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The 43 Folders Method (Paper System)

I mentioned the 43 folders method in my Core Administrative Skills Always Need Improving post and a lot of you wanted more information on this method. This information is in our Executives and Assistants Working In Partnership: The Definitive Guide to Success. Because we love you and it’s our Blog-A-Thon, I would love to share it with you!

This is a popular system advocated by productivity and time management experts around the world. I have been using this system for years and highly recommends it. Use it when you have paper trigger items or paper associated with next actions.

You need 43 folders (31 labeled “1” through “31” and 12 more labeled with the names of the months of the year).

    • Keep the daily files in front, beginning with the file for tomorrow’s date. For example, if today is the 10th, the first folder will be labeled “11.” The files that follow all represent the rest of the days of the month in the correct order (12 through 31).
    • Behind the “31” file is the folder for the next month. For example, if the current month is October, the next file is November.
    • Behind that are the rest of the daily files (1 through 10).
  • Behind that are the rest of the monthly files (December through October).

How it Works

Imagine you have a paper item that needs to be used to trigger an action in the future—say, an agenda your Executive wants you to give to him on the day of a meeting two weeks from now. You take the agenda and put it in the file that has the date of the meeting on it. So, if the meeting is on the 21st of this month, put the agenda in the folder labeled 21. If the meeting is happening in another month, put it in the folder labeled with the name of that month. At the end of each day, you pull the file folder for the next day. Go through each item and determine whether to place it in:

    • Your “to do” tray; meaning you will take action on it the next day
    • Your “to call” tray for the next day
    • The folder of items to discuss with your Executive the next day in your Daily Huddle
    • Your Executive’s office for his or her retrieval
    • A later date for follow-up, if appropriate
  • The “round file.” The item or action may no longer be necessary and therefore can be tossed in the trash can.

If today is the 20th, toward the end of your day, you pull the file labeled 21 and see the agenda you need to give your Executive for his meeting. Every afternoon, you process your system like this. When the folder is empty, you put it in the back of the numerical system, allowing the next day’s number to be at the front.

At the beginning of each month, the next month’s file should reach the front of the pack. So, on October 31st, the November file will be in front, with the files labeled 1 through 31 behind it. Open the month file and disperse the materials to the appropriate day’s folder if needed. The November file would then be refilled in the back of the monthly folders to represent November a year from now.

This is a perpetual system—at any given point, it represents the next 31 days and the next 12 months. It’s incredibly useful but you have to really commit to it and work the system every day, pulling the contents and adding them to your priorities list.

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45 thoughts on “The 43 Folders Method (Paper System)”

  1. I am at the end of my career at any level. I have been an Administrative Assistant for only a few years, downgrading from being an Executive, so I can speak from both perspectives.

    I want the entire staff of Office Dynamics to know how impressed I have been with all that you offer Administrative Professionals. I am just being blown away with all the information and opportunities that you provide Assistants, with the support of their Executives; if they both are open to taking advantage of all that’s offered. Being privileged to have this information now, I realize that If my former Administrative Assistants had been able to have this kind of information it would have been so much easier for them to take charge of advancing their careers in from entry level clerical positions to executive assistants in far less time.

    Thank you cannot express my sincere gratitude for what you offer the young Administrative Assistants professional today.

  2. I have a modified tickler system, but use Outlook for most of my reminders. I can see how this can be helpful, but in my AA role, I currently don’t have a use for such an intensive process. Our SAA does something similar with events in our organization. She has a separate folder that contains a how-to for a specific event. When the Outlook reminder pops-up, she can retrieve the file to remember what needs to be done. It works for our organization and seems to be an effective blend of digital and hard copy.

  3. I like this system, but having a hard time trying to understand how adapt it to for my needs. My Executives schedule changes so drastically daily. They have regular meeting but the flux of thing is ever changing. It is worth the try….I will try to figure this and start working it.

  4. Winifred Cummings

    For years I have been using this filing system. It was introduced to me as a tickler file.
    Every morning I check the file with the corresponding date to see what needs to be done on that day.

  5. I use this except I don’t have a monthly folder. I merely write on the corner the month / date that I need to follow up on a particular item. As I get to the specific date, if there are items for the next month’s date, I leave those items in the folder. I open this file every morning and proceed with those items that need attention on that day. I also have items that need to be completed each evening at the back of the folder (calendar for my executive for putting on her desk at the end of the day, etc.). I move several reminders into the next day’s folder routinely so I don’t forget anything. If I’m planning to be out of the office, I review the items in those day folders and either complete the items prior to my time away from the office or I put them in the folder for the day that I return to the office. I’m a visual person so this method works well for me.

  6. An interesting system unfortunately I’m not able to use it. The majority of my work is all online so I use notes on my Outlook Calendar as reminders and adjust the dates and times accordingly.

  7. I love this article. I am getting ready to get organized for our next fiscal year that starts in July. I think this will really help me stay on top of items that need to be taken care of, and so they don’t get lost. Thanks.

  8. Where do you file things that don’t pertain to a certain date? I’ve tried this system in the past but that’s where I always tripped up–not being able to put my fingers on something right away because I didn’t know what date it was under. Tips?

