swift-fileEver wonder what a “tickler file” is? It’s a collection of 43 labeled folders, 31 days and 12 months, that helps you organize time-sensitive documents. It has been around in various formats since the early 20th century, but has probably been most notably covered in David Allen’s 2001 classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity.

To me the most valuable message from Allen’s book was, in order to get things done, you must first get all these things that are swimming around in your head OUT and (here’s the critical part) into a system you TRUST. The tickler file is an example of just such a system.

Here’s how it works. Any paper that represents an action you want to make a point of doing in the future goes into a date specific file on the day of that action or several days before it is due. A daily review of these files “tickles your memory.” Here are two examples.

First, let’s say you have a concert to go to on the 31st of this month. You would place your tickets inside the folder marked 31. Everyday you check the folder that corresponds to today’s date, empty it and move it to the back of the Tickler File. When the 31st comes, you have your concert tickets in a safe place on the day you need them.

Second, let’s say you’re in a card store buying a last minute Valentines Day card and you happen to see a funny card that would be perfect for your dad, but his birthday isn’t until May. Even thought it’s February, buy that card now and put it in the May file. At the end of each month review the contents of the next month’s folder and distribute its contents into the appropriate days, including your father’s birthday card. It might be a good idea to put it in a folder dated a week before his birthday, so you have time to mail it.

Some other examples of date-specific items would be travel tickets, hotel reservations, meeting notes, maintenance reminders, or claim tickets. Any items that require future actions would be good candidates for the tickler file.

You could put bills-to-pay in here too, but I prefer to use a bill paying organizer.  I trust the bill organizer even more because it is more visible than the tickler file. I don’t worry about forgetting to look for my concert tickets as much as I worry about forgetting to pay a bill.

One word of caution with a tickler file. While it does provide a nice reliable home for date specific items, it is not the most compelling system in the world. For example, I don’t recommend relying on it to remind you that your anniversary is coming up. Get that information into your daily calendar.

There are a couple of places you can order a tickler file. The one I have is called the Swift File and you can order it here. You can get David Allen’s GTD Tickler File here. Of course you can go the DIY route, but I recommend getting good quality folders with tabs that don’t quickly fray. Also, look for embossed lines at the bottom of the folder for thicker files.   These two details will keep the tabs visible, which is important.

You might be surprised at how much stuff on your desk you are keeping out just because you don’t want to forget about it. The tickler file is another valuable tool that can help you free up more of that valuable processing space so you can move your to-do’s to DONE.