The Tickler File–The Key to a Clutter-free Refrigerator

A Community Contribution from April Perry

Just about every mother I know has a refrigerator that is completely covered with party invitations, handouts for school assignments, reminders for community events, coupons, and about 50 other things calling out, “Me! Me! Me!” We’re so afraid of the “out of mind, out of sight” rule, that we want to keep everything that needs our attention smack dab in the middle of the kitchen.

Although this tactic might help us feel slightly organized, the drawbacks greatly outnumber the benefits. For example, how are moms supposed to calmly make it through the dinner hour when every time they turn around, they’re reminded of all the things they’re not doing? How are they going to remember which items have associated computer work or which ones require a run to the grocery store? What happens if an important notice gets buried under alphabet magnets–or stolen by a toddler looking for something to color? It just doesn’t work.

That’s where the Tickler File comes in. It saved my life. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but it’s brilliant. You just put items that need your attention into date-specific folders, and you “mail” them to yourself. My stress level has literally been cut in half since I implemented the GTD Tickler system, and as I’ve introduced the idea to my friends (who also have colorfully-decorated refrigerators), their eyes have lit up with excitement at the possibility of finally having a system to keep track of all their madness.

Here are a few Tickler ideas that have worked for me and lots of other moms out there:

(1) Simply take 12 folders and label them January through December. The “official” way to build a Tickler involves 43 files–31 for days, 12 for months, but some moms feel overwhelmed by such a large number of folders, and they’re so busy dancing from breakfast to clean-up to carpool, that they won’t get around to checking their tickler until everything in it is out of date. Maybe we’ll try this gain once the children have grown up….

(2) Make sure that everything in your Tickler is referenced on your calendar. Because moms may not be checking their Tickler every day, they want to be sure to note all “tickled” items on their calendars (which they will be checking every day). A small capital T with a circle around it is a simple symbol to use. That way, if the middle school is hosting a holiday dance in December, and if they’ve sent home an order form for photographs at the event, you know exactly what to do with it. You record the dance time and date on your calendar, put a “Tickler Symbol” next to the event, and place the order form in your December Tickler. Voila! No more rushing out the door with keys and corsage–screaming, “How much money do I need to send for photos?” Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

(3) Use your Tickler to create the family of your dreams. It’s true…the Tickler has this power. You know all those ideas you get at the absolute wrong time of year? The holiday decorations you discover in July? The summer activities you read about in October? The New Years’ traditions you dream up on February 27th? You don’t have to waste those “light bulb moments” anymore. Write them down, put them in the appropriate month’s Tickler, and write a little trigger on your calendar to “Check Tickler for GREAT ideas.”

The Tickler File works. It will be one of your best friends. (And as an added benefit, “Tickler” is fun to say!) Thank you, David Allen.

April Perry is the mother of four children and co-director of She is a regular contributor to GTD Times.

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  1. Great post…I’m a Dad as well and have used the tickler file for a couple years now and it has changed my life.

    I also mail myself letters, quotes, articles for inspiration (it is fun that they appear randomly)

    I love the tip about marking calendar entries with a T.

  2. For some reason, most likely a self destructive one, I dont like tickler files. Anyone know of a successful alternative?

  3. I’ve used a tickler file for 17 years, which is most of my professional life. It’s one of the pillars in my GTD system. So simple, so versatile, so… OBVIOUS. I completely agree with April that it cuts down on stress a lot.

  4. Jeff, I love the idea of mailing yourself articles for inspiration. I’m going to try that!

    3stepsforward, as far as an alternative to tickler files, you could just utilize a Google Calendar or the calendar on your phone to email/send you alerts regarding items that would normally go into a tickler file. In each alert, you’d need to reference where the physical item is located (if there is something like an invitation, flyer, etc. associated with the action).

    For birthday reminders, triggers regarding monthly responsibilities, etc., I really like my Google Calendar. Since I’m always checking email, I never miss the alerts, and then I can move action-oriented ones into my @Action email folder.

    Just some thoughts…

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

  5. Hi 3steps,
    I’m not a big tickler person either, so I use my Google Calendar for all day-specific reminders. Any paper associated with the reminders goes in some type of Action Support folder, or an Errands folder, etc.

  6. An alternative to the tickler file system that I use is to referance the file that I have placed the subject document into in my calendar on the day that it is needed. And if I can help it, I will scam the document so I can gain access to it anytime.

  7. Hi 3stepsforward – I don’t like Tickler files either but I figured that it’s the fact that I’m putting something into a place where it is not readily visible so I throw my stuff into clear page protectors in a big binder and it helps me a little. They are labeled the same as the standard 43 folders. I use them like big envelopes but they are wearing out and I need to get heavier plastic ones someday. I leave the binder upright on my desk at home. Hope this helps.

  8. April, you sure know how to speak mom-language! You have done a marvelous job of tweeking David Allen’s brilliant system for moms. I love using a tickler for invitations, order forms, etc. although I had never thought of your ideas in point #3. I keep finding the same great ideas at the wrong time of year. I can see how easy this would be and it would help tremendously.

  9. The family calendar that hangs on the fridge has pockets for each month and that’s my tickler file. I put concert tickets, bills, invitations, etc in that month’s pocket and then discover them again when that month rolls around. It has been very effective for our family!

  10. I love all these creative suggestions. One comment I get from all my friends who use GTD is that the flexibility of the system is the reason why it works so well for moms.

    There are tons of systems out there suggesting “one way” to do things, but when you’re running around town with your children, carrying a baby on your hip, or working around the clock to keep things going, a flexible organizational system is a huge benefit.

    Thanks for sharing such great tips!

  11. This has been a life saver, I work full time, have a toddler son and I just started a business. My fridge was a mess before. I’m a lot less stressed using the tickler system. It’s also helped because I don’t have to be the only one who knows what’s going on. The tickler is available for my husband to use too, so he can help out.

  12. I think this is a great idea for busy Moms and I agree that they need all the help they can get! One thing I do for non-date related things such as coupons, phone lists, and grocery lists. I put them up on the INSIDE of my cupboard doors. That way they are out of sight and not yelling at me, but I flip open the door and there they are, exactly where I left them!

  13. I’m a WAHM and I love the tickler file! I started out with one file per day, but found that I didn’t need that much detail as every appointment gets shoveled around at the last minute anyway… But one file per month makes a too full file for me, so now I have one file per week which is perfect. Especially for those random ideas that I neverknew how to remember at the right time before.
    Dawn at home is the master of this, look at her blog:

  14. In her article, April Perry says she uses only monthly folders for her Tickler File because she feels like the daily folders keep too much hidden out of sight. I solved that problem by using 12 monthly folders and 6 “intra-month” folders labeled: ASAP, 1st-7th, 8th-15th, 16th-23rd, 24th-31st, and Do Within 30 Days! This system allows me to get a quick look at anything in the file for this week, next week, ASAP Items (urgent but not schedulable), and non-scheduable items that need to be done within the next month or so. For people who use the Tickler File mainly as a place to store reference material for events that are also on their calendar and don’t have a lot of items within any given week, my version of the Tickler File should work very well.

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