Clear the Counter Pile with a Tickler File

paper pileJust about every mom I know has something on the kitchen counter called “the pile.”You’ve surely seen one.  It’s generally stocked full of receipts, original art work, birthday party invitations, advertisements, coupons, and the like, and if you’reone of the lucky moms sporting a counter pile, you’ve certainly plowed through it on numerous occasions–looking for that community holiday flier or the reminder card from the dentist office.

Ring a bell?

Today I’m going to show you a trick that virtually eliminates the time-sensitive items from your counter pile.  It’s called a Tickler File, and you can have yours set up in minutes.  Quite honestly, it will change your paper-sorting life.

How to Set Up Your Tickler File:

Get 12 file folders and label them by month.

Put your Tickler in an easy-to-access location.

A small file box, a little stacking tray, or the very front of your filing cabinet are great spots for your Tickler.  It doesn’t need to be out in plain sight–you just don’t want to forget where you put it.

Reference paperwork with a “Tickler Symbol” on your calendar.

Whenever you receive a piece of paper that needs to be accessed or used during a specific month (examples below), reference the accompanying action or event on your calendar and add a little T with a circle around it–indicating that the paper you’ll need on that date is in your Tickler. If you use a digital calendar, you could use parentheses:(T).

Then simply place those time-sensitive papers in the appropriate month’s folder.

Sound easy?  It is.  Now let’s practice:

1. Smog Check Form

It’s October 10th, and your husband hands you a form from the Department of Motor Vehicles, indicating that your registration this year requires a smog check.  The smog check can be done during October or November, but the registration is due on December 12th.

What on earth do you do?

Normally, we’d just stick something like that in “the pile” and hope we remember to get that smog check done in time.  And then in January, when we get pulled over by a police officer who’s wondering why our car hasn’t been registered, we plead, “I’m sorry, but have you seen my kitchen counter? I’ll get it done today . . . I promise!”

(We’re not going to do that anymore.)

Instead, we’ll write the registration deadline on our calendar (so we’ll see it coming), and we’ll add “Get a smog check” to the “Errands” section of our context-based list.

We could even add a calendar trigger sometime in November that asks, “Did you get your smog check yet?”  (Just in case . . . because we all know how motherhood can throw us into a whirlwind sometimes.)

Next to each of those reminders, we add our cute circled “T” (and since this particular sheet of paper might be in three different folders, we note the month beside it–as you can see in the photo above).

When the day comes to take the car in to get checked, we calmly walk to our October Tickler, take out the smog check form that needs to be signed, and happily cross that task off our list.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Here’s another example:

2. Wedding Invitation

Your dear friend from college is getting married on June 22nd, and she sends you a beautiful invitation, complete with a map to the wedding and reception. You need a safe place to keep this invitation, so you don’t end up texting the bride for directions to her wedding the morning of.

You simply note the wedding on your June calendar and put your “T” symbol right next to it, indicating that any related paperwork can be found within the folder for the month of the wedding.

Are you starting to get excited?

Let’s do one more . . .

3. Concert Tickets

You and your best friends from high school are going to a concert in the city on August 3rd, and everyone buys their tickets when they go on sale in late May.  You’ve got more than two months before the event, and you don’t want to be scrambling at the last minute, so you print your tickets online and put them in your August Tickler, noting the concert and your Tickler symbol on your calendar.

Get Rid of the Paper Pile Forever

This Tickler idea is so simple, but I never thought of it until I read David Allen’s best-seller, Getting Things Done.  He recommends a Tickler consisting of 43 files, 12 for the months, 31 for the days (that cycles and is checked daily), but as a mom who is spinning in several different directions each morning (brushing hair, tying shoes, cleaning up breakfast . . .), I like to simplify the number of things I need to check before I start my day.

Twelve files kept in a safe place and one calendar I check daily has taken loads of stress off my plate.  Now, when my daughter comes to me in June and hands me a form for the school orchestra that doesn’t need to be turned in until September, I don’t even break a sweat.

Our family now has a place for the book order form that’s due in two weeks.  We can always find the addresses to birthday parties, and I can easily group papers that need to accompany me on a plane trip.

When we consistently use our Tickler files, we won’t cringe every time we look at that pile on our kitchen counter. In fact, by implementing a few simple organization techniques, we can get to the point where “the pile” won’t even exist.


QUESTION: Do you have a great tip for keeping your kitchen counters clear?

CHALLENGE: Join me on my quest to “clear the counters of the America” (and the world!) and create your own Tickler File.


  1. myboysmommy says

    Great idea!! I might even be able to do that!! I’m not quite sure there’s an actual counter top under that pile- maybe I’ll find out!! Thanks for the article!

  2. says

    I’m excited to get started!! I already give my kids a ten minute recess when we get home, rain or shine. (If its raining, we put dry clothes and a towel just inside the back door, and I put water on to boil for hot cocoa, and turn on the fire. They love jumping in puddles and jumping on the trampoline in the rain) I set a timer and even blow a whistle for them to line up when the timer goes off ( we have a big yard) Recess is when I will sort my pile!!

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