Kathy Paauw, Helps you declutter your life and get organized

How to Create a Customized
Tickler File System

There are two components to a good tickler file system. The front part includes a dated accordion file. The part behind that is customized to your needs and consists of individual hanging folders labeled for repetitive actions you take. If you aren't sure how to tailor this to your needs, just go through a recently-created pile of papers and mail—things that you didn't have any place to put but didn't want to forget about. You'll soon be able to identify what customized action files you need. Label each file with the verb that describes the action required by you. Here are some examples:

  • Pay:  a place to put invoices or bills until they are paid
  • Expense Reimburse:  a place to store your receipts until you submit them for reimbursement.
  • Discuss:  a folder to put notes in for weekly meetings with the same person. If you meet with several people weekly, I suggest you create individual folders with each person's name on them.
  • Call:  a place to store phone messages until you have time to return calls.
  • Calls Expected: a place to store papers you need to refer to when you are expecting someone to call you back
  • Data EntryContacts:  addresses, phone numbers, business cards to enter into address book and/or contact management system.
  • Data EntryFinance:  a place to put receipts until you enter them into your bookkeeping software.
  • Photocopy: a place to store things to be copied so you don't make so many trips to the copy center
  • Future Years—a place to store things that require action in a future year.

The front part contains the accordion file with tabs for days of the current month, followed by tabs for months of the year. I also recommend creating a Future Years tab behind this (for papers to be handled next year or beyond). The tabs behind that are labeled for specific repetitive action to be taken, as listed above (pay, discuss, etc.).

Once you've created your customized tickler file system, you must do two things—put things in and take things out—DAILY!  When the mail arrives, you have three choices:

  • FILE it away for future reference.
  • ACT on it now or later (if later, it goes in the tickler file for WHEN you will take action or for what the next action is…Pay it, Discuss it, etc.)
  • TOSS it – recycle, shred, throw away, or "toss" to someone else…in other words, get it out of here!


  • Identify a specific time each day to check your tickler file—either first thing in the morning, or the night before (for the next day).
  • It takes about 21 days to form a new habit, so I suggest that you write into your calendar "CHECK TICKLER" for whatever time you choose to do this—for at least the next 21 days. At some point it will become second nature to you (like brushing your teeth!) and you won't need the reminder.
  • Keep your tickler file in a place where you will see it...preferably where you open your mail.

You can keep your tickler file system in your desk drawer or in a more visible desktop hanging file frame like the one pictured above. Your tickler file system needs enough room so you do not have to wedge things in or struggle to take things out. Keep this in mind when purchasing a file frame box for your accordion file and customized hanging files. I recommend one that is at least 8" deep.

For more tips on how to manage paper, visit our listing of free teleclasses.

This article is by Kathy Paauw of Paauwerfully Organized. Kathy offers comprehensive resources devoted to helping busy professionals and small business owners de-clutter their schedules, spaces, and minds so they can focus on what's most important. Kathy is an organizing & productivity consultant, certified business & personal coach, and speaker. Contact her via e-mail. For free resources and valuable productivity tools visit http://www.orgcoach.net.

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