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The in-box

One of the most important tools for maintaining organization is also inexpensive and low tech: the in-box. It is also, however, one of the most misunderstood items in an office. Typically, things come in and stay in. They pile up. And a lot of times we think the answer is a bigger box. Sure, that may contain the paper mountain, but it ends up adding to the underlying problem.

For our purposes in this column, we will keep the focus en casa — you can apply the same tips to your office. Each family member should have his or her own in-box. This can be a cubby, a line-up of baskets near the entry way, a drawer in the family room for each person, etc. This is where the incoming mail gets divided up and where you can put miscellaneous items like a beanie, a stray sock, nail clippers or whatever gets collected around the house so that things can get put back in place by their owners.

The in-box needs to be emptied and dealt with on a weekly basis — daily would be better. If you let items in the in-box pile up to the point that you have no idea what might be hiding at the bottom, you’ll start to feel stress. The busier you are, the more important it is to deal with whatever comes into “in.” Getting your in-box to zero will keep you at the ready to handle unexpected upsets and opportunities.

A lot of stuff that comes into our lives should never even make it into the in-box. Junk mail is a prime example. Unless you have absolutely nothing better to do, why peruse stuff you did not request? As one of my favorite authors on organization states, junk mail is a “no brainer toss.” We have so much coming at us these days that it is impossible to digest everything. Recycle the junk mail as it comes in.

Bills might have a unique box that is emptied and handled once or twice a month. Or they can go directly from your mailbox into an accounts payable file that you are sure to look at regularly.

When you sit down to go through your in-box, handle each item only once and go from top to bottom. Productivity coach David Allen warns that most of us go through the in-box looking for whatever might be most fun or most interesting rather than work diligently from top down. If we handle the items from top to bottom, we will get through paperwork faster and with fewer distractions. It’s amazing how easy it is if you discipline yourself to think about and handle each piece as it comes up.

One piece of paper might necessitate a phone call, another a notation in the calendar. These are simple tasks that are easier to tackle than to keep avoiding. Yes, you might get put on hold or have to listen to annoying music if you make that phone call, but the sooner you do it, the sooner it’s done.

If an item needs more than just a one-step action, you’ll need to make a file folder for it as it is probably a multi-step, on-going project. You can keep these in your file cabinets or in a graduated file holder on your desk or kitchen counter. But once you’ve identified something as a project it no longer stays in the in-box — it moves out into the world of action. Examples of projects are Kitchen Remodel, Rotary Presentation, Summer Garden, New Car Shopping or Vacation 2009.

If you keep up with your in-box, you’ll find that you move forward much more quickly on your larger projects with much less stress.