Tickler File

Table of Contents

1 What is a tickler file?

A tickler file is system that allows you to send something to yourself in the future for later action. It is a combination of a reminder system and a method of making documents available at a particular date in the future.

These systems have existed for many decades going under the name of "suspended files" or "follow-on" files and despite their simplicity are very effective for work-flow. The tickler file is essentially a simple file-folder system that allows you to store paper and other physical reminders and support materials that appear on the desired date in the future. You can be assured that filing something in your tickler file can be forgotten until the required date.

2 Setting up a tickler file

The simplest way to create a tickler file is to take 43 manila folders and label them 1 to 31 ("day" folders), as well as January through to December ("month" folders). The 43 folders were made up of 31 days and 12 months. Based on my experience I would suggest you use different colours for the month folder in order to locat them quickly.

Arrange the folders in sequence as follows. Start with today's date and choose the day numbers for the remainder of the month. Follow this with next month's folder, then the days from the 1st of the month up to yesterday, and finally the remaining months.

If you looked at the front of the tickler file on the 29th January, the folders will be sequenced as follows: 30, 31, February, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December. What happens if the month has less than 31 days? Place those folders behind the following month folder for storage.

The collection of folders should be stored in an easily accessible location so when you process your intray, you can file future-dated actions in the appropriate file.

Here is a photo of part of the front of my tickler file. I estimated the total cost of construction to be less than five Australian dollars.

Ticklers are handled using these 43 folders. I first learn about a tickler file, but didn't implement it (!!) from Kerry Gleeson's book "The Personal Efficiency Program" ( Published in 1994) in 1998 prior to reading David Allen's work. Here is an extract:

2.1 Kerry Gleeson describing a tickler file

"A Tickler File is usually divided in two parts: one is numbered 1-12, representing the months of the year; the other part is numbered 1-31, for the days of the month. The tickler file is used for longer-term pending and follow-through items.

By creating a tickler file system and checking it daily, you have a fail-proof reminder system. For example, suppose that I'm your client and we're scheduled to meet on December fifteenth. There are notes in your tickler file to remind you to call me on December thirteenth make sure everything is ready. In the file folder for the thirteenth there's also a note to confirm all of our appointments. Also in your tickler file at appropriate points throughout the month of December are items such as "Verify flight schedule" and "Check Chicago connection," along with a note reminding you to brief your assistant on the Lyman account so she can substitute for you in the meeting with them scheduled for December fifteenth.

The tickler file can be used for storage in a way that avoids clogging up your pending basket. For instance, suppose you have an agreement that you need to write, and you know it's going to take some hours. So you have all sorts of papers-perhaps a first draft to be rewritten by a given deadline. You haven't done this rewrite because you know from experience it will take at least two hours, and you don't have a two-hour block to devote to it until Thursday. So you block out two hours on Thursday's calendar, and you place the rough report in the tickler file for the eleventh, where you know you'll find it when you're ready to get down to work. Then, because it's your habit to check the tickler file each morning, on the eleventh you locate the rough draft in your file and check your calendar. Sure enough, you've blocked out time between 9 and 11 A.M. to work on the report. And when the final draft is completed, you'll place it into your out basket and route it to the next person involved.

Everything I am referring to in a paper tickler system equally applies to an electronic tickler system. It can be a specific personal information manager (PIM) software. Or a Wizard-type handheld organizer. Such electronic tickler systems often exist as part of an E-mail system. For those of us without administrative support, electronic systems are often more effective and easier to use than paper-based systems.

You can see why it's essential to check the tickler file daily. This is essence of the Do It Now philosophy. After checking the tickler file for the day, you know exactly what you must do to keep on schedule and accomplish the tasks that will move you further along in your work."

3 Using the tickler file

Each day you empty the contents of the next day's tickler file into your intray for processing. Then you place that "day" folder at the end of the day folders in the next month.

When you reach the end of the month, you empty the contents of the month folders and place it at the very back of the tickler file. Then you process what you just emptied and do whatever has to be done, for example, add to your Next Action lists, pay a bill, read, use, etc.

Filing things in the tickler file is just a matter of placing the item in the appropriate day folder (for items occurring in the next 30 days) or the month folder (for items requiring action more than one month into the future).

4 What can you put in a tickler file?

4.1 Bills

I still receive bills in the post and these always have a "Pay by " due-date. I usually place these bills about 4 days before the due date. Since I am employee of a company, I get paid on the 20th of each month, so more often I place the bills on the 22nd for processing together.

