I was asked to share some advice on using a Tickler, so here goes:

A Tickler file system is a simple and clever way to clear up the paper clutter scattered around the house and to cut a lot of stress and worry over date-related tasks that clutter up your mind.  With one folder for each day of the month and one for each month of the year, you can file papers away for up to a year in advance and pull them out the day you need them.  (Read here for more detailed information on how to make a Tickler.)  In order to make the most of your Tickler system it’s important to remember that the brilliance of the system is also its curse.  It’s an out of sight, out of mind tool. 

The Tickler is the perfect place to put things that you don’t need to think about and you don’t want to see until a specific date.  If you have theater tickets for next month, you don’t want them sitting in a pile of paper or pinned to the fridge where the baby could eat them.  With a Tickler system, you place them in the folder for the date of the show, and it’s off your mind and out of sight until they are presented to you on the day you need them.  That’s out of sight and out of mind at its finest.

For this trick with the theater tickets to work the Tickler itself has to be very much IN sight or it will be out of mind and you will forget to check it.  A Tickler that is not checked EVERY DAY is just a big garbage collector that will create even more stress than it was supposed to save.  Forgotten bills, lost documents.  That’s out of sight, out of mind at its worst.  So the first thing you need to make your Tickler work effectively is to make it pleasing enough to look at that you are happy to put it in a prominent place.  Whether that means printing labels on hanging folders or decorating the box or something else entirely, the Tickler must be something you personally are happy to look at.  Second, it’s best to have a set time or a set place in your routine that you check your Ticker.  If you’re not much of a routine person, your best bet is to create an “instant habit” of Tickler checking by pairing the new task of checking the Tickler with something you already do naturally every day.  You could decide to check your tickler at night just after (or while!) your brush your teeth.  Or you could decide to check it before you hop into the shower in the morning.  You will be astonished how easy it is to establish a new habit with this way of “piggy backing” on an established routine.  If you go on vacation, check all the folders up to the day you get back to make sure you won’t be missing something while you’re away.

Once you’ve set yourself up for Tickler success by making your Tickler pleasing, IN sight, and easy to check, the next step is to learn to feed it appropriately.  Before you put something in a Tickler folder, ask yourself “Can I afford to ‘lose’ this until then?”  The answer for theater tickets is an easy “yes,” but for many other items the answer won’t be so obvious.  What about that wedding invitation you just received?  If you simply dumped it in the folder for the day of the event you probably won’t make it to the wedding on time much less have time to arrange a carpool or babysitter and you’ll most certainly be embarrassed that you don’t have a gift to bring.  Clearly some parts of the wedding invitation need to be on your mind and others, like the directions, don’t.   At the very least you should write the date on your calendar (and you might consider making a T or other mark next to the event to remind you that the invitation is in your Tickler) and plan the way you normally would for such an event.  You could also put reminder slips in your Tickler a month or so before the wedding to ask your future self if such arrangements, like choosing a gift and making sure your family has appropriate clothing, have been accomplished.  If you have taken care of them, you feel great, and if you haven’t, it’s a kind kick-in-the-butt to get going before panic strikes days before the event.

Keeping in mind that the Tickler is an “out of sight, out of mind tool,” here are some pitfalls to avoid.  Don’t put large projects in the folder for the day they are due.  That would be using the Tickler to procrastinate and would constantly keep you in panic mode.  There are plenty of things that don’t belong in the Tickler because they should be dealt with in another way.  If you’re interested in learning how to handle those other tasks and papers you can look into organizational programs such as Mind Organization for Moms.

Don’t stuff your Tickler with a bunch of ‘hope to dos.’  We are terrible estimators of how much we can accomplish in a given day.  If you stuff something in a folder a few days from now, chances are when you pull out that folder it will be chalk full of tasks that aren’t the best use of your time.  Your days should be planned to account for the most important things first, like the needs of your family and you should not pile on guilt by filling your Tickler with an impossible amount of random tasks.  If you use your Tickler in this way you will quickly become demotivated and want to avoid checking it, which means you will miss those important things that DO belong in the Tickler, which means you can’t trust it which means you’ll start to worry about everything again.  Again, a program like Mind Organization will provide you a structure for dealing with all your “must dos” and “hope tos” much more effectively than with a Tickler.

Last but not least, make sure you personalize your Tickler use to fit your lifestyle.  I strongly recommend that you remember “out of sight, out of mind” by keeping your Tickler visible and always asking yourself “Can I afford to ‘lose’ this until then?” and doing your best not to put too much in it (empty folders are okay, too!), but in the end, if you don’t make it work for YOU, it won’t work.  If something gets lost, or you have trouble keeping up, or you run into some other road block, don’t give up.  Analyze the problem, re-read this post, and think of how you can change the way you do things to make life easier on yourself.  Put the effort in NOW to make life easier for yourself in the FUTURE.  Your future self will often be tired and stressed and busy when she needs to check the Tickler, so be kind to her!

Below are some other examples of what I think are good and poor Tickler use

Date-Specific Papers.  This is the best use of the Ticker.  Things you need on one date only are the perfect things to store in your Tickler.

Routine Tasks.  Our city collects paper recycling every four weeks but I don’t want to clutter up my calendar with those dates.  I simply label a card ‘paper’ and list the recycling dates on the back.  When the card shows up I know I need to put the paper on the curb and after I’ve done that I check the next date on the card and put it in my Tickler for the day before so I have plenty of time to prepare the paper for the next time.  I also keep my running record in my Tickler.  It serves both as a reminder to exercise and as a convenient place to record the stats from my run before I toss it back into the Tickler for the next time I hope to exercise.  I always put it back in only a few days in the future, so if I change my exercise plan it’s still easy to find and replace.

