Systems & Tips

Using a Tickler File: Simple but Powerful

Ok, so it has a really silly name.
But a tickler file is one of the easiest and most effective tools you can use to help you get organized.

Imagine this:
You yawn and stretch while taking the first few sips of your morning coffee. Sitting down in front of your computer, you browse a few news sites and begin to think about what’s on the agenda for that day.

Then the phone rings.

You mutter under your breath – something about what type of fool would call you this early – as you pick up the phone. But the voice on the other end of the line is… you.
A time travelling version of you – from the past.

“Hey, just wanted to mention that you might want to think about calling Jeff at some point today.”

“Oh…thanks,” you say. “I hadn’t even thought about that in two weeks.”

That’s what having a tickler file is like – minus the sci-fi, time travelling phone call. It’s a way of filing reminders for yourself to “tickle” your memory at a later date. It helps you remember what you want, when you want, so that nothing falls between the cracks.

Setting up a Tickler File

The most common version of a tickler file is simply just a set of 43 folders: one for each day in a month (labeled 1 through 31) and one for each month in a year (labeled January through December).

The setup is awkward to understand when it’s written out, but it’s really simple to grasp when you see it.

Start the first of the month with the day folders in order (1 – 31).

This would be the setup for July 1st.
(Note that August would be the next month, so it’s right after the folder for the 31st.)

Tickler File Setup for July 1

Let’s say a new movie you really want to see opens up in theaters on the 15th – and you want to remind yourself about it. Just put a note (“Be sure to go see Weekend at Bernie’s 4”) and file it in the folder for the 15th. If you want to remember to buy a copy of the DVD for all your friends at Christmastime, just put a note in the folder for December.

So now when it’s July 2, you take the folder for the 1st and move it behind the folder for August.

Check the file for July 2 to see if there were any notes inside that you had filed away for yourself.

With each passing day, you’ll retreive the reminders from the folder for that particular day. Then, the folders will be moved to the area for the next month.

The setup for July 10th would look like this:

Tickler File Setup for July 10

If you wanted to write yourself a note for August 6 (when the Weekend At Bernie’s 4 soundtrack is scheduled to come out in stores), you would write yourself a note and place it in the folder labeled with a 6. This is behind the August folder, as you’ll note.

When you get to the end of the month, take a look at the contents of the August folder and distribute them throughout the day folders (1-31) as needed. Then place the August folder at the back for when you need to file reminders about August of next year. At this point, the August 1st setup will look like this:

Tickler File Setup for August 1

As the days click by in August, you’ll move the numbered day folders behind the September folder.

So, in essence, moving the folders around in this way will give you a never-ending file system, allowing you to file reminders away for anything you want to remember in the next year.

Tips for Better Tickling

I could have said “Tips for Better Uses of a Tickler File” but that wouldn’t have been as fun, would it?

One important concept lies in the relationship between your tickler and your calendar.

I like to put as little on my calendar as possible. My calendar is for hard, fixed events like meetings, catching planes, or birthday parties. They have a definitive date and a definitive time.

Some date-specific reminders aren’t really time-specific. For instance, putting something in the overnight mail or making a phone call. Even if those activities had to happen on one particular day, I would put these reminders in my tickler file since they don’t have to occur at a specific time.

Some people like to look at their tickler file first thing in the morning. But despite my time-travelling phone call story earlier, I actually like to look at my tickler the night before. I like to spend the last few minutes of work planning out the next day – looking at my tickler, checking my calendar, and then setting out whatever files or materials I may need to have a running start in the morning.

The way I use my tickler is just my personal preference. You may find something works better for you.

In the next post, we’ll look at different ways to use your tickler file and integrate it into your life.

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