How to Get the Mail

Here’s one of the most basic productivity functions of all, and yet probably most of us never think about how we do it: Getting the mail.

I actually have to go get the mail right now. Why don’t I go do that, and then I’ll come back and summarize how I go through it.

Processing the Mail is the Same as Processing Your In-Box

OK, here we go. First, I’d normally actually just put it in my in-box, since it’s the middle of the afternoon, and process it the next time I process my in-box. And that’s the first point: The mail is just another form of input to be processed along with every other form of input you get. So in one sense I could stop this post right now, because getting the mail really reduces to processing your in-box. But, I will continue.

The Three Rules of Processing Stuff

Second, I go through the items one by one (very quickly). Looks like I have about 15 items. David Allen gives the three cardinal rules of processing, which apply here:

  1. Process the top item first
  2. Process one item at a time
  3. Never put anything back into in

The Two Questions when Processing Anything

Third, with each item I ask myself two questions: What is this? and What’s the next action? This is because before you can know what to do with something, you need to know what it is. Once you know what it is, you can determine how to handle it (that is, define the next action).

When No Action is Required

With most stuff, this is easy and takes about 0.25 seconds. Some things have no actions required. For example, an item of junk mail gets trashed.

Handling Quick Actions: The Two Minute Rule

Some things involve very quick actions. With these I apply David Allen’s “two minute rule”: if you can do it in two minutes or less, do it right away. So a newsletter or such from an organization I give to gets a quick look, for example, and then I toss it (or determine the larger action required by it and process it accordingly).

Handling Longer than Two Minute Actions

Then there are some things that involve more than 2 minutes of action. I have something in this category before me right now: the statement for my money market account. I have actually noticed that 90% of my 2-minute plus actions that come up fall into 1 of 6 categories. I’ve set up a group of pending files for these: bills to pay, notes to process, receipts to enter, other financial to enter, to read, and to file. This one falls into the “other financial to enter” category—I need to reconcile this with my Quicken–, so I put it in that file. (I go through those files every Saturday, by the way—I wouldn’t put anything in an action file without a regularly scheduled task to actual dispense of those actions. I put these regularly scheduled actions on my “action calendar,” which I’ll talk about down the road)

Now I have before me two post cards that the grandparents sent to our kids (ages 5 and 3) while they were on their trip to DC. I put these to my right in a temporary “out” pile, which is where I put stuff that I need to give to my wife or kids or take somewhere else in the house.

The next item is my 2009 vehicle tabs. Here I have two things to do: The stickers themselves go in my “out” box, and I will put them on my car when I take that stuff to where it goes. But I also want to keep the registration card that came with them, so I put that in my “to file” pile.

The next item is something from Dish Network saying I have to upgrade my DVR with these new smart cards they’ve sent, or it will stop working in two weeks. Good grief. This is why life is so complicated and we need productivity systems in the first place.

Now I have my IRA statement. There is a newsletter with an article on “what you need to know about bear markets,” which I’ll give 10 seconds to. There is also an update to the “custodial agreement” (whatever that is). In previous years I probably would have filed that with my IRA stuff, but I’m getting tired of the information glut, so I’m just going to throw that away. I put the actual statement into my “other financial to enter” file.

Now I have my mortgage statement. We’re not on automatic withdrawal because we plan on moving soon and I wanted to save the time of setting that up. Not sure if that actually saved me time, but oh well. I put the bottom portion in my “bills to pay” file and the actual statement in my “to file” pile.

There are a few magazines that I put in my “to read file,” and now I’m done. Now what I’m going to do is quickly take my “out” stuff where it goes (put the post cards for our kids in my wife’s in box, the tabs on the car, and that smart card in my DVR), file my “to file” stuff, and get on with my day. On Saturday morning I’ll clear out the two minute plus actions that I put into my “other financial to enter” and “bills to pay” files.

Nothing this time involved a project (a more-than-two-action outcome) or had to go on my next action list. Down the road I’ll be posting some about those lists and how to use them effectively.