Sunday, September 03, 2006

Creating and Using a Tickler File

Tip of the Week, August 27, 2006

Though it sounds like an accessory for a circus clown or something you might see on Sesame Street, a tickler file is actually a simple, effective, easy-to-use method of keeping track of important papers. Need a place to put the bills you need to pay next week, the invitation to a birthday party later in the month, or a printout of your airline itinerary for your Thanksgiving trip? A tickler file may be for you.

Here's what you need to know to set up a tickler file, start using it, and make it work for you.

No feathers or Elmo what is a tickler file?
Quite simply, a tickler file is a set of 43 folders--31 for the days of the month and 12 for the months themselves. These folders, labeled 1 through 31 and January through December, serve as repositories for the various bits of paper you need to deal with at some point in the relatively near future: bills, event reminders, travel plans, and so on. These folders are meant to "tickle" your memory about the things you need to do each day. A tickler file is essentially part two of whatever To Do system you use (part one being your To Do list itself); it's where all of the supporting documents for your tasks and events get stashed before you need to get your hands on them.

Setting up a tickler file
One of the beauties of a tickler file system is that it doesn't require elaborate or expensive supplies or components. At the very least, you need 43 hanging file folders, a pen or pencil to label them, and a file drawer or bin to store them in. You might choose to get a bit more elaborate--adding internal files, for example (the folders that go inside hanging files), or using a label maker to create labels--but your system will still work if you stick with the basics.

To set up your tickler file, make your labels (1-31, January-December) and put one label on each folder. I recommend using what's called straight-line filing, where all of the file folder tabs line up (on the far left of the folders, for example, or smack in the middle), as it makes the whole system neater and easier to read than staggered tab placements.

Once you've labeled your folders, put them in your file drawer or bin in order based on when you're creating the system. In general, your day files should be in front, followed by the month file for the upcoming month. For example, if you were to set up your tickler file on October 15, the first file in the drawer would be 16 (the next day), followed by 17-31, followed by the November folder. The 1-15 day files would follow November, with the December-October files behind.

Filling the tickler file
Once you have your folders in place, start filling them. As you do, it's helpful to keep your To Do list and calendar handy to be sure you're putting items in the right files, and each of the items in your tickler has a corresponding To Do or calendar entry. Things should go into your tickler based on when you need to access them again. For example, if your electric bill is due on the 30th, put it in one of your mid-month folders (17, say); when you empty that folder, you'll pay the bill, with time enough to get it into the mail and to your utility company by the due date. Put party invitations into the folders for the dates on which the events are happening, trip itineraries in a folder for a date a few days ahead of your departure, and greeting cards a week ahead of the occasion you're sending them for.

Put items you won't need for more than four weeks into the relevant month file; that is, if it's October 20 and you won't need to refer to an item until November 20, put it in the November folder. At the beginning of November, remove the contents of the month folder and distribute them to the correct daily folders.

Using the tickler
Here's the most important step: use your tickler file every day. Every. Single. Day. Consistency is one of the most crucial elements of this system. Each day, pull out the folder that corresponds to that day's date, and empty its contents. Either act on those contents (paying bills, sending cards, etc.) or move them into the next day's file if you can't get to them right away. Then put the folder back into the system behind the folder for the upcoming month; for example, on September 1, empty the 1 folder and place it behind October. Do this every day and the system will stay in order regardless of the day or month.

If you fall off the tickler wagon for a few days, all is not lost. Review the contents of the folders for the days you missed, act on or re-file those contents, and renew your resolve to stick with the system. Remember, the tickler's purpose is to track those dozens of notes, reminders, invitations, bills, and cards so you don't have to.

A tickler file may not be the right tool for everyone, but if you find yourself constantly doing battle with To Do-related papers, or if you can never remember where you've put the invite/bill/phone number you need RIGHT NOW, it might be worth a shot. The system may not be quite as much fun as the name suggests, but it's a simple, effective, low-maintenance way of making your life just a little bit easier.


Anonymous said...

At the advice of both my wife and a colleague, I created a tickler file on Friday.

The biggest dividend, that I think I will enjoy is that it will force me to make time to do things which are "important but not urgent".

I'm trying my best to get past working on only urgent matters.

Emily said...

A tickler file can be a great tool for reminding yourself about all the stuff that tends to get pushed aside by the urgent things that come at you each day.

It's also a great way of getting things off your mind, as they're captured in a safe and trusted system you know you'll look at regularly.

Good luck with your new tickler. Keep me posted on how it works out!


Anonymous said...

I have heard of tickler files before, but didnt understand just how they worked.

FINALLY! I am getting on board with keeping track of all those little items that turn into major issues at the last minute!

Thanks so much for posting this. I can't wait to get mine set up and begin using it.

Anonymous said...

On my job, I have to set up a tickler file. Some of my co-workers use the calender on the computer. I did not want to use this because the computer might be down. I'm going to try to use this system.

Emily said...

Indeed, sometimes offline systems are the way to go. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I am creating a tickler after hearing a co-worker talk about hers. Have you (or any readers here) also added Monday - Friday files? I am the publications secretary for a very busy church and often work by day of the week rather than date of month. I am also not naturally organized (Ha!) and like to hear how others handle organization before trying to implement ideas for myself.

Emily said...

Janet, one of the great things about a tickler file is that you can customize it so that it works for you. Given how work comes in and needs to be processed for you, it sounds like having Monday-Friday files in addition to numbered day files and month files is an excellent idea. You might even find that day files and week files (i.e., First Week of the Month, Second Week of the Month, etc.) work *better* than 1-31 files. What's most important is that the system is super-clear to you, and that it's neither too simple nor too complex.

If you give it a try, please post back and let us know how it goes!