How To Conquer Your Paper Inbox


In the battle against Office chaos, paperwork is one of the more formidable foes. It spreads to cover every working surface while you’re not looking, and makes it impossible to find anything.

It’s constantly attacking – you get rid of one stack and there’s another one waiting in the mailbox. With such ongoing chaos, how are you supposed to wade through the mess to identify the important info? If you simply ignore the whole problem, you’re likely to miss out on something very important, such as your bills or that registration renewal notice. Oops!

So how to tackle your own personal paper war?

It’s about setting up your own personalized inbox system that is based on action and prioritization. I already showed you how you can do this with your email inbox. So now let’s do the same with your paperwork.

Just as my Gmail star system allows me to sort my email based on the action and turn-around-time it requires, so you should have similar inboxes or trays in your workspace where you can immediately sort incoming mail in the same fashion. My recommendation (and what I’ve found most useful) is to have something like the following:

Inbox 1: To Do

This is the most important inbox, because it is for any and all paperwork that requires you to take action on it next. So this should be your top priority inbox, and where you should immediately put any papers you find that need your immediate action. And then this should be the first inbox you look through in the morning, to make sure you are addressing your most urgent papers and action items first thing. Some people like to break this out into two inboxes, one for Urgent To Do and one for Later To Do. But whatever you decide, just make sure you do have someplace  front and center to put these “action item” papers however works best for YOU.

Inbox 2: To Get Response

No doubt you have paperwork you can’t take any action on until you hear back from someone else, such as an invoice you need payment for, or a contract you’re waiting for agreement on. These should go in their own inbox so you can see at a glance what things you are still waiting for a response from, and be able to keep track of them. Call this inbox whatever you want, “Waiting to Hear Back”, “Response Required”, “Needs an Answer,” or anything else you like. Again, just make sure it works for YOU!

Inbox 3: To Reference

This is for any paperwork that doesn’t require anyone’s immediate action, but relates to current and important projects that you may need to reference and take action on in the near future. I often break these inboxes or trays into separate ones labeled for each current project I have going. Or if you don’t have too many different projects, or prefer a one-stop shop for these papers, you can certainly have just one inbox for this topic. But however many you decide to have, and however many projects you need them for, just make sure you have a well-thought out place to collect any papers that are relevant to those and to YOU.

Inbox 4: To File (No Action)

You no doubt get lots of paperwork that has no required action or immediate relevance, but is important to hang on to nonetheless, such as your banking statements, or pay stubs, or copies of signed contracts. This inbox allows you somewhere to toss those papers in the moment, so that you can go back and file them away as you prefer later when you have more time. I won’t go into detail on a system for filing those papers here, but make sure you at least organize your files by category (work, car, medical, credit card, etc) and/or date (2012 taxes, 2013 taxes). And if you really want me to cover this in more detail, let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily write a separate post on this!

Inbox 5: Receipts

These seem to be the hardest type of loose papers to keep together or find when you need them, and yet some of the most important to track and save, especially if you are trying to run a business. They tend to spread all over the house, not just in the office, and can make balancing your accounts, updating your finances, and (as you probably just did) filing your taxes a real hassle. So I highly recommend designating a separate smaller sized tray (such as the top lid of a small shoebox or the box your checks came in) for ALL your incoming receipts. That means every time you would have tossed them on the table or inside your purse, put them in this inbox instead. It may take some initial effort and getting used to. But I promise you’ll find it totally worth it, and so much faster and easier, when you do go through it later to sort, balance, file, etc.

Remember, these are just my suggestions for the types of inboxes or trays I find ideal for your incoming papers. I heartily encourage you to take these recommendations and mold them into a system that works for YOU and how you naturally operate in your workspace.

So happy inbox-ing and paper-tackling, and let me know in the comments below if you have any questions, feedback or ideas of your own!

Questions? Comments? Absurd Ideas? Please comment below and tell me how this system works out for you, or if you have any suggestions on other useful office paperwork management systems.

And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter!

Work the Space

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” -Mary Shelley

You may have identified the space where you are most productive and can focus your work time. But what if that space is really messy and disorganized? In that case, what you’ll need to do first and foremost is…

Work the Space!

One of my recurring resolutions is to regularly reorganize the area where I work to maximize productivity, to wrangle the clutter and chaos within that space so I can truly concentrate and create. For me, that means two different spaces: my home office and the film production office at the home of my business partner. For the latter space, we then have the added complication that the very same room for our production office also doubles as his bedroom. So making this an effective and efficient work space has been extra challenging, hence the continuous goal to stay really focused on it.

In order to tackle this, I am utilizing one of my 10 Productivity Tactics to break up this resolution into smaller, actionable steps. I set aside one whole day to start breaking it all down:

1. The first of these was to sort all the clutter in our production office space into individual piles, to get a good condensed look at just how much and what range of clutter I’m dealing with.

2. From there, it was easier to sort out and categorize the clutter based on the function it serves or the action it requires. For example, I ended up with a lot of loose paperwork that needed a better system for sorting & filing. Previously, these papers had ended up just getting left out and scattered about so that it was difficult to know what to do with them and they often got forgotten about.

3. So I created a new space for these papers, which is the next step for each of the categories of clutter. I sorted the papers into filing cabinets, giving the folders new labels according to the purpose or action associated with each group of papers. Now these loose papers have a better home than in piles on the dresser, and will be much easier to find when I need them. But beyond that, I also now have a new easy & accessible means of putting away more loose papers as they come up.

