The inbox or basket is a standard office tool, but it is not commonly used correctly. Most, if not all, of my clients’ organizing woes could be cured with the proper use of the inbox. I can preach and preach, but it is the actual habit of using the inbox correctly that must be done consistently to see results.

David Allen, author of the seminal “Getting Things Done,” first taught me about how to use the inbox strategically. I have to give him credit, because after I learned his method of desk organization in 1998, I was off and running, able to work half the time for twice the results. And my office looked fabulous.

The most common mistake people make is to use the inbox as a storage spot. That totally defeats its purpose. Ideally, the inbox would be emptied on a daily basis, with each item going directly into a file system or put back into its home. More realistically, I get my inbox emptied at least once a week, and it’s usually on a day off, when I have the time to think clearly and see the task of emptying all the way through.

Another mistake people make is to use the inbox only for paper items. It is ideal for paper, and is usually just a touch larger than an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper, but I’m in favor of a slightly bigger inbox or other lidless container that can fit a wider variety of stuff. This week, my inbox contained the following:

  • a dress that I’m retiring from my “real” closet and need to put into a costume bin
  • Bank statements I need to check
  • a newspaper article I want to read
  • an external hard drive to remind me to back up my computer
  • a note from a friend that needs a reply
  • scraps of paper with ideas for future columns on them
  • a few business cards to put into my contact list
  • various receipts

Keeping all these items corralled in “In” means that my desk stays tidy until I’m ready to deal with them. Dealing with them does not necessarily mean finishing each task. If it’s a matter of a simple phone call or of inputting contact information into my phone, I’m likely to “just do it.” I would, for example, stick the dress directly into the costume bin.

I might not reply to the note, however, because it would take some thought, I would need to buy a notecard, or whatever. The note reminder would go into my Action file at the front of my file drawer. If I didn’t have a minute to read the newspaper article, I would stick it into my Reading file, which is right behind my action file.

An effective inbox does necessitate the existence of a good filing system. If I have receipts to file, it is nice to open a file drawer and put them directly into a Receipts 2015 folder. But if you don’t have a file for something that needs one, make it right when you decide you need it. That is not an action to put off; it will only delay your organizational bliss.

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Please don’t ever put something into “In” that you already know is trash. Save yourself the extra step and throw any junk mail or receipts that you don’t require for insurance or tax purposes away post haste.

Also, if you know where something goes and have the time and energy to put it away, do it now rather than add the extra step into the inbox.

Seeing the bottom of the inbox at least once a week gives me such a feeling of not only accomplishment, but also of security. I can be certain there is not some buried bill or forgotten phone call buried under an overwhelming load of paper. Using the inbox correctly also prevents constant searching for papers— if everything goes into “In” for processing, a “lost” piece of paper can only be in one place. Get rid of all the various stacks and piles of paper around the office or kitchen and install an inbox. Use it right and it will change your life—no exaggeration.

Angela Hoxsey is a professional organizer based in the Napa Valley. For information about her services, go to www.houseinorder.com or call 707-738-4346. Sign up at the website to receive upcoming Season of Order and Season of Style quarterly tips.

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