Follow Friday: Tickling the tickler


I have recently been on an organization kick, and have been studying everything I can find to improve my productivity especially related to organizing a home office (and this would also apply to a not-at-home office). One of the things I came across that has changed my life dramatically is a tickler file. I do not know how I have lived my life thus far without ever having one.

If you have not seen nor heard of a tickler file, there are tons of images on google to show you what they look like. Here is a link to one I like, although I keep my months in the front of the file drawer rather than the back.

I have to admit, I had tried a tickler file around the time the David Allen “Getting Things Done” book was popular, and it didn’t work for me. Here is why it didn’t work, and what I’ve done to fix the problem this time around:

 1) I kept forgetting to check the folder for the day.

Tickler files do not work unless you make it a regular habit to check them (yes, I can hear the ‘duh’). There is a folder for each day (1-31) and for each month (Jan-Dec), for a total of 43 folders. To make mine work for me this time, the first thing I do after I brush my teeth in the morning is pull out my tickler file for that day, sort through it, and take mental stock of everything that is in it. I also peek at my calendar at this point since, although I check it the night before, I usually forget by morning all of the details. I also plan a time about 3 days before the end of each month to go through the next month’s folder. (e.g. at the end of January I’ll leaf through February to make sure everything in the February folder gets sorted into the particular day that it needs to be handled).

2) I had no system in place to ensure I had enough time on a given day to accomplish what was in the tickler.

As things came into my inboxes I’d look them over, think “I can’t do this today” and then shove it into a folder for later in the week. Inevitably the day would come and I’d realize that all of the items I had shoved into the tickler along with everything I already had on my calendar would be impossible to accomplish in a human day. With or without sleep. This created a total procrastination effect, and made me feel more overwhelmed than ever.

Solution: Plan ahead. Any time I have something I need to stick into my tickler file, I first check what’s already in the file for that day, AND I check my calendar for that day to make sure there’s enough wiggle room to add another item to my ‘to do’ list. All the while keeping in mind that when that day comes there will probably be 4-5 more things thrown at me at the last minute. If I am putting something in the tickler that is going to take a good chunk of time – say an hour or more– I block that time out in my calendar. This ensures that I don’t forget that I have put the item in the queue, so to speak.

Recently I had a call from a distant cousin, and I knew the return call would take an hour or so to complete. I wrote a note on a scrap piece of paper (or you can use index cards, whatever you like, as long as they’re not small enough to get lost) along with the phone number and a few details about what the agenda for the call should be, and I put it in my tickler file for the following Saturday. I also made a note on my calendar that I was going to make this call on that particular day.

3) I found myself shoving things in the tickler and then needing them.

— in which case I had to potentially rummage through 43 folders to find what I needed.

I had no easy fix for this until I added Paper Tiger (affiliate) to my organization scheme. Here’s how it works — when I slip a page in my tickler, if I know or suspect I might end up looking for it later, I make a note in paper tiger. I have a special location in Paper Tiger called “Tickler” in which I set up 43 placeholders (labeled with the 31 days and 12 months).

Sometimes this is not necessary, e.g. if I already made a note about the item in my calendar I don’t duplicate it in Paper Tiger, but theoretically I could. The point is, you should ensure you have a way to find the stuff that is secure in your folders before you drop it in – otherwise it might end up “out of sight, out of mind.”

4) I use my own rules and stick with them.

You may come up with your own rules, but one of mine is that if there is an event on a particular day, everything related to that event goes into the tickler folder for that day — even if it requires some steps to be accomplished before the event date. Here’s how that works for me:

I recently planned a birthday party for my son. I have quite a bit of paperwork related to the party, and there are some things I need to do before the day of the party. For example we held a party on the 31st at a place that caters to these type of events, and we had to call a week in advance to give them the final number of guests. Rather than stick my birthday party paperwork into the #24 folder and then having to remember which date I put it in, I just added an entry into my calendar on 12/24 “Call X for party guest confirmation,” and kept all of the paperwork in the #31 folder. That way for the entire month that I was doing all of the planning, I always knew that the paperwork I needed was in the same folder (#31) no matter what. This worked for reminding myself to send out the invitations with the proper amount of lead time: a note to “send invitations” went into the tickler file 3 weeks before the event, but the invitations themselves were tucked safely in folder 31.

Do you use a tickler file? How have they helped you in your home or office organization or your genealogy research? Leave a comment above with your suggestions and/or questions.

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  1. Sierra

    Great idea to start the new year! One of the best tricks I have learned about productivity is to follow the 4 D’s. Do it, Delete it, Delegate it, Designate a time to do it. Whenever you touch something (physical object, email, work project, etc) do one of the D’s. Your tickler file would qualify as designate it since you are picking another time to finish something.

    • 1ancestry2littletime

      I love the 4 D’s! I also use the trash, recycle, shred, donate bags/boxes for cleaning out the clutter, but I don’t have a good acronym for that set.=)

  2. Denise Richmond

    Great ideas! I’m in the midst of organizing my side of the home office. I’m Oscar to my husband’s Felix. My rule is touch a piece of paper or object, do something with it: file/store, recycle or trash. I’m starting to see the top of the desk! I also found an installation CD that was missing. I found your blog from your informative guest post about USGenWeb on Marian’s Roots and Rambles.

    • 1ancestry2littletime

      Terrific! Thanks for visiting from Marian’s blog. You hit on something with the “touch it once” rule that is a necessary part of making it work — the “store” — if it’s not reference material that can be filed, and it’s not something you have time to take action on immediately, then it needs to be stored somewhere that it won’t get lost in the shuffle (and so it won’t clutter the desk). I’m still working on this too… the project folders and tickler file have helped with this also. 2012 is the “year of the clean desk”. =)

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