Now if I can impart one piece of wisdom, it would be this: don’t force yourself into a new system of organization that doesn’t feel natural just because others say it’s the best way. You need to develop a system that works with how you already naturally operate, so that as you accumulate more things, it’s not a huge chore to continue putting stuff away.

Personally, I work better when things are categorized and put away out of sight. I hate having too much stuff lying around. If I don’t have a good system for where to put everything away, I will just end up shoving stuff in random drawers – which eventually catches up with me. So what I need is a better way to put things away so that they don’t get lost later on.

However, I also have the out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem – in that once I shove stuff away, I am in danger of completely forgetting about it. So I organized my new paperwork filing system into tall, obvious filing cabinets so I don’t forget where they are. I then created a paperwork tray system on my desk for the important papers that need immediate attention & action, which helps to keep them front of mind.

Then with the less important or urgent items, I found better places to store them where they wouldn’t need to be as visually obvious. For example, I also found that we had a lot of film equipment and props lying around the home office that are quite bulky and take up valuable space. These items also don’t have much frequent use, since we only bring them out when we are ready to film another project.

So for these items, I chose the basement storage space below the apartment. I identified what didn’t need to be out in the open for frequent use and moved it down under there to be stored similarly in bins based on category and function, and keeping the most frequently used items toward the front.

Lastly, I encountered a great many nick knacks and miscellaneous items lying around that either are too small to keep filed or stored, or simply don’t belong to any larger group or have an obvious “home.” For these, I’ve discovered a love for cute containers. By this, I mean small woven baskets, old mugs, unused vases, decorative pencil trays, lids from old boxes (like the one your latest jewelry purchase or new checks came in) – take any old or odd containers you were going to throw away and put them to good use instead.

The box you bought that pack of Christmas cards in makes a good holder for the loose receipts that you’ll need to go through later. An old mason jar is the perfect place to collect loose change. Clean out that tin can you had dinner from last night and put your pencils and pens in it. That fun little box your mother bought you at the flea market can be a great place to toss extra paperclips, tacks, rubber bands and other misc. items on your desk.

You can’t avoid having some amount of small, loose clutter – so having different little containers to put them in keeps them easier to keep track of and more pleasant to look at.

Now that I’ve started getting my work stuff better categorized and put away, I know I’ll be able to quickly locate anything I need at any time, even if it is put away out of sight. And if it’s something urgent that I need to not let myself forget, I know I’ve got it at the front of the pile or in the properly visible place on my desk, so I’ll be sure to see it first thing.

This is the system I’ve discovered I need for my work space. Now you’ve got to figure out what kind of system you need, and what would work best for you, based on your work habits and preferences.

And it doesn’t stop there either. I’ve set up the start of a new and improved system, but it’s always going to take some initial effort to remember to maintain it. As much as I was focused on setting up a system that works well for me particularly, it still requires some small changes of habit and self-discipline to keep it up, if I don’t want to sink back into the mess I ended up with before. So I’m giving myself the rest of the year to get completely comfortable with my newly organized work space, and make sure I don’t muck it up.

Why don’t you do the same? Happy organizing and systematizing!

Questions? Comments? Absurd Ideas? Please comment below and tell me how you can organize your workspace for easier use, or how I can help you figure out the best system for YOU.

And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter!

Sharing Outside the Box

Sharing is caring“Chaos is a friend of mine.” -Bob Dylan

In honor of this past holiday season, I thought I’d write my next post all about the gift of sharing with others, and how this can help significantly improve both your efficacy and joviality.

The secret is in one word: Dropbox!

If you haven’t heard of this fantastical tool, Dropbox is a cloud-based hosting system (yes, it’s on Android!) that allows you to easily store and share single files or entire folders with others across the internet. It uses this fancy process called file synchronization, which basically means that when you put a file in your Dropbox, it will both (a) instantly update in the cloud AND (b) create a “mirrored” copy of that file for each individual Dropbox you’ve specified to share with. It’s the best of both worlds – because you’ll have the file itself saved in the cloud AND have a copy on your computer that you can access anytime, even when you’re offline (not connected to the internet).

There are several account options, based on how much storage you need. I recommend the Basic account (what I have), which gives you a whopping 2GB… for FREE! But if you need more space, there’s the Pro 50 Account, which gives you 50GB for $9.99/mo, the Pro 100 Account with 100GB for $19.99/mo, and even the brand-new Team level account with 1000GB for $795 and up. Now that’s getting pretty pricey, but chances are the Basic level will suit your needs just fine.

The bottom line is, it’s all about sharing with others in a way that saves you the most time, money and space (less physical paperwork!), and makes the most sense. It’s a very simple set up process, and then the sky’s the limit! Whether you’re sharing important documents with your colleagues (that you’ll get to after the holidays), or festive photos with family, or New Year’s Eve videos with friends, it’s the simplest and fastest way I’ve found to keep my world synchronized.

So if you’re ready to get your sharing on, head to Dropbox.com to set up your account now. You’ll be taken through a pretty straight-forward sign up process and asked to download the Dropbox application to your computer. This is essential, or you won’t be able to access the mirrored copies of shared documents on your computer. They make it incredibly simple too – just drag the Dropbox icon into your Application folder, and then double-click the Dropbox icon to launch on your computer.

Once you are all set up, you’ll see a little Dropbox icon icon in the top bar of your desktop. This gives you direct access to all your Dropbox folders, as well as to “Launch Dropbox Website” where you can manage your sharing preferences. Create as many folders as you like, and share each one with whomever you like, and then let the sharing and caring begin!

Questions? Comments? Absurd Ideas? Please feel free to comment on this post and share!