date. The papers that carry those data become worthless and meaningless – but continue to take up space in the paperwork inbox.
If you need a specific document, like your lease agreement or marriage certificate, you know you will find it in your inbox but – depending on the age and size of the paperwork inbox – you might have to invest a lot of time to search for it.
You also need to invest in storage space. Sooner or later, your paperwork inbox fills up, and you need to open a second box or transfer the content of the inbox into an archive box. Which needs to go somewhere. And quickly gets ‘siblings’. This paperwork (and paper clutter) family will soon occupy large areas of your basement, attic, or garage.
We can drastically increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the one-inbox paperwork system with the help of Rule Number 2 and Rule Number 3.
The Rule Number 2: “Regular check-ups!
Choose a regular routine (daily, weekly, monthly – whatever makes sense) for your inbox check-ups – so you always know at least broadly what’s in there.”
The Rule Number 3: “Regular decisions and actions!
Make decisions, regularly, about what to do with the stuff in the inbox – and then do it.”
The combination of Rule 1 with Rule 2 and Rule 3 ensures that the purely inbox-based paperwork system does what it’s supposed to do: help you organise and manage your paperwork.
The ‘Rule 1 + Rule 2 + Rule 3’ Working-Process
This is how the 3 rules work together:
Rule 1: We collect all incoming paperwork in the inbox, but we don’t leave it there unsupervised.
Rules 2 and 3: We do regular check-ups and use these to make decisions about the stuff in the box. We then take, if necessary, immediate action.
The frequency of the check-ups depends on the amount of paperwork coming in and its importance. And it depends on how urgent it usually is to take action.
In most cases, a weekly review is ideal, in some cases a monthly check-up is sufficient.
Decisions and actions during check-ups.
At check-up time, we empty the inbox.
We then take paper after paper up and ask ourselves a series of questions – and we answer/decide and act immediately:
Question 1 – ‘Do I still need it? Really?’
- “no” – Very often, the honest answer will be ‘no’. In this case, we decide to throw the paper away – and we do that, immediately! The paper goes into the paper bin or shredder.
- “yes” – If we decide we still need this paper, we ask the next question:
Question 2 – ‘What do I need it for? Reference or Action?’
- “Reference’ – If we decide we need to keep the paper for reference purposes, it goes directly back into the inbox.
- ‘Action” – If we decide we need to do something with this paper, we ask the next question:
Question 3 – ‘Can I get it done now?’
- “no” – If we can’t take action immediately, we put the paper back into the inbox.
- “yes” – If the answer is ‘yes’, we do what needs to be done with the paper. – And then we ask the next question:
Question 4 – ‘Do I still need it? Really?’
- “no” – If the paper is no longer needed, it goes in the paper bin/shredder.
- “yes” – If we decide that we need to keep it (for reference purposes?), we put it back in the inbox.
If we follow the 3 rules consistently, the paperwork inbox can act as the only or an important part of our paperwork management system,
Because it ensures that
- we always have a clear idea about what’s currently in the inbox;
- we don’t allow clutter to build up in the inbox – which saves us time and space;
- we take action on any piece of paper that needs our action;
- we still have all our paperwork in one place and know where to go when we need anything.
- It’s easy to instal and maintain a well-functioning paperwork inbox. (3 clear rules and a simple check-up/decision/action process)
- A well-functioning paperwork inbox can act as the one and only pillar of your paperwork management system. It’s a very simplistic system but it works – if you stick to the rules.
- A well-functioning paperwork inbox can act as the entry port to your paperwork management system if you want or need to organise your paperwork in a more complex and sophisticated way.
- In this case, you follow the process as described above: You collect all incoming paperwork in the inbox. You do the regular check-ups, and you ask and answer the questions listed above, you decide and act.
- However, you don’t put anything back into the inbox!
- Instead, you transfer reference papers to your filing system. And any actionable papers that you don’t directly act on move into your task management system.
I’m going to discuss the organisation and maintenance of more complex inboxes that support specific filing and task management systems in future articles.
CAN I HELP YOU?
Are you tired of trying to declutter and (re)organise the various areas of your life (and your mind) completely on your own?
Do you want to make progress – easier and faster?
Do you want my support & advice?