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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!

More by this author

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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