Clear Your Inbox in 15 Minutes

InboxPreviously I’ve written about why it’s important to have a designated space in your home to gather all of your paperwork so it’s not floating all over the place.  I’ve also suggested that you should create an inbox somewhere in that designated area that can be used to corral all incoming mail, receipts, and other household paper until you have time to deal with it.  That’s the easy part.

So let’s assume that you’ve taken my advice and have an inbox brimming full of unopened mail—now what?  Procrastination is a normal response, as the task of emptying your inbox probably doesn’t even come close to being at the top of your list of fun things to do!  But you may have a sinking feeling that there is something important (an overdue bill, your child’s permission slip that was due yesterday…) buried in that pile of paper.  Time to get the job done!

Overcoming Procrastination

The first step to overcoming procrastination in dealing with a task like this is to make it a routine.  It helps to have a certain time of day (say 15 minutes just before stopping work for the day, or during a child’s naptime) or a certain time of the week (for example, 30 minutes on Saturday morning) that you will regularly process your inbox.  Of course, if you have a large backlog of paper to go through, you may need to schedule more time than this.

Once you’ve designated a time, try setting a timer and working on the task for only that amount of time.  You may be pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t really take as much time as you think!

Only Three Types of Paper

When actually starting to work, it may also help to remember that there are really just three main types of paper:  Action, Reference and Toss.   (For a nice visual representation of this, download my Residential Paper Org Chart.)

The first type is “Action” paper.  These are the papers that you need to do something about…that bill you need to pay, permission slip to be returned, or party invitation you haven’t yet RSVP’d to.  Maybe it’s a phone number or business card that you need to enter in your contact manager.  The main thing to remember is that these papers are the ones you don’t want to lose track of!   I like to discard the outer envelopes along with any unnecessary inserts, and put this paperwork in an “Action” folder or file.  Or I simply put it in a stack in the middle of my desk.  (Because it’s going to be dealt with very soon, right?)  If the action item isn’t going to be done right away, I find that it also helps to add it to my calendar or task list.

The next type is “Reference” paper.  These are documents that don’t require any immediate action but that you might want to refer to later.  Examples might be a current insurance policy, statements for bills that are paid online, and receipts for purchases you may want to return.  Put these in a separate “To Be Filed” box or basket. (Or hey, why not file them immediately?) If the paper is a reminder of a specific event that is coming up, I like to pin it to a bulletin board near my desk where it can serve as a visual reminder.  The item might also go on my calendar.

(A quick aside:  Did you know that over 80% of the paper we file is never looked at again?  Before you designate a paper for filing, think about whether you will really ever need it again, or whether you could easily look up the information online.)

The third type of paper is the easiest to deal with.  This category is mostly unsolicited junk mail that you can “toss” immediately.  Remember to take a quick look for any sensitive information (account numbers, etc.) and shred those items.  Be good to the environment by putting the remainder of this paper into the recycling rather than the trash can.  If your mail is anything like mine, probably 90% of it can be tossed.

Plan to Succeed– Make It a Routine

If you’ve followed this plan, your inbox should now be empty!  Did you get it done in 15 minutes?  If not, maybe it’s because you started with a backlog.  Or maybe you tried to actually do all your Action items as you went along… this strategy may get you off track and might be better left to another time.

Although clearing your inbox may not be your favorite task of all time, it’s one of those things that is important to do regularly.  Make it a daily or weekly routine, set your timer for 15 minutes, and make that pile disappear!

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Related posts:

  1. 10 Steps to Organizing Your Paperwork
  2. Are You a “Paper Stasher”?
  3. The “Less Paper” Challenge-Week 2


  1. ::giggle:: You haven’t seen my inbox! And, hey, I had a book on procrastination once. (Never got around to reading it!) …does that count?
    Rev. Stephen B. Henry, PhD. recently posted..You Have Chosen Well

  2. Debbie says:

    Last night I just went through and deleted many subscriptions that I never read. They just take time clicking delete everyday. I catch up on subscriptions once a week. Thank you for your article.
    Debbie recently posted..Try this experiment.

  3. Thanks, Trudy. You got me with the title, “Clear Your Inbox”. My paper mail is a trickle these days, but email is a torrent. I’ve recently begun zeroing out my email Inbox every morning, and it turns out I use virtually the same system you describe. It feels so good to unsubscribe and delete items that clog my attention, and I look forward to slowing my incoming email to potent trickle, too.
    Robbie Schlosser recently posted..The Wedding Marketing Blog: Why I Subscribe

    • Trudy says:

      Debbie and Robbie, thanks for your comments! Although my post was referring to clearing your “paper” inbox, you’re absolutely right Robbie that you could probably apply the same rules, more or less, to your email inbox. As with paper, 90% or more is probably trash– so just hit “delete.” The reference items can be filed away in folders (or filtered to go there immediately), and that hopefully only leaves a few action items. Add these to your task list or calendar just like you would if they were in paper form.
      Trudy recently posted..The “Less Paper” Challenge-Week 2

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