Conquer Your Desk Clutter with a Tickler File

No matter how computerised you are, there will still be paper clutter. Most of us have piles and piles of current paper on our desks. Combat this clutter with a tickler file.

By Jan Jasper

No matter how computerised you are, there will still be paper clutter - memos to discuss at a meeting, proposals to review, things to read, bills to pay. Most of us have piles and piles of current paper on our desks. We leave papers in plain sight for quick access or to remind us to follow it up. Obviously, we can't file this stuff because it's still active. So we leave it out on the desk, in plain sight, so we don't forget.

The problem is, the "leaving in plain sight" method soon backfires - a few papers turns into a pile, then several piles, and now the only thing you can see is the top layer. For most people, this causes lost files, wasted time, missed deadlines, and stress. Wouldn't it be great if there was a system to allow you keep current papers close at hand, yet organised - so that you can reclaim your desk as a work surface?

There is such a system, and it's called the "tickler file" (if you're buying office supplies online, try searching for "expanding organisers"). I've used one for years and I don't know how I ever managed without it. It's an open-sided concertina file with 43 slots - 31 are numbered for the days of the month, followed by 12 slots labelled January to December. The 1-31 slots are always used to hold papers for the current month; the 12 monthly slots are for future months. For example, during the month of March, the numbered slots hold papers for March, according to the day of the month when you'll act on each paper. Every day, first thing in the morning, you remove the papers in that day's slot and also check the next few days' slots to see what's coming up.

By the end of March, the 1-31 slots are empty, and ready to hold April's papers. Now you'll spend a few minutes doing the monthly ritual: remove all the papers from the "April" slot, look at when they're due, and insert them into the appropriate 1-31 day slots. Directions to a meeting on April 7 are put into the 7 slot. An agenda for a meeting on April 14 go in the 14 slot. Some items should be put in early - a birthday gift idea for a friend whose birthday is on the 20th should go in the 10 slot - this gives you time to shop and post the gift.

While some people use a standard concertina file, I don't recommend it because it's very difficult to see what's inside. A bona-fide tickler file is much better because it's open on both sides, making it much easier to open up and see the contents. (I use the Everyday File and Fast Sorter from Globe-Weis.) You can open it fully on the desk or on your lap. I've noticed that the people who lose things in their tickler files are those who use a concertina folder instead of a real tickler file.

The tickler file was originally designed for people who have a lot of time-sensitive follow-up activity, like sales people. But that's only a tiny part of this tool's potential. The tickler file can hold memos on which you're awaiting a response, phone calls to return on specific dates, bills to pay (file them several days before the due date), decisions you must make by a certain date (if you're going a seminar, you must register in advance), a project you'll begin next month, airline itineraries and tickets, greeting cards to be mailed, dry cleaning tickets, things to give to friend you'll see on a certain day, and so on.

Now you can use your desk as a work surface again, using it only for what you're working on right now. Everything else has a home in the tickler file. Once you begin to think this way, you'll find more and more uses for your tickler file. For added peace of mind, make a note in your calendar - whether it's paper or electronic - for important, time-sensitive items. If you don't have enough papers to warrant 31 slots for each day of the month, create a simpler version with 4 hanging file folders, one for each week in the month.

People ask me how I remember to look in my tickler file everyday. I can't possibly not look - I couldn't function without it. It just takes a little discipline to get started, just like any other good habit. The seconds it takes to drop papers into the tickler file is nothing compared to the hours it'll save you every week - and the stress it will spare you. You'll no longer waste time looking for papers. You'll be on top of things because you can see what's coming up. You'll act on things before they're due, rather than at the last minute. You'll find yourself automatically reaching for your tickler file many times each day. It will make your life so much easier you'll wonder how you managed without it.

Jan Jasper has been training busy people to work smarter, not harder, since 1988. She helps clients streamline their systems and procedures, form optimum work habits, use technology efficiently, and manage information overload. Her specialty is helping people who've already worked with professional organisers and coaches and are still not able to get it all done. Jan is the author of Take Back Your Time: How to Regain Control of Work, Information, & Technology.

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