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Back to Basics: The Tickler File

Back to Basics: The Tickler File

A long-time standby in the productivity realm, a tickler file is a reminder system intended to act as an adjunct to your regular calendaring and scheduling system. Although there are several different kinds of tickler file, the most well-known (thanks largely to David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders) is the 43-folders system, with 31 numbered “day” folders and 12 labeled with the months of the year.

The idea is quite simple: anything you need reminded of on some future date goes into your tickler file. Every morning, that day’s folder is pulled out and the contents placed into your inbox, and whatever you placed there days, weeks, or months earlier is right at hand when you need it.

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The 43-folder setup makes it possible – easy, even – to set reminders for up to a year in advance. Each numbered folders stands in for a day of the month. Behind them, all the folders labeled with the months are arrayed, with next month’s folder in front. So, since today is September 5th, you would see folder 5 at the front, followed by 6-31, then October through next September. When I empty today’s folder, I’ll place it at the back of the numbered folders, leaving “6” standing ready to be pulled out tomorrow.

At the end of the month, the October folder is opened and its contents placed into the appropriate numbered days, and the emptied folder is placed at the back of the months. This creates a rolling cycle of folders, presenting each morning the folder with that day’s contents in it.

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What goes into the folders is up to you, but clearly anything dated is a good candidate: bills, invoices, dated material to send out, concert and show tickets, travel documents, and so on. Other items you know you’re going to need on a specific day can also be added, such as your passport on the day when you will be flying out of the country, or your checkbook for bill-paying day.

Recurring events you want to remind yourself of – like watering the plants every three days – can be written onto index cards. You empty your folder into your inbox, process the inbox, see the reminder, water the plants, and place the card into whatever the date will be three days later.

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Some people use the tickler file as an “out” from their inbox. That is, if by the end of the day, they haven’t processed their inbox to empty, everything goes into tomorrow’s ticker. I’m not a huge proponent of this, but I suppose it does give them some psychological satisfaction to leave at the end of the day with an empty inbox.

The hardest part about using a tickler file is actually starting to use it. Getting into the habit of placing things into the tickler file, and then checking it every day to get them back out, can take a while. In fact, you may need to do what I did when I first started using a tickler file: set a reminder for your reminders! That is, I put a “check tickler file” task into Outlook and set it to recur every morning. Sure enough, every morning I forgot until the notification came up to remind me.

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Eventually, though, using the tickler file becomes a habit. As you add more and more stuff into it, you’ll be more and more likely to check it, and as you check it more and more you’ll be more likely to put stuff into it. The two habits are mutually reinforcing, so after a while you reach a “critical mass” and the forgetfulness ceases to be a problem.

To get there, it really helps to keep your tickler file somewhere in plain sight (without being in the way). Desktop file boxes are perfect for this – generally under 12”/30cm deep, they don’t take up much space, they come in a variety of attractive (and, I admit, not-so-attractive) designs, and their open top means there’s not the slightest barrier to taking out today’s file.

Used consistently, a tickler file can become an important part of your “outboard brain”, popping stuff up for you when you need it, and keeping it out of the way when you don’t. In today’s all-high tech all the time world, it’s even a little reassuring: simple, decidedly low-tech, and effective.

Bonus tip: This is a tip I ran across here, and it’s so good I had to include it. The standard 43-folders setup gives you dates but not the names of days, which can be confusing. Use binder clips, labeled with the days of the week and clipped onto the top of the front 7 folders, to identify the days. As you remove each folder and move it to the back, place its clip on the folder after the last one with a binder clip. Brilliant!

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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