A Few Quick Examples on How to Make Your Tickler File Electronic

A “tickler file” is part of the standard GTD approach; most productivity folks also recommend having one. It allows you to “mail” actions and items to yourself in the future.

I have an “electronic tickler.” Instead of doing 43 physical folders (one for each day of the month, plus one for each month) and doing this manually, I just have a specific action list in my productivity system called “Action Calendar.” I keep my tickler items on that electronic list.

Here’s how that works. Every item on that list has a due date. “Due date” there really means “do on.” I check that list every day (well, most days) and the items with that day’s date are things that need to be done or brought to my attention on that day. I ignore everything in the future. The point of this list is that you don’t need to think about anything in it until the day it comes up.

This is a great way to keep track of repeating tasks that need to be done on a certain day. For example: changing your furnace filter every month or so. I have that as a monthly repeating item in my action calendar (probably every 6-weeks, actually, but you get the point). When it comes up, I change it. During all other times, I don’t need to think about it.

Another instance is processing notes you capture in your “capture tool.” You don’t want to just capture action items and other stuff you need to process, and then just leave it to your brain to remember to do it. I have a repeating task in my action calendar to process my notes.

An action calendar also works well for single items that come your way, and which you have to do at a certain time and cannot do until them. For example, when we moved and started our new trash service here, the company sent us two coupons for two free months. The problem is that you can only use them in two (future) months which they designated.

We received the coupons in November or something. The months they were to be used in were February and March. So, I created action calendar items for the first Saturdays in February and March that said “return [name of garbage company]’s billing coupon for free month.”

As you can see in this example, there was along with this a physical item to keep — the coupon I had to send in. Hence, I do keep one physical file for tickler items. I call it “pending.” It’s actually for more than just physical tickler items. It’s for any paper-based support material I need to keep which pertains to non-project actions. Paper-based support material for my electronic tickler fits in here great.

I thought to write this post because the action calendar item to send this in for March just came up. So I grabbed the coupon out of my pending file and sent it in. (Now I’m writing this post.)

Now, someone would say, “Paper is old-fashioned. That company shouldn’t have sent you actual paper coupons to send in.” Well, sure, but the fact is that they did. You have to be able to deal with the fact that not everything is going to be electronic.

I find this balance — keeping my tickler items electronically, but then when necessary keeping any physical support material in a single (rather than 43) physical folder that the electronic item then points me to — very useful.

I do also have other physical files beyond this one “pending” physical file, because the reality is that you do have paper to deal with. But that is for a set of upcoming posts (as soon as I can!).

  • http://www.john-gallagher.blogspot.com John Gallagher

    Great points, Matt. I have really tried to move down this path. Outlook’s task feature with recurrence is a great tool for this. Challenges are such: reminder for replacing furnace filters pops up; however, I currently have no furnace filters! So, do I go to the store as a task, or do I set up a list of maintenance items to purchase (water softener salt, furnace filters, toilet paper) so that I have one ‘period’s worth on hand at all times. That is a challenge for me, because in Outlook there is no electric shock that tells me not to ‘snooze’ while I go to the store!!!

  • Matt

    John: That’s a great issue to bring up. Here is how I’ve solved that myself: A few years ago I decided to have a basic principle of “always replace an item when there is only one extra left.”

    I have to rely on my memory for that — I don’t have any checklist of stuff that I need to replace on a regular basis. But that’s in part the beauty of it: by having this one simple rule, I avoid needing to have that type of checklist.

    So with the furnace filters, I keep 3 extras right beside the furnace. When I’m down to 1, I put on my “errands” list to get 2 more filters.

    This is the way I handle things with label tape, file folders, rock salt for our water softener, and a whole host of things.

    Now, my wife, who does the main shopping for our family, does have a list of basic household items that serves as a trigger list when she plans her grocery shopping. If I had a ton of stuff to replace routinely every week, then I might implement something like that.

  • Shawn


    Do you use iCal for your action calendar or Things?

  • Matt

    Shawn: I use iCal for my calendar, and then OmniFocus for tasks.

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