Incoming To-Do's

by Ramona Creel

The Incoming Tide

Most of the to-do's in life come attached to a piece of paper — registration forms to fill out, bills to pay, correspondence, invitations, school calendars, things to read and file. When you receive a document that requires some action on your part, what do you do first? Put it in a stack on your desk, where it will sit for weeks or months, until you receive another piece of paper reminding you about that to-do that you forgot? If you just take a second to get organized when a new document first enters your life, you can almost guarantee that it will get “to-done” on time. Start by sorting your current to-do's according to the action required. Ask yourself what you need to do with each item to get it off of your plate. Then create a set of “action files,” based on your answers. Each day, take 5 minutes to go through the day's incoming mail, placing each document in the appropriate file. Your action file should sit out in a file box or rack, placed in plain view, wherever you go through your mail. It will include categories like:

  • “to pay”
  • “to file”
  • “to contact”
  • “to buy”
  • “to read”
  • “to enter in computer”
  • “to put on calendar”
  • “to reconcile”
  • “to give to _________”

You can also put handwritten notes into your folders (ex: a list of people to call in the “to contact” file) if an action item doesn't come with a corresponding piece of paper. Now each document has a set place to live until you tackle it, and you can easily see exactly what types of to-do's are on your plate.

Getting It All Done

How do you make sure that these action items actually get acted on? Don't wait until you have time. You might say, “I'll get to it when I have time” — but you'll never have time! It's amazing how your schedule seems to fill up with a million other activities, how you have space for everything except the tasks you don't like doing in the first place. Administrative work like “to-do's” and filing and bill-paying aren't fun, but they are necessary for keeping your life running smoothly, for keeping you organized. If you want to get them done, you must make time.

Schedule a regular weekly appointment with yourself , maybe an hour or two, once or twice a week — and block off that slot for “admin time”. During admin time, your goal is to go through each folder in order and try to complete every item inside. If you can't complete that item for some reason, put it back in the folder and tackle it during your next admin period. And if you finish one step (say, paying a bill), but then realize that you have another step to take with that paper (perhaps calling to correct a billing error), move it to the appropriate folder for that next step.

You will, occasionally, run into to-do's that have very strict deadlines — bills to pay, registering for a conference, sending in a permission slip for your kid's field trip, disputing a charge on your credit card, etc. As you sort through incoming paperwork, note any item that has a specific due date (especially if it is going to arrive before your next admin day), and record it in your calendar — along with a note of the folder in which that document is stored. These tasks are to be taken care of as part of your routine that day — treat them as a priority and get them done first thing in the morning, before you get busy or distracted.

If you follow this system, you will have no reason to miss a deadline or pay a bill late — and you don't have to continually worry, “When will I get it all done”, because you know that any to-do's will be taken care of during your next regular admin period.

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.