  9. Linda Orlando, CAP

    This process does work. When I was on a temp assignment, the admin before me set up a similar system which worked great. The manager would write a future date on a document he wanted to follow-up with, I filed the document in that particular date’s slot. Each day I looked in its corresponding date slot and handed the manager the documents he needed to follow-up with that day. This method is worth trying.

  10. I use a system similar to this. I use a 31 day file. I add items by day and future months in the same day folder, just by month. Example. April 20 would be the paper in the 20 file. If I had something for October, August, and December 20, I would put them in this order in the 20 file. April 20, August 20, October 20, and December 20. I have a reminder on my electronic calendar to check this folder every Monday morning. I check it for the week. I also have been using this system for years.

  11. I think this system sounds like a wonderful idea and I plan on trying it, I work for a whole department and I think that this wold come in handy for me.

  12. I use this system in conjunction with an electronic reminder system. It is often helpful to have the folder system when I want to save a physical copy of something – an invitation, a map, or even a catering confirmation. It’s also good for sending cards. I drop it in a folder on the date I plan to mail it.

  13. I have been doing this for 20 years. For example, I have a conference call every third Thursday. I have a paper with discussion items I put in my file on the Monday before. When I pull the paper, I make notes under the items I have information to present. Then put it back in the Thursday spot to have ready for the call.

  14. I was in the administrative field for over 30 years. It was a “job” for me but a “career!” As the years passed, and my experience grew, I kept up with current industry processes and applied those in my career. There were many, but one that I was very happy with and committed to using, the 43 files! The best technique to keep organized, efficient and less to focus on that day or even that month! I wowed myself and those who I supported! Highly recommended! You will be asking yourself, “how did I function without this system?”

  15. This is an interesting system. I do still have a few I tems that are paper triggered. Currently, I put a note on my Outlook calendar as a reminder and then go to a folder that contains all future items to be handled but this system would provide an organized mechanism to work along with the Outlook reminder. I might guve this a try, but first would need to find a place for the 43 folders as filing space is at a premium… we recently downsized our office space to less than 1/2 the size it was and filing space downsized from 17 large file drawers to 3 large and 2 small!

  16. Thank you for sharing!! This is a system introduced to me today, by you that I really want to try. Organization is key to success in my book and it it helps with your daily tasks, staying on track, and showing how you do it all (because my boss does ask every now and then how I do things). This is a system I think they would enjoy!!

  17. I like this! Even though my official title isn’t “administrative assistant”, I can adapt this method and use it. Thank you!

  18. I’ve seen this before, now that you’ve explained it (thanks!). I didn’t feel the need for it in my previous position, but now that I’m supporting a C-suite executive, I find my usual total reliance on Outlook to be insufficient. Your 41 folder method may be just the ticket to save my sanity! I think this is also called a tickle file.

  19. I have been looking for a paper system since sending myself reminder after reminder on my calendar is not efficient. Thanks for the update!

  20. Great explanation of how this works! I teach this as the “tickler” file method. The one caveat is that you must commit to use it daily, or it own’t be effective.

  21. This is a great, classic, tickler system. I’ve always known about it, but now I work for an independent business ower and think I may need to implement it to keep up with her! I used to work for a very large company, and the pace is completely different; our priorities change all of the time. I think this method is proof that simple is often best.

  22. I use this method, have for many years – I call it my “pop” folder and I have a reminder on my calendar pop up everyday at a specific time and do not dismiss the reminder until I have checked my “pop” folder for that date.

  23. Thank you for this information. The 43 Folders Method would work great at home as well for me to keep track of monthly bills and etc. that are due.

  24. The GTD (getting things done) system is a great way to organize everything. It’s flexible so it works for everyone. One of the suggestions he makes is tickler files, which works like the 43 folder system.

  25. What a great idea! I’ve used similar systems but the one outlined above is very practical. I’d like to try this starting May 1…time to get prepared. Thanks, again.

  26. I admire anyone who uses this system. I have used it in the past (except I used 2 accordion files; one with tabs 1 – 31 and one tabs for the months). I found it helpful when I first became an Administrative Assistant and each time I started with a new employer, but usually would stop using the system after several months as I found I don’t have the commitment necessary to work it every day. Since I currently write out a “to do” list every day, I just keep items on that list each day until it gets completed and if I have something that needs action several weeks or months in the future I use the task reminders in Outlook.

  27. I have been using this method for years, Collette Carlson recommended it in one of her blogs or webinars several years ago. This works well to stop anything from falling through the cracks. I also use this system at home for my bills, and to keep on top of the forms I have to send in to my daughter’s school for trips. I have also taught my daughter use this for school projects and her college scholarships to help her keep track of what she needs to do next for them (so many scholarships to apply to.)

  28. Thanks for sharing this system! I am excited to implement it. It will help me to better support my executive. Thank you!

  29. I love this system! I have so many papers that come across my desk for both of my bosses that I would be lost without this. It was one of the first things I put in place when I started here six years ago.

  30. I’ve been using this method for years and I really find it helpful! I find the best time for me to sort the items from the next monthly folder into the folders dated 1-31 is when I’m stuck on a phone hold or while waiting for a webinar to start.

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