Paper In…Then What?

The biggest hole right now in my personal productivity system: processing physical items.

A lot of paper comes into our lives. Each item represents a potential commitment — a phone call to make, a reply to send, a book to read. So they all need to be reviewed.


Every piece of paper that comes into my life goes into my physical inbox, which is literally a black metal tray on my desk. That includes postal mail, papers I want to save, books that people give me, magazines to read, index cards with scribbled notes; everything.

Then, separately, I take some time to process my inbox. I pick up the top item, figure out what needs to be done (send an email, file it, trash it; whatever), do it, and move on to the next item. I go through the entire inbox that way.

In addition, I have a tickler file, which is a set of 43 folders, one for each day of the month and one for each month of the year. I file reminders in there for future events, articles to re-read, monthly or yearly chores, etc. Every day—ideally—I take out that day’s folder, dump its contents in my inbox, and file the (now empty) folder in the back of the tickler.

But I don’t do the above nearly often enough. I process my inbox maybe twice a week, and my tickler maybe once a week. This is bad—I sometimes miss reminders and birthday cards.

And I don’t know how to do better. I can just purpose to process these every day, but that’s wishful thinking with no external component. I need some way to remind myself to do it.

So, for now, I’m stuck. But I’m thinking about it. I may tie it to my end-of-the-workday email review, so once I’m done with emails I’ll process my physical stuff. Worth a try.

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