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Managing Your Papers: Inbox, Outbox, and Everything In Between

By Joshua Zerkel  

Set up a system that syncs with the lifecycle of paper.

No matter how organized the rest of your office may be, it’s easy to feel like things are out of control when your desk is covered with papers. Although you may have heard rumors that the so-called “paperless world” has arrived, you and I both know that we have more paper coming at us than ever before. If you feel like paper is a pain in the butt, you’re not alone. But the good news is if you put the right systems in place you can get the papers in your office under control.

In order to come up with strategies for how to deal with paper, we need to understand that paper has a lifecycle of its very own:

1.                   Papers come into your office—printed from the computer, through the mail, or maybe brought in from meetings or conferences.
2.                   You sort the papers—you put bills in one stack, magazines and periodicals in another, correspondences you need to write into a third.
3.                   You process the papers—you pay bills, read magazines, or write letters.
4.                   You archive the papers—papers you’re keeping long-term are put into your file cabinet or a box.
5.                   You remove the papers—you drop the junk mail in the recycle bin or shred sensitive documents.

These five stages—in, sort, process, archive, and out—are the basic framework for your paper-management strategy. The key to managing your paper is to have dedicated space for each stage in your paper’s lifecycle: an inbox for all the things that are brand new; a “hot files area” to handle the sorting and the processing steps; an archival area for all the papers you want to hold onto long term; and an outbox for papers that are leaving your space entirely. Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.

First is an inbox. This can simply be a basket, box, or tray where you place all incoming papers—mail, printouts, etc.--keeping it all in one place so that it doesn’t get lost in the chaos of your desk. When it’s time for you to actually sit down and process your new papers, you don’t have to waste time searching your space. Aside from collecting your incoming papers, this first stage is completely action free.

Of course, many papers do require some action on your part—a signature, a response, a payment. This is where most people’s systems tend to fall down. Typically there will be a “To-Do” stack, but that isn’t always helpful because we simply have too many different kinds of actions we need to take on any given paper. I think it’s helpful to have a hot files area: This can simply be a desktop file box, maybe 6” to 8” deep, which is readily available in any office supply store. Inside of this file box you would have a series of hanging files; this enables you to break out your To-Dos into the different actions you need to take, with specific words for each action that your papers represent—“Call” for phone messages, “Sign” for papers that require signatures, “Calendar” for events you need to add to your schedule, “Correspondence” for letters, and so on. Now, when you go through your inbox you can sort your papers into the specific actions that each paper needs. This makes it a lot easier for you to actually take those actions: now you can grab the “Call” folder and make all of the phone calls at once, or take the “Sign” folder and sign all of the documents at one time. Rather than going through a stack of To-Dos and going back and forth and shifting gears, now you’re streamlining how you’re dealing with your paper. Creating this system should save you a lot of stress, a lot of frustration, and hopefully quite a bit of time as well.

Once you’ve taken action on your papers via your hot files area, there will be some you need to hold onto. Those will go in your archives—a file box, file cabinet, or file drawer. This is your long-term, cold storage area. You can name these files whatever you like—whatever makes the most intuitive sense to you.

Of course not every paper you take action with needs to be stored. Some of your paper will need to be recycled, shredded, or sent back into the world. It is helpful to have a recycle bin and a shredder right next to where your new mail or paper comes in. For the papers that need to go back into the world (outgoing mail or interoffice documents), it’s best to have a corresponding outbox right next to your inbox. This would be where everything that you’re taking back out into the world would live until you’re actually leaving.

Excellent organizing advice Josh, thanks for sharing! You can find more pro organizing solutions from Josh at Custom Living Solutions.

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