Managing the Mail


Mail is an inescapable fact of life. Faxes, e-mail, and overnight delivery services have not, it seems, reduced the amount that arrives from your postal carrier. The quantity of bills, junk, letters, catalogues, journals, and general correspondence can be overwhelming. If you let yourself fall behind, a day's worth of mail can be startling, but a week's worth can seem overpowering. It piles up everywhere: on the desk, on a table, on the top of the computer, stacked in boxes on the floor, with some of it even in your briefcase. When bills are paid late or invoices not processed quickly, then the phone calls begin. Here is a process for keeping mail under control.

  1. Throw away as much as you can unopened. Your most important ally is the waste basket.
  2. Open the mail by slitting open all envelopes in the stack first. Pull out the contents and lay them flat. Do not bother to put anything back into its envelope. For bills, throw away the envelope that it came in along with the other junk mail attached to it. Paper clip the bill, along with the return envelope, and lay it flat on your desk.
  3. Sort the remainder. When you sort, make a firm decision about what you are going to do with the item. Do not set things aside to decide later. If correspondence is related to a client, customer or project file, place it there immediately.
  4. For all the other items which do not have another home, here are two options for sorting the mail: by priority or by action. If you sort by action, sort into four categories—to dictate, to sign, to do today, to read. (Feel free to choose your own headings that best suit your purposes.) Place all items into one of these 4 categories. Do not allow exceptions or else your "unclassifiables" will take over.

Integrate these four groups of documents into your schedule. The writing or "to-dictate" group will require some concentration. Plan for that time. The "to-sign" items can be done in between other activities or while on hold on the phone. The "to-do today" items are added to your daily task list and worked according to their priorities. The "to-read" items go along with you while commuting, waiting for appointments or traveling. This system, which sorts by task, rather than by time, lets you know what your day holds.

Your second choice of sorting paperwork is using an A, B, C and D priority system. The A priority file contains items of high value and must be done today. B priority items are of high value but have a longer lead time—three or four days. C priority items are less important. They may or may not have a deadline attached. Some of these items you will do and some can be given to others to handle. Some will die a natural death. D priority items are to file or to distribute.

These four groups of documents are then integrated into your work schedule. A priority items will be completed by the end of the day, sometimes before noon. The B priority items are worked next, and the C's fit in as time allows. The fourth group, the D's, gets distributed or delegated promptly. This is a good system for jobs that require quick turnaround and are time-sensitive.

Success Tips

Both techniques work well, but choose one option, not both. Use no more than four or five folders into which you sort your mail—not ten or twelve. The more choices about where to put something, the greater the confusion and possibility of lost or misplaced items. With either system, the mail can be sorted by another person. The best way to eliminate the excess is to alert the sender that you do not want the items. Rather than doing that individually, remove yourself from junk mail lists by writing to: Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.

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