How to Stay Organized With a Tickler File

19. April 2013 09:06 by Calvin Yu in Productivity  //  Tags: , ,   //   Comments

During your quest to become a master of Inbox Zero, you’ll inevitably come across stuff in your inbox that doesn’t seem to have a home of its own. As we already know from experience, any stuff that doesn’t have a home, by default, makes its home right there in your inbox, along with all the other homeless stuff that gets piled up on top of it. 

Usually homeless stuff comes in the form of reminders. Reminders become the vagrants of your inbox simply because there’s unfinished business associated with it that prevents you from filing it away. So how do you deal with reminders?

What if I told you that there actually is a home for all those vagrant reminders? That home is a tickler file! And in this blog post, I’ll describe how this useful tool will ensure that no reminder is ever left forgotten or left sitting there in your inbox.  If I didn’t have this system, I don’t know how I would have grown remembered all the things to do for my toner cartridge business.

What is a Tickler File?

A tickler file is a reminder system that works in conjunction with your calendar and allows you to essentially “mail” physical items, such as bills, notes and paperwork, to yourself on specific future dates. It consists of a physical filing system of 43 folders - 12 folders for each month of the year and 31 folders for each day of the month. 

Let’s say that you get a bill in the mail that you want to handle three weeks from now. Most people would probably leave that bill in their inbox until the time came to handle it. With a tickler file at the ready, you simply drop that bill into the appropriate folder dated three weeks from now and presto!...That bill is now gone from your inbox and into a trusted system that won’t let you down.

And that’s the real beauty of a tickler file system. It’s a great solution for getting things out of your face that you don’t need to spend your precious attention on right now, yet it makes those items “magically” reappear when it’s time to deal with them.

Some Potential Uses of a Tickler File

What are some common applications of a tickler file? Here are a few common uses:

  1. Mailing yourself reports and support materials needed for a future meeting.
  2. Reminding yourself of bills that need to be paid before a certain date. This is great for avoiding late penalties and for maximizing your cash flow situation. 
  3. Revisiting purchases that you were considering on getting. You can either use your tickler file to give yourself a “cooling off” period before you make a large ticket purchase, or you can postpone a purchase and revisit it later when the budget is there to actually buy it.
  4. Keeping event tickets safe until the day you need them.
  5. Reminding yourself about upcoming events. Contemplating going to a conference, seminar or event, but haven’t made up your mind yet? Just throw the event brochure into your tickler file and revisit it later.
  6. Keeping travel information & documents safe. Put your passport, maps and other pertinent travel information in your tickler file for safe-keeping until the day you need it.
  7. Storing your hotel reservations and information.
  8. Mailing yourself coupons that should be used before the expiration date passes.
  9. Storing pre-written birthday cards to be sent on specific dates. This is great if you have a bunch of birthdays spread out across the month. You can batch them all together, get them all done and put each one in the appropriate folder to be mailed out on that particular day so they arrive just in time.
  10. Reminding yourself of items to be mailed off on a specific date. 
  11. Reminding yourself of subscription expirations & renewals.
  12. Reminding yourself about car and house maintenance jobs. 
  13. Giving yourself random moral-boosters. Everyone needs a little dose of positivity every now and then. Take something meaningful like an inspirational quote, a picture of a loved one(s) or even a letter addressed to your future self and “mail” it to yourself with your tickler file. It’ll bring a smile to your face when you receive it.

So Why Not Use a Calendar as a Reminder System?

If you’re a GTD purist, then you probably know that the space on your calendar is sacred and it should only be used for hard commitments and reminders, such as appointments, birthdays and deadlines. Your tasks and loose reminders should remain distinctly separate from your calendar items so that you can glance at your calendar during your daily review and immediately know what your time commitments are for that particular day. 

A tickler file compliments your calendar. It serves to house those items that you’d like to remind yourself of in the future as well as a container to house physical support documents that are necessary for that particular day, such as a spare key, a report or event tickets. Ultimately, your tickler file serves the purpose of de-cluttering your calendar so that it remains an effective time management tool for you.

Setting Up Your Tickler File

GTD tickler system using foldersSetting up your tickler file is both simple and inexpensive. You’ll need the following materials:

  • A narrow file box. Make sure it’s big enough to hold 43 manila folders and avoid getting a large file box because your folders won’t stay upright. You can find a narrow file box at any office supply store. Optionally, you can use the file drawer of your desk if you have one.
  • 12 colored manila folders. These will be used as your monthly folders. Colors are optional, but they do make identification a lot easier. If you’re going to be using your desk filing cabinet as your tickler file, then these should be hanging file folders instead of manila ones.
  • 31 plain manila folders. Make sure you get the manila folders with the tabs all in one spot for easier review. The manila folder packs with the assorted tab placements make a mess of your tickler file system.

Start by labeling each month of the year onto the 12 colored file folders. Then get the 31 day folders and label each one numerically from 1 to 31. Get your file box and place the monthly folders in the box with January facing you and December at the back of the box. Send those monthly folders that have already passed to the back of the file box. The current month should be the closest one to you. Insert the 31 day folders in the current month’s folder. Remove the days that have already passed and send them to the next month's folder. For example, if today is January 10th, then I'd remove day folders 1-9 from the January folder and send them to the February folder. Congratulations, your tickler system is now ready to use!

At the beginning of each day, take the current day's folder out of the tickler file and dump the contents into your inbox for processing. That empty folder then gets inserted at the back of the next month's folder. All the items in that folder then get processed according to standard GTD methodology. At the end of the month, the expired month’s folder gets put at the very back of the tickler file.

If you have an item that needs to be tickled beyond the 31 days, simply place it in the appropriate month’s folder and when you reach that month, empty out the contents for processing and re-assignment to one of the 31 day folders if necessary. The beauty of this system is that you’ve created a perpetual reminder system that never expires.

Analog Versus Digital Tickling

GTD tickler system in EvernoteOn one corner, there’s the GTD purists who stay true to the analog version of the tickler file system originally described by David Allen. On the other corner, are the techies who love to take the philosophy of the tickler system and hack it with the latest technology. Which one is better?

Well, who says that you can’t use both analog and digital tickling systems integrated together? Then you have the best of both worlds. Digital tickling makes it simple to send reminders, notes and emails to yourself. Analog tickling really helps for handling stuff that’s not digital, like files, reports, tickets and small items. I say use whatever you’re most comfortable with, but I’m a digital person that utilizes Evernote with GTD.

One idea for trying out digital tickling without downloading any new software is simply to use your existing email system. Most email systems nowadays allow you to send delayed emails. This is a wonderful feature because it allows you to write emails that can be sent later on to people and it allows you to send messages and forward emails to yourself on specific dates as well. Those emails that seem to linger in your inbox can now get forwarded to yourself on a specific date, allowing you to clear your inbox of those pesky lingering emails.

Getting Into the Habit

While the tickler file is a fantastic and versatile reminder system, it’s main crutch is that you actually have to develop the habit of using it every day otherwise it won’t work as a trusted reminder system. Most people who claim that tickler files don't work simply never got into the habit of regularly using them in the first place and without systematically checking your tickler file daily, the system breaks down. Experts generally agree that it takes about 21 days of unbroken practice to develop a habit, so start today and make tickling a regular productivity practice.

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