4.2 Monthly Reminders

I have a 3 x 5 card saying "PC backup" stored in the "30" day folder and this is a reminder to make a DVD backup of my system. I can leave this card out as a reminder to do the backup, and when complete, return it to the "30" file. Alternatively, I write "PC Backup" on my COMPUTER-context Next Action list.

4.3 Annual Reminders

Reminders for annual events can be placed in the appropriate month folder. For example, the July folder is used to store a reminder to prepare my tax return (Australian Financial Year ends on 30th June).

4.4 Longer Term Reminders

A couple of years ago I bought a new Braun electric shaver. The instructions said to replace the blades in 18 months time. How could I remember that? I wrote a card saying "Replace Braun blades - October 2006" and placed it in the October folder. However the October folder appeared in 6 months time (remember it was an 18 month reminder), so I left the reminder in the folder to reappear in 12 months time.

4.5 Birthdays and Anniversaries

I have created an index card with each person's name and birthday then placed it in the appropriate month folder. In the case of people whose birthday fals in the first 10 days of the month, I store the card in the previous folder. An advantage of using cards is you can record a note of what you gave or did for that person's birthday, to avoid the embarrassment of repeating last year's gift.

If you are one of those organised people who buys greeting cards in bulk or at a particular time of the year, you could store the card (with enevloped addressed) in the tickler file.

4.6 Warranties

Have you noticed how something you bought breaks down within weaks of the warranty expiring? Use the tickler file to store the warranty information for your purchases in the month prior to expiry. This can be a reminder to check if the item needs to be returned for any repairs. Once a warranty has expired, you probably don't need to keep the receipt which means it can now be discarded.

4.7 Home maintenance

I use the tickler file to store reminders of things that need to be done around the house, for example, to wash the carport door every six months. I have an index card labelled "Wash carport door January and July". When I eventually return the card to the file I know where it is to be filed.

4.8 Library book reminders

My library issues printed "Return by" slips and these can be filed a few days before the books are due. This will eliminate overdue fines. I prefer to write the renewal dates in my weekly calendar since I often renew these items using my library's web site.

4.9 Motivational Reminders

A tickler file is a great place to store motivational messages, and inspirational quotations. I am working on a small project to collect 43 useful quotations, print them in a large font, and place one quotation in each of the folders. I find that I stop noticing motivational quotations stuck on noticeboards or my partitions, and prefer the daily reminder of a fresh quotation/

4.10 Placeholders for larger items

If the item is too big to be stored in the tickler file, a "pointer" to that item can be created by writing details on a card or sheet of paper and placed in the tickler file. Perhaps you have a folder in your reference filing system with details of support materials. For example, a card could be labelled "Enrol in summer tennis camp. Details in TENNIS folder".

5 Smaller tickler files including 3 x 5 card size

I read about someone (Ken Scott) using a 4 x 6 inch card file for the tickler file. When papers needed to be stored, there were folded in half. The tickler file would certainly be more compact.

A tickler file can also be set up using 3 x 5 index cards using divider tabs. Deb (of AnalogGTD fame) uses this system for making reminder cards.

6 Electronic tickler files

It is possible to implement the principles of a tickler file in an electronic system, maybe Outlook or a PDA. The success criteria for any tickler system is that you use it each day, and it is easy to store items quickly. A tickler system converts stored items into Next Actions on some day in the future, or periodically (weekly, monthly, annual).

As I receive paper bills, I can file the paper in a folder in a few seconds. Using a software based system would not be suitable for me, but would work for others.

7 Tickler File Hacks and Tips

7.1 Where to store the tickler file.

I used to keep my 43 manila folders in the front of a filing cabinet, but this meant it was sometimes ignored. Remember the old saying, "Out of sight, out of mind"? Now my folders have their own space on the floor between my desk and computer table.

7.2 Identifying days of the week.

How do you know the days of the week for the folders ahead? Nic Davis came up with a quick hack of using seven mini-bulldog clips labelled with the days of the week. The clips are attached to the front seven folders and after the daily emptying of the folder into the inbox, the clip is moved to to the next clip-less folder. A picture is available of Nic Davis' hack on Flickr

I used a Dymo labeller to label the top of sevn mini-clips. Saturday and Sunday are highlighter in orange for quick location of weekends.


Author: Charles Cave <charlesweb@optusnet.com.au>

Date: 2007/01/20 3:09:28 PM