An Alternative To 43 Folders

Wednesdays are simplicity days at SimpleProductivity blog.

Photo by Sean Rogers1

Sorry, if you’re expecting an article about Merlin Mann’s site 43 Folders, sorry, not going to happen.

I want to talk about the origin of the 43 folders: the tickler file.

Why 43 Folders?

The 43 folders comes from a set of file folders, one for each day of the month (31 total) and one for each month (12). 12 + 31 = 43.

The original tickler system had you make the folders. If something needed attention on the 9th of this month, you put it in the folder labeled “9”. If it needed to be dealt with in June, you put it in the “June” folder. At the beginning of each day, you emptied out your number folder to be dealt with. At the beginning of month, you put the contents of the month folder into the appropriate number folder.

It’s a great system.

But What If You Don’t Have That Much Paper?

Some of us just don’t deal with that much paper, because many things are digital these days. But for the things that aren’t, you may need to hold on to the paper copy. Things such as prescriptions or birthday cards, for example.

If you have very little paper to deal with, you can always try an alternate system:

1 Folder + Reminder Tickler

This is the other extreme from the tickler system. In this system you put everything into one file folder (or box) called Tickler, and make notes in your task list to remind you to deal with it on the appropriate day. The note would have to say not only what you needed to do, but also what supporting materials were in the file so you can locate them.

This will work if you have very few paper items to deal with; as a good rule of thumb, less than 10.

The 12 Folder + Reminder System

If you have a few items a month, but not enough to justify the day folders, you can use a 12 folder system. Label each folder for a month, and then put a reminder in your task list to “process tickler” near the beginning of the month. (I actually do this on the last Monday of the month to give me time to get early birthday cards in the mail).

At the beginning of the month, you can process the items on their appropriate day in your electronic system, much as you would for the one folder. The only difference is you would leave the item in the tickler folder instead of moving it. When the reminder comes up, you look in the month folder to find your paperwork.

I have been very happy with the 12 folder system. I make birthday cards ahead of time and put them in the tickler, then process them for the month they need to be send out. Other things that end up there are renewal notices for magazines, mail-order prescriptions (order after a certain date) and calendars for the upcoming year (which come in in October).

Photo by Sean Rogers1


  1. Max Leibman says

    I myself use a 32-file system–31 day folders and one “later” folder. At the end of the month, I check the “later” folder and distribute anything for the upcoming month into the appropriate day folder.

    I dispensed with the month folders not for lack of folders or paper, but because I didn’t have quite enough room for 43 and ditching the month folders gave me just enough extra space to work. In practice, I’ve found I have very little paper for more than a month in the future, anyhow.

  2. Max Leibman says

    Thanks! I should have mentioned before, I do like the idea of an even simpler 12-folder system, but in my personal case the reason I prefer specific days is that I was chronically bad at managing my bills throughout my 20s, so I really need the granularity of the day.

    But I like both of your adaptations.