6 Simple Steps to Make Mail & Paperwork Painless

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Creating Simple Systems, Part 1: Mail and Paperwork

While simplifying your life begins with reducing clutter, whether physical, emotional or mental … it doesn’t end there. If you simply reduce clutter, it won’t be long before the clutter’s back, with a vengeance. The way to keep things simplified is to create simple systems, and to make those systems a routine habit.

You probably have some systems already, whether you’ve thought about it or not. And if you haven’t given these systems much thought, they might not be great systems. For example, what’s your system for handling mail? Here’s an inefficient system: check your mail every so often, and then toss it on the first available surface, where it will pile up. When you finally get tired of the pile, you start opening all your mail, and discover that a few bills are already late. Then, you’ll leave the unopened mail on a pile on your desk or counter, including the now-paid bills along with other documents that haven’t been dealt with yet, piling up even higher until you dump it into a box or the trash.

Not the best system. Yours probably isn’t that bad, but you might be surprised at how many people have this kind of unintentional system. Let’s examine a more intentional system that will keep things uncluttered and organized.

You can figure out a system that works best for you, but here’s my suggestion:

  1. Create one “mail center” in your home for dealing with your mail and incoming paperwork. This should include an inbox for all incoming papers, a waste-basket (the simplifier’s most important tool!), a small filing system (just some manila folders in a drawer or file case is fine), and something to hold envelopes, stamps, your checkbook, pens and other needed tools.
  2. Inbox. All incoming mail, school papers, and other paperwork goes straight into your inbox. Don’t toss them on a counter or the kitchen table or a desk. Put them in one place only: the inbox. It’s best if you remove the mail from the envelop right away, toss the envelopes and any junk flyers, and toss junk mail and catalogs right away — but even if you don’t, at least toss everything in the inbox.
  3. Process. Once a day (or once a week if you prefer), process all the papers in your inbox. Start with the top one, and deal with it completely, before moving down. Your choices: toss, file, take action immediately (if it takes 2 minutes or less) and then toss or file, or put it in an action folder and note it on your to-do list. Don’t ever postpone a decision on a piece of paper when you’re processing and put it back — make a decision and dispose of it, and then move on to the next item, until your inbox is empty.
  4. Pay bills immediately. While you’re processing your mail and paperwork, you can put all bills in a folder to be paid at a certain date (you might have two dates a month when you pay bills, for example, or a weekly bills day). But another alternative is to just pay the bill on the spot, as soon as you’re done processing your inbox. Either write a check and put the bill and check in an envelope to be dropped in the mailbox tomorrow, or go to your computer and pay the bills online. Either way, the bill is taken care of, and off your mind.
  5. Enter stuff into your to-do lists or calendar. For papers that contain tasks or appointments or schedules, you’ll want to enter the tasks on your to-do list immediately, and enter any dates into your calendar immediately (I use Gcal). I even enter all my kids’ soccer games, school events, and other activities in Gcal, and then just file the school papers or schedules in a “school papers” folder so I can refer to it later if necessary.
  6. File immediately. Once you’ve paid a bill or taken action on a piece of paper, you should file it immediately (unless you can toss it). Don’t let it sit on your counter, or pile up in a “to be filed” pile or folder, or go back into your inbox. File it right away. Set up a simple filing system with manila envelopes, labeled with the name of the billing company or utility, along with folders for other important documents in your life, and use a simple alphabetical filing system so you can find things immediately. Always have a stack of manila folders and labels on hand (some people even recommend a handy Brother label-maker) so you can create a new folder quickly if you need it. The trick to filing is to do it right away and not let it pile up.

That’s it. No papers should ever be anywhere except the inbox or in your filing system. It’s simple and efficient. The trick is to make this a habit, and stick to it like a routine. Have set times of the day or week when you process your inbox and pay your bills. Create a simple system like this, and you eliminate the clutter and the worry.