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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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