Here's How to Set Up a Tickler File for Better Organization

By Robert Half February 16, 2017 at 7:00am

If you help run an office, organization is probably at the top of your administrative skills list. Looking for a new way to stay on top of your to-do list? A tickler file may be just the tool you need to improve efficiency and your ability to focus.

Any savvy administrative or executive assistant knows that juggling multiple tasks is a massive part of the job. You’re responsible for staying on top of other people’s schedules, handling and processing paperwork, fielding phone calls and answering email — all while maintaining a calm and positive attitude.

It's all part of the job, but it can be a little daunting and sometimes a bit frustrating.

A tickler file can help

Enter the tickler file, a funny name for a serious, although low-tech, organizational tool. It’s a filing system with folders for each day of the month that serve as a reminder for what you have to do that day. It’s like having a huge calendar at your side to manage day-to-day work activities and paperwork, and it's intended to be an addition to your regular online or paperless calendaring and scheduling system. If used consistently, it can really take your workspace and task management to the next level.

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How do I create a tickler file system?

You can put one together relatively quickly and easily. To create this paper filing system, all you need are 43 file folders and a box or cabinet to store them in, preferably somewhere near your desk so it’s always close at hand. Label 12 of the file folders "January" through "December" and the rest of them "1" through "31" for each day of the month. Documents within the folders of a tickler file might include follow-up reminders, to-do lists, bills, invoices, travel tickets, hotel reservations, birthday reminders or any other papers that require future action.

A basic setup like this is relatively inexpensive and uses minimal space. You can get everything you need from any office-supply retailer. Choose from a variety of file folder colors and unique storage box designs to arrange something that’s attractive as well as useful. If you’re creative, decorate the folders to make the system reflect your unique personality. 

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How do I use a tickler file system?

To put the tickler file into action, put tasks or items (on paper) that need to be done by particular days into the corresponding days' folders for the current month. For example, if you process invoices on the 15th of the month, place all invoices that come across your desk into folder No. 15. If the due date for a task is more than 31 days out, place it in the corresponding monthly folder.

Every morning when you get to the office, check the folder that corresponds to whatever day it is, which will be at the front of your file. If it’s the eighth of the month, folder No. 8 should be at the front, filled with all of the items you need to do that day.

At the end of the day, place any unfinished tasks into tomorrow’s folder. Move the empty numbered folder to the next month and start filling it with tasks. The next morning, start all over again with folder No. 9 and so on, cycling through the days until the month ends and everything starts over again with folder No. 1.

Showcase your administrative skill for organization

You can place any type of task into your file. The system is especially useful for time-sensitive documents or anything with a hard deadline. You can also use it to remind yourself of recurring tasks, like filling printer paper every two days. Just write yourself a note on an index card and place it in the correct folder.

At first, using a tickler file might seem like an added layer of complication to your busy day, especially with Outlook and other online calendar systems available. However, we still need a place to put paper items, and this system is very helpful in reminding you of things when you need it, but not when you don't. In a world where we're online all the time, it can even be a relief to have such a simple and effective non-tech approach to organization. There's also something satisfying about placing an empty folder at the back of the pack when the day is over.

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This post was originally published in July 2014 and has been updated to include updated information.

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