The Tickler File, an Age-Old Tool for the Modern Construction Contractors Office

We’ve found most people fit in one of three categories when it comes to understanding and using a tickler file.

In which category do you fit?

  1. I’ve never even heard of a tickler file.
  2. I tried it and it didn’t work.
  3. I use and love my tickler system.

If you’re in the number one slot, hang on I’ll explain not only what it is, but how to use it.

If you’re in the number two space, please give me a chance to show you some new ideas, techniques, and approaches which might just move you into the number three category.

And, if you’re in the third spot, yay! You already know how this simple tool makes running your construction contracting office so much easier. Plus, there may be a few ways to use your tickler file you hadn’t thought of before.

So, what is a tickler file?

You may have also heard this file described as a pending system, a bring-up file, or a holding box. It doesn’t matter what you call it, the point is it’s a great tool for keeping your brain as well as your office organized.

The best way I can describe it is, “The tickler file is a system meant to tickle your memory, it’s a fantastic way to help you keep track of details you don’t want to have roaming around in your head, hiding out in virtual space, or lying around on your desk.”

We’ll start with the physical aspect of a tickler file, then move on to the latest concept of an integrated system (which includes your computer or other digital device) for tickling your memory.

While the tickler file has been around for a long time, David Allen a productivity consultant, re-popularized the idea with his bestselling book Getting Things Done.

In his system there are 31 file folders labeled 1 through 31, followed by 12 folders labeled with each month of the year. These folders are then placed in an easy to reach spot. For example, you could choose to use a desk file drawer or a desktop file box.

The file number which should be in the front of the file each day is the one corresponding to today’s date. After you’ve emptied today’s file, you move that number to the back of that section. The month which should be in the first slot of the 12 months is the month following the one you’re presently in. When you move “next month’s” files into the appropriate daily files, you also move that month’s folder to the back of the month section.

What goes in the files?

Documents you’ll need again soon, follow up notes, coupons, reminders to call back, bills to be paid, status reports, evaluations, tax related items, requests for feedback, event tickets, flyers with directions or instructions, warranty expirations, forms to be filled out, — really, simply any item or piece of paper which needs to be reviewed or acted upon can all go into the proper day of the month or left holding within future months.

Here is the rule-of-thumb I use when deciding which pieces of paper find a temporary home in my tickler file – if I’m not filing it or tossing it, it is a good candidate for my tickler file. Let’s face it, a tickler file truly is more effective and useful than looking all over bulletin boards, magnet boards, taped or tacked on walls, or a stack on your desk in order to find the paper you want. Plus, with a tickler file the risk of completely forgetting something beneath the stack is eliminated.

A real-life example of something that is hanging out in my tickler file right now is a flyer I received from Fry’s Super Market. It states that on the dates February 17th through 19th every VIP customer (meaning if you have a Fry’s card) will be able to save twenty cents per gallon of gas at the new Fry’s location in our neighborhood. Chances are great that on one of those dates I’ll need to purchase gas. If I don’t take advantage of the offer on the first date, I’ll move it to the next day, then the next. If, for some crazy reason, I haven’t used it by the end of the offer that piece of paper will find its way to file 13.

What comes out of the files?

Nothing. Well that is, nothing comes out of the tickler file if you don’t use it. Yet, if you get into the habit of faithfully using your system everything comes out at some point. It will either be acted upon or filed when the time is right. Which reminds me, only put in stuff that is really better done at a future date.

Also, in the past I would have advised sticking to the desktop box storage system because of the “out of sight, out of mind” concept. But now-a-days, there are ways to get around that problem and I will tell you about it a little further down. For now, I’ll introduce you to another way to build your physical tickler file.

Shrinking the tickler file

One reason the tickler file was so popular in the past is paper was a major problem in all offices. These days – not so much. Yet, there are still paper items which we all must deal with and that is where a shrunken version of a tickler file comes in quite handy.

The major concepts concerning the use of the full-blown version and the shrunken version are about the same. The difference is felt mostly in the space and time devoted to housing and using the tickler file.

Let me introduce the shrunken version I developed and use specifically for two reasons, 1) my office space is very small, and 2) I don’t have a large number of paper items to deal with.

I use only 8 folders and they’re labeled like this:

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • Next Week
  • Next Month
  • Later

Just like the full-blown version, upcoming action items are placed in the appropriate day of the week, or one of the other noted files. At the end of the week, I check the “next week” folder and slot items from it into the daily files. I also place the “next month” folder into the midst of the daily files when “next month” takes place in the middle of a week. If there are items in the next month file which are to be used in week three or week four of the month I place them in the “next week” file and slot them in during the weekly review. Also, always check the “later” file at the end of the month. You may need to bring some items forward.

Did you say electronic tickler file?

Why yes, there is a way to have an electronic tickler file. Just be aware, like the (almost) paperless office the electronic system is (almost) paperless.

Matt Perman, on his site, What’s Best Next posted an article titled A Few Quick Examples on How to Make Your Tickler File Electronic. Check it out. It may be all you need.

Use it or lose it

Setting up the system takes minutes. Using the system also takes only minutes a day. BUT, getting into the habit of using a tickler file system is the hardest part. I know, I’ve tried on more than one occasion. In reality, the hardest part about using a tickler file is actually starting to use it.

Remember I mentioned I would tell you about the ways to remember to use your tickler file? One way to solve the problem is to place a “trigger” in your space. For example, you walk into your office, put away your personal belongings, and right there in the spot where you’re putting your purse or your lunch there is a note that says, “Check the tickler file.” Yep, make it the first thing you do each morning and that soon becomes a habit.

Another way to remind yourself is to put a repeating task on your digital calendar. You open your calendar and there the notice is – Check Tickler File. Your next step is to reach for your tickler file.

I read where some folks sent themselves an email with a reminder to check the tickler file. Find the way that works best for you and use it.

Wait, there’s more

Lest I sound like the annoying salesman on TV, I do want to let you know there are also some added benefits of using a tickler file you may not have thought of. One fellow shared that when he tried (again) to get his tickler file system going he purposely added some things just to get in the habit. He enjoyed music and was trying to learn some new songs. So, he added the lyrics to songs on a few days, reviewed the songs, then refiled them in upcoming days so he could review again. He said it wasn’t long before he was in the habit and no longer needed to “seed” the tickler file.

Studying for a new license, need to learn about a piece of software, want to understand an app better? Drop a note in your tickler file reminding yourself to take 15 minutes to study. Put the note back in tomorrow’s date or a few days down the road. In just a few days, you’ve put in an hour or more towards learning what you need to know.

Want to tackle an “extra project” (like organizing the office) but don’t have time? Drop notes in your tickler file in which the project is broken down into nibble size pieces. They might look like this, “clean top right drawer,” “straighten files A through C,” “rearrange top shelf in storage closet.” You get the idea.

Choosing the right tickler file system

Now that you know about all the benefits you receive from using a tickler file it is time to decide which works best in your office. (By the way, any of these systems will work well at home too. Think about getting all the junk off your kitchen counter and you’ll know what I mean.)

The easiest way to decide which system is best for your office is to determine how much paper you must deal with on a daily or regular basis.

  • Lots of paper – Go with the 43 files, you might like this ready-made unit.
  • A little bit of paper – try my system
  • Hardly any paper – make use of the electronic file

Adding a tickler file in your office is an excellent way to use an age-old tool in managing your modern construction contracting business.

This is the first in a series of articles concerning pieces of the organizing puzzle for your construction contracting business. You can go here to find out more about what has or will be showing up in the collection.