8 Tips for Handling Mail (the Old-Fashioned Kind) More Efficiently

From Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, here are some tips on what to do with your snail mail.

Last week, I posted 5 realistic tips for using email more efficiently, but ye olde paper post continues to deliver a large stack to my door, too. After much trial and error, I developed a system that works very well for me to keep the pile manageable.

One key to my system is the physical lay-out of my mail-processing area. I stand in front of a chest-of-drawers in my hallway. It has a wastebasket on one side of it, and it’s near the door to our service hallway, which holds our recycling stack, and it has drawers that I use as part of my system. The hall is near the kitchen, where my “special drawer” (see below) is located.

1. Every day, without fail, I go through the mail to throw away junk mail and to put catalogs in the recycling bin. I don’t know if this is still her habit, but my sister (who, despite her many virtues, is not a paragon of order) used to let her mail stack up for several days before she tackled it. I think it’s much easier to do this every day. An obvious but important trick here is to have a wastebasket in the exact place where you sort the mail. Make it easy!

2. We still get paper magazines. Lots of paper magazines. Something like 22 different publications, at last count. Many people display magazines on their coffee table or on magazine racks, and I did this for years without thinking about it, but then it hit me—the stack looked so messy. The magazines were always sliding around or getting in our way. Now, as I sort the mail, I put the magazines in the bottom drawer of the chest.

3. Speaking of magazines, I developed a great system: when I’ve read a magazine, I tear the bottom half of the cover. That way, I know whether I’ve read it or not, and so does my husband. Once he’s read it, he knows whether he can recycle it or whether he needs to save it for me. And I never grab a magazine to read on the subway, only to discover that I’ve already read the issue.

4. I open bills, toss all the extra paper, and keep only the parts that I need. That way, it’s faster when I pay the bills. (I should probably go paperless, and for some bills, I have, but I’m still suspicious of that system.)

5. I open my husband’s mail, too. If there’s anything he needs to read, I put it on the top of the chest, where he puts his wallet and keys every night. After he ignores his mail for two or three days, I chase him around the apartment until he deals with it.

6. In my office, I have a folder, “Upcoming events and invitations,” where I keep invitations, directions, school notices and calendars, tickets, reminder notices, and any other information related to upcoming events. As they arrive, I carry all this material up to my office. I rsvp to invitations as soon as I can, and I write “yes” on an invitation after I’ve responded, so I know I’ve done it. Why do I like this system? Because…

7. While a lot of people keep invitations on their refrigerator, put theater tickets tacked to a cork board in the hallway, pile notices on their kitchen counters, to me, this is visual clutter. I have no cork board, keep my fridge bare, and make a daily sweep of papers off the counters. I tuck all this material away in that folder in my filing cabinet. Clean surfaces contribute to a calm mind; in fact, one of my resolutions is to Clear a surface.

8. In the kitchen, I treasure my “special drawer.” That’s where I keep bills to be paid, stamps, envelopes, tape, scissors, glue, labels, return-address stamp, all that stuff. (Also the lovely stationery that my sister gave me a few years ago, which I’m finally putting to use—spend out.) As the bills come in, I put them in a pile in the drawer, and every several days I take them out and pay them.

By Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. Buy The Happiness Project book here!