Incubation.  You can also use your Tickler for future ideas that you don’t need to think about yet.  Maybe you pick up a brochure for summer soccer camp this summer but your child is too young for it now.  You can put it in your Tickler for April of next year so you will be reminded to reevaluate if it’s something your family wants to participate in next summer.  This “think about this later” use can lead to losing information you might want to access at a different point, so be sure you ask yourself “Can I afford to lose this until then?” before you put it in your Tickler.  If the answer is no, then put it in a safe place and write a note to put in your Tickler that includes a pointer to where you put the information because chances are you will forget, and this way you don’t have to worry about it.

Pick-Me-Ups. Another great use for the Tickler is to scatter various pick-me-ups throughout so that you will have some pleasant surprises when you check your Tickler.  This helps you look forward to checking your Tickler, and is a great way to get photos, notes, Bible verses, and other sweet things from people you love from cluttering up your living area.  You’ll actually increase the amount of focused time you spend appreciating each one rather than always seeing them in mass (as when they’re on your fridge) but never taking the time to reflect on them.  When there’s one photo in your Tickler for the day you can take a few minutes to appreciate it and either pop it in a later date or decide you’ve held on to it long enough.

Delivery.  If someone asked you for your chili recipe at the latest church pot luck, you can make a copy of it and put it in your Tickler for the next Sunday.  I like to keep a paper clip on the following Monday’s folder so I can easily see which day of the week the coming dates are.

Conditional Commitments.  The Tickler can help you not over-commit yourself.  For example, in an October I was asked if I could volunteer to play a harp piece in church this Christmas.  I wasn’t sure I could manage to find time to practice with two little kids around, so I put I note in my Tickler the end of October saying “If you haven’t restrung your harp and found some time to practice by now then you need to admit you won’t have enough time to prepare a Christmas piece and therefore you need to say NO.”

Reminders. Last year I bought candles on sale after the Christmas season with the hope of making an advent wreath this year.  However, I plum forgot and would have bought new ones except that my husband somehow remembered and reminded me in time.  I should have put a note in my Tickler for November to remind me that I had the candles and where they were.   You can put double or triple layers of reminders in your Tickler and elsewhere if you are worried about forgetting something.  I might put a note in January to start work on taxes, then another one in March with a sterner warning in case I haven’t gotten around to it, then maybe even a command to “file for an extension if you haven’t done your taxes by today!”  Ideally we wouldn’t need all these reminders, but until you turn into a perfectly organized person, it can’t hurt to have an extra layer of security.

Directions. You’re going to a party in three weeks and have made the arrangements.  Instead of printing out making Google Map directions the night before when the internet may be out, why not print them off now and stick them in your Tickler so you have less to worry about the day of the party?

Bills. Be careful with this one. Make sure you give yourself enough time before they’re due.  It works well for my husband to put all his bills in the 24th Tickler folder.  He saves time by doing them all at once and generally blocks out a little time around that date because he knows those bills will be waiting for him.

I personally am a stickler about the Tickler.  Except for some things in the coming week I ONLY use it for DATE-SPECIFIC events.  I do not want my tickler getting filled with “hope to get to” items and nasty “you have to do this day” surprises that would make me not want to check it religiously.  It doesn’t work if you don’t check it every day, so I didn’t want to set myself up for failure.  That said, many around me chose to use it differently and it works for them, so it really is no right and wrong way to use a Tickler.       

Thanks for reading.  I hope you found these tips helpful.  Please leave your comments and questions below, and note that I get a commission if you buy a Mind Organization for Moms program after clicking through from my site.  It’s not the only way to get organized, but it’s an easy, effective, and relatively cheap way compared to getting a professional organizer.

Posted by harp on Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Edit
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Note that through tomorrow (Dec. 7th) M.O.M. is on sale 10-20 dollars off.

Posted by IrishOboe on Thursday, December 06, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Excellent summary of the tickler file!

I have a tickler file and hope to make more effective use of it in the coming year. I have to admit that mine is out of sight. I have it in the front of the drawer to the right of the computer. It is a convenient place, but not visible, so sometimes I forget to look. I like the idea of pairing it with another activity.

One of the mistakes I made in setting up my tickler was using all manila folders. Since it is hidden in a drawer it doesn't have to be pretty, but I wish I had made the monthly folders a different color (the tabs for the month are in the middle and the days are on the side, but they still kind of blend together).

After I read this, I went and got our symphony tickets (Mozart) for MARCH and put them in my March folder. Duh!

We're looking into floor hockey for T, but sign-ups aren't until the end of the month. Put a reminder in to check the website.

I organize the volunteers who make the coffee and clean-up at church each week. I keep a print out of the schedule in one of the days toward the end of each month, so I can send out an email reminder.

I also put a reminder in the 14th to check for our AMEX bills that don't come in the mail. I have to admit, I have not been brave enough to put all my bills in there for fear I will forget and they won't get paid on time. If I can get into a routine of using the tickler, then I think this would be a good use for it.

I want to buy or make b-day cards for the coming year and put them in the appropriate place. It means filing them a few days before the actual birthday, but I think this would be a great way to actually get people a card rather than just emailing them.

Pick-me-ups. Does chocolate count? That would definitely get me to check it every day!

Great post!

Posted by dstb on Thursday, December 06, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Wonderful summary and ideas! I plan to come back to this frequently (maybe put a reminder in my Tickler?) for inspiration.

Chocolate in the Tickler? What a wonderful thought!

Posted by Linda Wightman on Thursday, December 06, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Glad it was a help (and not just a sales pitch!). With chocolate in the Tickler, it would be like opening an Advent calendar every day!

Posted by IrishOboe on Thursday, December 06, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Maybe I should have someone randomize the chocolate with a note to exercise. Some days you win and some days...

Posted by dstb on Thursday, December 06, 2012 at 8:52 pm
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