Rules of the Paper Inbox

Despite our reliance on electronic communication, most offices are still overrun with paper.


Despite the increasing volume of electronic communications in the workplace, most offices are still overrun with paper. Request forms, applications, interoffice mail, and other documents are circulated daily, which means most desk dwellers have an inbox. That’s right, a physical inbox.

But anyone who has spent an hour at a desk knows that the Laws of the Inbox are often violated—and that the "green office" is mostly a myth. Documents are left on chairs, taped to monitors, or worse yet, tossed onto our already crowded desks.

If you’re new to office culture, in need of a refresher course, or an admitted inbox violator, let these rules serve as a guide to make work a better place:

Define Your Inbox. An empty paper tray on your desk or plastic bin hanging on the side of your cubicle wall should be recognized as your inbox. Take the guesswork out of deliveries by clearly labeling it. This will save you from fielding questions such as, "Is this your inbox?" Refrain from answering, "No, it's there for decoration." Just because it's clear to you doesn't mean it will be obvious to others.

[See How to Avoid 7 Common On-the-Job Office Mistakes.]

Keep Your Inbox Neat. Letting too much paper accumulate in your inbox will worry the sender that leaving something behind will lack priority, or worse yet, fall into a black hole. Many productivity pros advise limiting the number of times you check your email each day, and the same principle can be applied to your inbox. Checking too frequently wastes time. Also, refrain from constantly removing contents. Leaving a few papers behind can send a message that you’re busy tackling other work.

Give Instructions. If you know someone will be delivering paperwork, be sure to mention that if you’re not at your desk, they should leave any documents in your inbox. You should be descriptive, detailing where the inbox is and what it looks like, for example, “If I'm not at my desk, please leave the memo in the black inbox on the left-side of my desk." It sounds ridiculous that you have to "sell" people on where to leave papers, but let's be honest: the people you work with are probably not as smart as you.

Don’t Lose the Small Stuff. Small items such as business cards or photos should be placed in a folder (secured with a binder clip) or stapled to a standard size piece of paper. Few people reach to the bottom of their inbox, and convincing your office manager to order you a clear one is not a battle worth having.

[See 7 Ways to Make a Difference on the Job.]

Deliver Rush Mail in Person. Intelligent workers know to check their inbox regularly, and if you leave a document, they will receive it. You might be asking yourself, what if the item is a rush or a priority? If a follow-up is necessary, do so via phone or by paying another visit later. In fact, if it's important, or if the documents are sensitive, they should be hand delivered at a later time.

Use the Inbox for Yourself. Upon leaving work, consider leaving yourself a brief note that will wait for pickup until the next day. It could be a work related reminder or a positive affirmation. The physical inbox is often the first thing we see in the morning, so consider using it to start your day off on the right foot.

People can talk all they want about saving trees. The reality is, we are far from the (mainstream) paperless office. So for the foreseeable future, do your duty and respect the inbox.

What other inbox laws would you like to establish?

Andrew G. Rosen is the founder and editor of, a career advice blog. He is also the author of How to Quit Your Job and an established freelance blogger who is available for hire. Follow him on Twitter (@jobacle) or connect on LinkedIn.


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