Trouble Spots: Mail

I spoke at an event last month on the topic of decluttering and opened it up at the end for people to ask questions.  One of the ladies, who had heard me speak before and knew my answer, asked for me to explain what I do to avoid the dreaded mail clutter.  It was a reminder to me about the things that we all do every day that we don’t give a second thought, but that can be enlightening and helpful to others.

And since that was why this little blog party started, we’re talking about mail today.  And how not to let it overtake your life.  Or, at the very least, your kitchen counter.

Any organizing expert will tell you that the number one rule for dealing with mail is to only touch it once.  The idea being that action should be taken with each piece on the day that it is received.  Doing this is the game-changer when it comes to conquering mail clutter.

My husband brings the mail in when he gets home from work and sets it on our kitchen island.  It’s not an ideal spot, but we don’t have a “drop zone” and putting it in a high-traffic area reminds me to do something with it.  I know that train of thought doesn’t work for everyone, but piles that I see every time I walk by our kitchen are motivation enough for me to do something with it.  I understand that a lot of people see a pile and have the “I just don’t want or have the time to deal with it” mentality.  For those people, I say redefine what ‘deal with it’ means.  “Deal with it” doesn’t have to mean taking all required action, but it does mean becoming aware of the action it requires and setting a time to do just that.

STEP ONE: Open ALL of the mail the day that you get it.  Not just the fun stuff.  Don’t ignore the bill that you don’t want to see.  You have to open it at some point, so why procrastinate the inevitable?

STEP TWO: Make piles.  What piles you have are going to depend on the kind of mail you get, but generally speaking, you should have the following piles:
1) Garbage
2) Shred (we don’t do this.  I know, I know.  We’re in danger of identity theft.  I can hear my Grandfather’s voice in my head saying the same thing you’re thinking)
3) Catalogs & Magazines
4) Requires action (Bills, Forms, Surveys, etc.)

Let me say this about the garbage pile before we go on with what to do wth the piles.  What goes in this pile may seem obvious, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of us keep more mail than we really need to.  Outer envelopes are the obvious culprits.  This pile should also include return envelopes in bills that you pay electronically or informative inserts in bills (read them and then throw them).  Additionally, the stuff that you think you need or are going to do something with, but if you’re honest, won’t come to fruition.  Distinguishing what these items are is a learned habit and that means that it takes time.  As you open each peace, ask yourself ‘Do I REALLY need this?’ and ‘Am I REALLY going to take the time to do what I want to or feel like I should do with this?’.  If the honest answer to either of these questions is no, pitch it.  Sounds harsh, but the long-term payoff is worth it.

STEP THREE: Put piles in their respective spots.  Garbage goes in the garbage.  Rocket science.  The shred pile either gets shredded or goes in a pre-determined shred pile (that isn’t on your counter).  Magazines go to a spot where you will see them and actually read them.  Since that’s the reason you subscribed in the first place.  Catalogs get thumbed through within the day and then thrown away.  If you like to keep them or aren’t able to look through them right away, put them with your magazines.  If the Magazine/Catalog pile is getting taller than your children, it’s probably time to rethink those subscriptions.  If you’re not reading them, you’re wasting subscription fees and paper having them delivered to your house.

The ‘Requires Action’ pile goes to a spot that is in proximity to where you set mail when you bring it in to be dealt with at a later time.  The proximity piece is important because, if you’re like me, you’re lazy and bringing a stack of papers all the way downstairs is a deterrent and means the stuff doesn’t get where it should go.

We have a black letter tray on a shelf in our Living Room.  This tray conceals the mess of piles or papers of various sizes.  It’s also the first place we look when we’re looking for something important.  It’s like our paperwork purgatory.  The stuff in there hasn’t had any action taken on it yet, but it’s in there because we need it for something.

STEP FOUR: Choose a frequency for dealing with the stuff that requires action.  My husband is paid weekly, so I pay bills weekly.  Because the majority of what’s in our mail tray has to do with bills, I go through the tray on Thursdays so that all of it sorted and ready to pay bills on Friday.  We haven’t entered the stage of child-rearing that requires signed forms on a daily basis, but if that’s you, you may need to go through this tray two or three times a week.

The reason this system works is because by dealing with mail on a daily basis, it doesn’t allow it to pile up to the point of overwhelming-ness and because by having a designated spot where your important stuff goes gives it a destination and a purpose.

  • Aunt Cheri the Great
    May 11, 2017

    Brilliant!! ❤️

    • Susan colby
      May 14, 2017

      Great system. Pretty much what I already do except for the part about opening the mail every day. When it piles up to 2 or 3 days worth, it really becomes a chore. I am going to try to open every day now.

      One suggestion- could you add “recycling” as an alternative to garbage? I have a bin in my front hall closet and anything that is paper that does not get shredded goes there. We have curb side pickup every other week and it is usually full when I put it out.

      • Kristin
        May 14, 2017

        The Recycling pile is a fantastic suggestion! Our recycling is really picky about what paper they take, so we end up throwing most of it away, but recycling it is a MUCH better way to do it.

        Let me know how opening the mail every day affects your process. Props for trying to make small strides!

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