Paper trayAs a professor, it is essential to have one place in your office that is your “in-box” for all incoming physical items. For example, all your incoming mail, items to review from colleagues, letters to sign for students, paperwork to process for projects, etc. — all needs one and only one place to go (or be collected). The key idea to start with is that you need to designate and use limited locations (bins) for collecting the incoming items and then process daily what is in those bins. So, in this article, let’s talk about how to process (handle, deal with, etc.) your in-box — each day!

Consider the following suggestions for processing your physical “in-boxes.”

  1. Make sure your physical in-box container is large. Place it in a prominent place on your desk. Note: This means you have to have an open flat spot on your desk or a nearby credenza or shelf where you can safely place your in-box; (more on that in other articles)!
  2. Start by placing EVERYTHING in the in-box (regardless of whether it is a piece of paper, a notebook, a folder, a bill, a picture, whatever). Everything that needs to be processed  needs to go into your in-box. You can now see why, especially at the beginning of this new habit of dealing with everything that is coming in to you, you need to have a large in-box.
  3. Deal with (i.e., process) the items as you take them out of the in-box (vs. digging around in the in-box). In my workshops for professors on this topic, I will often liken the daily search through the in-box as resembling the turning of a raffle basket. You get the picture, I hope and that is NOT what we’re going for here. Get in the habit of taking an item out of the in-box and then actually dealing with it. Here are the ways to do that…

To process, ask: “What is this?” You may even want to consider writing the phrase “What is this?” on the box itself as a reminder.

  1. Next, ask: “Do I keep it or throw it away/recycle it?”
  2. If the answer is “throw it away/recycle,” then do so immediately.
  3. If the answer is “keep,” then ask, “What is the very next thing I need to do with this item?”
  4. If you can do the next action quickly, then take care of it right now. If it can’t be handled immediately, then ask, “When will I do it?”
  5. Write the VERY next action either on the item itself, on a sticky note, or on a piece of paper, and then staple or otherwise affix it to the item.
  6. Drop the item (or the piece of paper that tells where the item is) in your tickler file (1-31 file) on the day that you will handle it (based on your answer to the question in #4).

Naturally, you have to then actually DO the items that you have placed in your tickler file for a particular day. That’s another piece of being peacefully productive as a professor. For now, put the ideas in this article into place and use that as your starting point. You need to start somewhere and this is as good a place as any!

Workspace Clutter - PerspectiveAnd if you liked these tips you may be interested in the Get a Plan! Guide® to Ridding Your Workspace of Clutter part of the Get a Plan! Guides® series designed to give you the ideas and inspiration to do your work easier, faster, and in a more focused fashion