Closed September 2017

Facing the Giant Mail Pile

Tallstackofpaper2 I just went on vacation for two weeks (to ITALY!), then returned home, repacked my suitcase, and was gone another week speaking for Goodwill in Atlanta and going to several days of meetings in San Diego. Whew! Glad to be home! And what did I find upon my return?


You've all seen it yourselves… one of your neighbors was kind enough to put all of the mail into a big box for you while you were gone, and when your tanned and relaxed self sees it, your heart skips a beat and you try not to audibly gasp. Here's how to approach the pile and conquer it quickly:

  • Set aside all reading material. If you want to separate magazines from catalogs that's fine too. You'll find that reading material makes up the bulk of the pile. Recycle what you know you won't read (remember, there is hardly ever such a thing as "catch up on your reading time"). Seeing how much smaller the pile looks should have you feeling very relieved already.
  • Sort the rest, without opening envelopes yet. Opening the envelopes is very time consuming, and you can usually anticipate what many things are without opening them. That will come later. Here are the categories that will usually result, based on our Action-Reference-Trash (ART) method:
  • ACTION (things you need to do something with):

– Mail to give to someone else in your family
– Bills you need to review and pay
– Other envelopes that are likely to require filling out forms or making calls
– Coupons you'd like to review and possibly use
– Items you are uncertain about and need to open and review

  • REFERENCE (things you need to file for later, no action needed):

– Statements or correspondence you need to file away or scan
– Other envelopes that obviously contain reference information that needs filing

  • TRASH (garbage, recycling, or shredding):

– Obvious junk mail
– Other mail you know you don't want or need

  • Next, distribute what you've sorted.

– Give family members their own mail
– Put reading material where people will read it (basket, coffee table, etc.)
– Recycle and shred as needed
– Take Action and Reference items to a desk or table where you can process them.

  • Open the Action items first (use a letter opener to make it easier). Bills are most important to open first, then other known actionable letters, then the "unknown" pile. Save coupon packs and the Reference items for last.
  • Once you've opened everything and sorted it, you should end up with:

– A few small stacks of various types of things you actually need to do
– Items to file, either for your "To File" basket, to scan, or to put directly in your file folders
– Items that need to be delegated or just given to someone else
– A stack of things that need to be distributed (trash, shredding, recycling, coupons)

There, now, do you feel better? All of that bulk can really get reduced to a few small DO-ABLE stacks in about an hour if you put your decision-making hat on and focus.

This process can also be used for any accumulation of mail, regardless of whether you went on vacation. I know many people have trouble processing their mail regularly and I have gone through it with them during our work. There are many ways to do it, but this is effective for lots of situations.

What do you think? How do you make your mail pile seem less scary? Share in the comments!

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One Comment

Janet K

This is a great method for mail handling. I realized it also works perfectly for the first week of school when kids bring home a TON of paperwork for parents to sort through. With a middle schooler and an elementary child I couldn’t believe all the paperwork I had. I sorted it into the same three piles: Action (fill it out, return to kid/school); File it; Recycle. Thanks, Lorie!


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