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13 Sep

Why you need a physical inbox

Datum: 2021-09-13 14:08

If you nev­er ever han­dle phys­i­cal papers in your work, you can stop read­ing this struc­ture tip now. You can also con­sid­er your­self lucky to be part of a very small minor­i­ty amongst my clients and readers.

Because even though every­thing is becom­ing increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal­ized, most of us still have some flow of papers and phys­i­cal material.

We pur­chase some­thing and get a receipt. We make notes dur­ing meet­ings in a notepad. We exchange busi­ness cards with some­one who we are hop­ing will become a client. We scrib­ble some­thing we mustn’t for­get on a piece of paper. Some sup­pli­ers still send us invoic­es via reg­u­lar mail. Col­leagues place a print­ed list on our desk and ask us to take a look at it and tell them what it will take to get the sit­u­a­tion sort­ed. Dur­ing a phone call we write down key­words and facts on a Pos­tIt so that we will not for­get what we agreed on.

So, regard­less if we try to min­i­mize it, we still have a flow of papers.

Miss few­er things
Even if you still do most of your work in a dig­i­tal for­mat, you still need a phys­i­cal inbox in your office. You will then have a giv­en place where you can put all the paper (and oth­er phys­i­cal items) which you still have not processed and addressed. And hav­ing a phys­i­cal inbox will pro­vide your col­leagues with a clear­ly des­ig­nat­ed place to put things they want you to look at or deal with, instead of tap­ing it to your com­put­er screen or plac­ing it across your com­put­er key­board. You will know if there is new mate­r­i­al which you haven’t decid­ed what to do with yet and which might con­tain unde­fined to-do-tasks which as soon as pos­si­ble need to be trans­ferred to your to-do-list so that you can set accu­rate pri­or­i­ties tak­ing all tasks into consideration.

Only one chan­nel in, just like in your e‑mail
If you do not have a phys­i­cal inbox you might just put down what­ev­er you have in your hand on any emp­ty sur­face since there is space for it there”. Before you know it, you are just shuf­fling papers on your desk to try get­ting some order in the chaos, get an overview and try to some­how know what to get start­ed on next (and you for­get your to-do-list, where many of the tasks not phys­i­cal­ly present on your desk are listed).

Not hav­ing a phys­i­cal inbox is like not hav­ing an e‑mail inbox, and just let­ting the e‑mails you receive ran­dom­ly spread out on your com­put­er desk­top. If this were the case it would be vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to deter­mine what just came from out­side, and what you placed on your desk­top to have it eas­i­ly avail­able. This is why it is so much bet­ter hav­ing a list (the e‑mail inbox) where the most recent­ly received mes­sage is placed at the top, and it is very clear when you have read and processed every­thing (since the inbox then is empty).

An inbox is an inbox is a mailbox
But the phys­i­cal inbox is not a stor­age-place, just as the e‑mail inbox isn’t where you should ulti­mate­ly store and save your cor­re­spon­dence (so you should per­haps try avoid­ing get­ting an inbox that is too big and has high edges, so that you aren’t tempt­ed to let too much remain in it). You process it in the same way as you process your e‑mail inbox, mean­ing that you make a deci­sion on what some­thing means to you and what you need to do with it, item by item (paper, book­let, note, et c). Some things end up on the to-do-list, some on the overview of greater and more exten­sive tasks, oth­ers are saved as ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al while wait­ing for you to need it.

Just as you should not store e‑mails direct­ly in the inbox (but rather filed away in sub­fold­ers, in a sub­fold­er-struc­ture or in an exter­nal loca­tion), you should strive to emp­ty this phys­i­cal inbox com­plete­ly once in a while as well; prefer­ably dai­ly, but if this is not pos­si­ble, then at least once a week. But, the longer you leave it full, the more dif­fi­cult and tedious it will be to process it since papers have a ten­den­cy to pile up once there is just a sin­gle one in the inbox. You see, you reluc­tance to putting one paper in the inbox is greater than adding that fifti­eth one which doesn’t appear to make much difference.

Do this

  1. If you haven’t already, pur­chase an inbox. Or, if you would rather do some­thing else, mark out the one sur­face on your desk where the new­ly arrived, not yet processed mate­r­i­al lands. Out­line the sur­face by col­ored and striped scotch-tape, draw, cut out and paste a heli­pad to you desk, write a note for your col­leagues that reads This is where I want you to put what you are drop­ping off for me!”, or do some­thing else.

  2. Make it your goal to emp­ty the inbox once a week, but try to emp­ty it daily.

  3. Think of a reward that you give your­self every week after suc­cess­ful­ly hav­ing achieved an emp­ty inbox at least once. Eat a sweet, book a mas­sage, enjoy a lux­u­ri­ous cof­fee, buy some flow­ers, take a nice walk or do what­ev­er you would look for­ward to doing.

  4. When some­thing is placed in the inbox by some­one (or by your­self), try address­ing it as soon as pos­si­ble and cre­ate a to-do-task, put it on the project-overview, make note if it regards some­thing you are wait­ing for some­one else to do, throw or store away, so that you quick­ly can get the phys­i­cal mate­r­i­al out of the inbox. This is what I mean by pro­cess­ing”.

  5. When you return from a trip, emp­ty your pock­ets and bag into the inbox and process every receipt, note and oth­er mate­r­i­al you have brought with you until the inbox again is empty.

No more piles
If you use a phys­i­cal inbox to col­lect all incom­ing mate­r­i­al, you will have few­er keep an eye on”-piles since you are pro­cess­ing the inflow of papers sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly and con­scious­ly. Few­er things will be for­got­ten or unin­ten­tion­al­ly neglect­ed since you make sure that the promise you made some­one is trans­ferred into a to-do-task which is tak­en into account in your dai­ly pri­or­i­tiz­ing amongst tasks. You also prac­tice the actu­al pro­cess­ing” which is a great skill to have when pro­cess­ing your dig­i­tal inbox as well.

What is your way?
How do you process the papers you can­not do any­thing about receiv­ing as quick­ly and eas­i­ly as pos­si­ble? Tell me!