The Inbox Series 3

Your Paperwork Inbox – The fundation of your paperwork management system

Inboxes are a ‘natural’ basic element of all functioning organisational systems.

In all areas of our lives, we find places and containers that act as inboxes, helping us get things done and organise ourselves efficiently.

(Check Article 1 and Article 2 for a quick recap.)

In this series, we focus our attention and discussion on the inboxes that help us organise critical elements of our daily lives – our time, space, paperwork, projects, and tasks efficiently.

Today, we discuss

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 notes or 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 decide to organise and store all your paperwork digitally, you will still need a physical box to collect important information and data that enters your home on paper. The next step is 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 fundamental form of an organisational inbox.

I chose it as the starting point for discussing the inboxes that help us organise our daily lives.

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 three 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. 

You are safe as long as you always transfer every piece of paper that enters your home to your paperwork inbox. Because then you can be confident 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 massive 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 must 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 precisely stored and potentially hidden under the piled documents in your box.

    • Over time, you not only accumulate vast amounts of paper but 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 in searching 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 then 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.

You can drastically increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the one-inbox paperwork system with the help of Rule Number 2 and Rule Number 3.

Rule Number 2: Regular check-ups!

Choose a routine for your inbox checkups (daily, weekly, monthly – whatever makes sense) – so you always know at least broadly what’s in there.

Rule Number 3: Regular decisions and actions!

Make decisions, regularly, about what to do with the stuff in the inbox – and then do it.

Combining 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.

This is how the three rules work together:

Rule 1: You collect all incoming paperwork in the inbox.

Rules 2 and 3: You do regular check-ups and use these to make decisions about the stuff in the box. You 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.

A weekly review is usually sufficient.

Decisions and actions during check-ups.

At check-up time, you empty the inbox.

Then you take paper after paper up and ask yourself a series of questions – and you 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, you decide to throw the paper away – and you do that immediately! The paper goes into the paper bin or shredder.
    • “yes” – If you decide you still need this paper, you ask the following question:

Question 2 – ‘What do I need it for? Reference or Action?’

    • “Reference’ – If you decide to keep the paper for reference purposes, it goes directly back into the inbox.
    • ‘Action” – If you decide you need to do something with this paper, you ask the following question:

Question 3 – ‘Can I get it done now?’

    • “no” – If you can’t take action immediately, you return the paper to the inbox.
    • “yes” – If the answer is ‘yes’, you do what needs to be done with the paper. – And then you ask the following 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 you decide to keep it (for reference purposes?), you put it back in the inbox.

If you follow the three rules consistently, the paperwork inbox can act as the only or an essential part of your paperwork management system,

because it ensures that

    • you always have a clear idea about what’s currently in the inbox;
    • you don’t allow clutter to build up in the inbox – which saves you time and space;
    • you take care of any piece of paper that needs your action;
    • you still have all your paperwork in one place and know where to go when you need anything.


    • It’s easy to install and maintain a well-functioning paperwork inbox. (3 clear rules and a simple check-up/decision/action process)
    • A well-functioning paperwork inbox can be the 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 port of entry of 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 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 documents that you plan to act on later go into your task management system.

I will discuss the organisation and maintenance of more specialised paperwork inboxes in future articles. 


Are you tired?

Tired of trying to (re)organise the various areas of your life entirely on your own?

Tired of investing vast amounts of time and energy in finding a way to create a better organised = better life?

Tired of feeling overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, stressed, disappointed, exhausted, …?

Fortunately, you don’t have to figure it out all by yourself.

We can do it together.

You can decide to get my support, advice, and guidance – and achieve the desired changes in your life so much faster and easier. 

Check out how I can help you.