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How to Manage Mail in Four Steps

Get control of paper clutter by managing your mail


Learning how to manage mail is a surprisingly daunting organizing task because you can't just visually organize mail, you've got to read and touch every document in order to file or discard. The best route to solid management is to cut down on the amount of paper coming into your home. Read on for how to manage mail in four steps.

1. Reduce the amount of mail you receive by stopping the influx junk mail.

How to manage mail in four steps.
Photo / Bedford Lateral File Cabinet two from Pottery Barn

I swear if I am ever lost, the J Crew catalog will find me first. Cutting down on the amount of junk mail you receive will cut the amount of time you spend managing your mail. Less mail = less time.

Bonus: It's good for the environment. Find out how to Stop Junk Mail.

2. Schedule time to organize and manage your mail.

Cabo Basket Rectangular by Design Ideas - Large
Photo / Design Ideas

Most people sort through mail while walking in the door after work and often stop in the middle to put away their coat or turn their attention to what's for dinner. Resist the urge to manage mail until you have the time and attention to give to this task.


  1. If you sort on your way in the door, chances are you are not prepared to manage your mail at that time. You need the right tools (below) and the attention to decide how to use or discard each piece.
  2. Never touch a piece of paper more than once if you don't have too. This is what makes paper management so exhausting: you have to read it each time! Wait until you're ready to manage and discard.

Follow the Weekly Organizing Routine, where we manage the mail on a weekly basis.

3. Have the right tools to discard of, recycle, or respond to your mail.

Fellowes P-12C Cross-Cut Shredder with SafeSense
Photo / Fellowes

Nothing fancy, but have the following at hand:

  1. Shredder -Anything with identifying information beyond your name and address should be shred immediately.
  2. Recycling Bin - Most mail can be recycled immediately (think: coupons, fliers, announcements).
  3. Filing System & Calendar - For the mail you need to take action on either immediately or in the future.

By "at hand," I really mean at hand. Don't have your shredder and recycling bin in separate rooms. I manage my mail standing over both the recycling bin and shredder, and then I bring the mail I need to take action on over to my desk where I have my calendar and a desktop filing system set up. I recommend a separate desk top file box, as well as a archival filing cabinet for mail organization.

4. Organize a system for incoming mail.

There are 3 'end games' for every piece of mail:

  1. Action - Mail you need to take action on right away or eventually. This kind of mail will be broken down into further categories like archive/reference, response, action, etc.
  2. Recycle - Junk mail that has no value to you and no identifying information on it beyond your name.
  3. Shred - Any piece of mail that has any identifying information on it beyond your name and address. This would include social security numbers, dates of birth, credit card offers, etc. Not sure if you should recycle or shred? See What to Shred and read more on identity theft: How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft.

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