The Searchable Tickler File

One of the things which is recommended in Getting Things Done is the creation of a “tickler file”. A key GTD principle is having a system you can trust to hold all your loose ends or “open loops”. By putting things into your system, you can let go of holding them in your head (Discardia!) and have more ability to relax and focus. The tickler file is used to remind you of things you need to think about at a certain point in the future.

The tickler file for physical stuff is a set of 43 folders – 01 through 31 and the 12 months of the year (m01 etc) – into which you stick stuff that must be remembered at a certain time in the future but which does not necessarily represent an actual commitment on your calendar. If you’re like me, you don’t actually have a lot of physical papers which need to be tickled, but you may have some email, electronic documents and ideas which do.

Rather than set up the actual 43 folders to take up more space then needed in my office, I tend to write on my electronic calendar (iCal) something like “review notes in the XYZ folder to prepare for meeting in 2 days”. I file the papers in their eventual home and create a pointer for myself to remind me that there’s unfinished business filed away there.

This has been making my calendar a bit busy in layout (since I enter the note as an event, but with 000 at the beginning of the text to flag it as a chunk of time loosely reserved for a task, rather than a specific appointment). Now that isn’t necessarily bad – it does reflect my expected busy-ness for a given day – but it’s inappropriate for tasks that will take less than 30 minutes. I’m going to try listing these shorter tasks in a tickler event that’s just associated with the day and see how that works.

But what about emailed stuff? I could file it and point to it from a note, but that’s really time consuming. Why not make a virtual 43 folders and put them inside a folder called Tickler? When I’m reviewing incoming mail and say “ah, I need to call her and she says she’ll be back in the office on the 18th”, I can just drag it into folder 18 and forget about it until the morning of the 18th when I look at folder 18.

Now here’s where I could get sneaky. This structure means I can email new reminders directly to my tickler file through the clever use of subject headings and filters. Suppose I just thought of something I’m going to need to remember to do Wednesday at work. Rather than have it keep popping into my brain all weekend, I can just send a reminder to myself by emailing it with the subject line “tickle12: call Bob about wigits”. My filter sees the “tickle12:” and puts it in folder 12. On the 12th, I look at folder 12 and there it is.

The beauty of all this is that I don’t have to put the reminder somewhere that I have to think about it or look about it before the time at which I’ll act on it.

[As of early 2006, I am no longer marking flexible events (“work on revised documentation for beta test of foo”) on the calendar except milestones (“started integrated beta test?”). Instead I am using KGTD and at some point I’ll get the prioritized list from there syncing in my iCal to-do list.]

[And as of 2009, I’m keeping my calendar free from non-appointments and instead using OmniFocus to track projects & actions. Getting GTD under your skin is definitely an iterative process, but the cleaner your processes & use of your tools gets, the more useful it becomes.]

[As of mid 2017, I was still mostly using OmniFocus, with some non-appointments noted in calendar (as it does actually make a lot of sense to have things on the day you really ought to do them and then keep the “gosh it’d be nice to get done then” stuff somewhere else). Then I had a bunch of major health news which blew most everything else off my to-do list, so OmniFocus became the repository for mental notes about things I’ll get to when I’m able to work on them. It’s really comforting to be able to park stuff somewhere organized and let your mind let go of it. As I deal with fatigue and other medication side effects and habit-building rather than project-completing became my focus then and continues to 2019, I’ve been enjoying using Habitica, the role-playing game task tracker. — December 25, 2018]

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Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

17 thoughts on “The Searchable Tickler File”

  1. That sounds like a great idea. I’ve always scractched my head when it came to the “e-Tickler” file. Perhaps the crowning piece is a bit of AppleScript to dump the current day’s tickler emails into your inbox every morning. Somewhat in line with the GTD dump the folder into your physical in basket concept.


  2. Good idea, Matt.
    And here’s an additional refinement to my main idea: when you’re emailing someone asking them to do something and need to follow up later to confirm they’ve done it, immediately grab the sent message out of your outbox and move it to the appropriate tickler folder to remind you to do so.


  3. Dinah,
    Give a try (it’s free). The service is pretty much what you explained, an “e-Tickler” or online tickler file. We believe that the service can help you unclutter your calendar and still keep appointments and dates in a “trusted” place. It’s just what you are aksing for! Give it a try…and let us know what you think.
    Solomon Folks
    My Tickler File Team


  4. I understand Dinah. We are not asking you to replace ical, paper folders, etc. What we are offering, however, is a service that can help clear you calendar of some items and provide you with email reminders for those tasks and events you choose. Options are always nice.
    Solomon Folks
    My Tickler File Team


  5. Cool idea, though it won’t work for me. This would work very well for date and time specific task reminders, yet only if one used a computer-based mail app (like Mail πŸ™‚ or something like that MyTickler that let one mail things out at a specific date or time. I use Gmail and this system isn’t practical with labels. Still, it is something to think about. πŸ™‚


  6. The online tickler system with emailed reminders would work with a lot of mobile phones. Then there’s no need to be online, just to have your phone with you so you can receive an SMS or MMS. Hmmm


  7. I recently made a mini-tickler file for my eBay auctions, which is working very well for me. Rather than use a full 43 folders I use just 14 (for a rolling 2-weeks). As I list or schedule auctions I drop the items into the appropriate envelopes in the the box. At the end on each day, when it’s time to do the packing and posting, I empty the front-most envelope and move it to the back of the stack.


  8. I just got done scripting a tickler file for Entourage (if anybody is using this)? It lets me defer my email 1, 3 , 7 days or to the start of next month or next quarter. Then I setup a rule to BCC myself on all outgoing email and I can tickle this for things I’m waiting on.
    things I’m waiting on, and I can tickle that too! The scripts work by linking the message to a task with a due date. The email gets swept out of the Inbox and when the due date is up, it automatically deletes the task and sweeps the email back into the Inbox.
    You can read my post on this at:


  9. You could, but I must say that $18 a month seems very pricy for a service that mostly replicates what you could do with a future entry in an online calendar.


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