WFMW – Getting it Done – how I work David Allen’s filing system

I’ve mentioned the book Getting Things Done and how it’s changed my life, but when I first started setting up this system I would have been lost if not for a friend who walked me through it all.  I have another friend who recently set up this system for herself, and a second who is thinking about it, so I thought it might be beneficial to write something about it for others who are trying to work the system or for those we hare curious about how it all works.  Keep in mind that I’m still working out the kinks, and I frequently find easier ways to do things (or better ways to file things), but for now I at least have something that is working for me, so I thought I’d share!

I’m writing this mostly for people who are already familiar with the book and have broken the system down into the main tools and filing systems that are used.  I haven’t gone into a thorough explanation of how things work so to get the full benefit of this system, it’s important to read the book!

Also want to mention, before I start, that this system is not about having a schedule or actually getting everything done (which seems a little oxymoronic.) It’s about having an external filing system for all the things that are otherwise filed away in our heads and stressing us out (even though we don’t realize they’re stressing us out.) As I wrote before, the strength of this system lies not in helping me follow a schedule, but in the fact that every single thought that I have about something that needs to be done, bought, made, fixed etc. gets processed in an external system that either A. ensures it will get done eventually, or B. stays fresh in my mind until I decide it isn’t important enough to get done, or C. circumstances prevent it from being done.  It’s not so much about keeping super busy as it is about getting things out of my head so I don’t have to think about them anymore.

Anyway, here is a breakdown of how I’m working the system…

– 1 –

On my desk – inbox

This is where the whole system starts!  It’s pretty simple, but requires some discipline to keep at it.  Basically how the inbox works is I have a thought: “I need to make… I need to buy… I need to fix…” etc. and rather than relying on my atrocious memory, I write it down on a piece of paper and throw it in my inbox.  Mail I need to look at also goes in the inbox, as well as the kids school work and other things I need to see to.  I have three of these in the house, and when I’m out I’ll use the note pad on my cell phone for things I want to remember and an “errands” folder (see #7) for papers I need to keep.  All of this just sits in my inbox or on my cell and gets processed when I have the time (usually at night when the kids are in bed.)  Processing requires a filing system, which can be done electronically or on paper (I’ve chosen paper.)  Here is how the processing works…

Everything that comes into my “inbox” falls into one of three categories:

  1. Something Actionable (“buy apples,” “call dishwasher guy,” “clean under the beds,” etc.)
  2. Reference Material (an important phone number, a friends new address, an instruction manual, etc.)
  3. Trash

If the paper in my inbox lists something actionable, it’s either something I can do right now (or in the very near future… within the next day or two), or something I’ll do “eventually.”  If it’s something I can do that will take less than 5 minutes to do, I do it right then.  If it will take more than five minutes, but can be done that day or in the very near future, it goes inside one of the folders on top of my desk (explained next.)  If it’s something I have to put off for a little while (or something I’m not sure I’ll ever get to), it goes into a file in either the “tickler,” or “someday/maybe” section of my filing cabinet (explained in numbers 3 and 5.)  If it’s a reference material it goes into a file under the “reference” section (#6.)  (For more information on what to do with things in your inbox, see this helpful Getting Things Done Flowchart.)


On my desk – next actions/current activity folders

Projects and tasks that I’m CURRENTLY working on go in the files on top of my desk. Each project is arranged in categories like “on computer, phone calls, errands, during school,” etc.  The kids also have their own files, for things I need to tell them or remind them to do or do with them, and Jon has a folder for the same reason.  I also have a “15 minute” folder for things that don’t necessarily fall under one of the other categories, but are things I can get done quickly when I have just a little bit of time.  The “projects” folder on the desk is a list of everything I’m currently working on that requires more than one step to complete and is important when it comes to filing everything else away.

To give an example of how the desktop files work, one project we had going on several few months ago was to get our radon mitigation system fixed.  The steps involved (written on a piece of paper in the “projects” folder on the desk) were:

  1. find someone who can fix it,
  2. call to find out how much it will be to fix,
  3. budget money to fix it,
  4. figure out some dates that will work,
  5. call and schedule the appointment,
  6. have it fixed.

So inside the “projects” folder there was a piece of paper with “FIX RADON” written at the top and all those steps listed below.  The first thing I did (find someone who can fix it) had to be done on the computer (google search), so in my “On Computer” file, I had “find a radon guy” on my list.  After I found someone, I crossed that off my project file paper and put a paper that said “call radon guy” in the “Phone Calls” file.  After I made the call, I crossed #2 off the project paper, wrote down the information and filed it in the “Jon” file so that he and I could talk about it and start budgeting for it.  Once we talked about it and figured out dates that would work (crossing off #3 and #4 in on the projects file sheet), we were ready to call and schedule an appointment (which was re-written on my “phone calls” list and filed in the “phone calls” folder.)  Once the project was finished and the radon system was fixed, I took the “FIX RADON” paper out of my Current Projects folder (it went in the trash) and filed the Radon guy’s name and number under “service providers” in the “references” section of the filing cabinet, so I’d have it in the future (explained in #6.)

Now, lets say that when we found out how much it would cost to fix the radon system, it was going to take us several months to save up enough money for it.  In that case, the “fix radon” paper would still be under the Current Projects file on my desk, (because it’s still a current project – we’re actively saving money for it) but figuring out the dates and calling the person back to schedule isn’t something that would be happening any time soon.  In that case, there wouldn’t be much sense in having a “figure out dates for radon guy” in my “Jon” file, or a “call radon guy and schedule appointment” paper in my “Phone Calls” file, since I know it’s going to be a little while before I can get to those steps.  So, I would have put a piece of paper that said “figure out dates and call radon guy” with the phone number in my tickler file (I’ll go over this in the next step), under the month Jon and I thought we would probably have saved up enough money to move forward with the project.

Lastly, most of the stuff in the files on top of my desk are arranged into subcategories (and alphabetized) on separate pieces of paper in their file folders.  For instance, in the “On Computer” file, there are separate pieces of paper with headings such as “emails, google search, facebook, word document, etc” and on those papers I write lists of things that need to be done that fall under those categories.  As I go through the lists, I just mark through what has been done until it starts getting messy, and then I make a new sheet with the list of things that aren’t marked off.  In my “Errands” file there is a separate paper for “Dollar General, Wal-Mart, Sams Club, Post Office, etc.”  In my “Jon” file, they’re arranged by “Projects, Phone Calls, Messages from Rina” (stuff I need to tell him or that we need to go over but isn’t important enough to interrupt him at work, etc.), etc.

Those are the files on my desk – files that contain information and lists for projects and tasks that I’m CURRENTLY working on (but don’t necessarily have a date they MUST be done by.)  Next we’ll look at files that are located in my filing cabinet…


Inside the filing cabinet – “Calendar” (“tickler”) files

Called “tickler” in the book, this is the first set of files in my filing cabinet and I have these files set up under the category “Calendar.” I set this up as the book recommends, with the months and the dates, except that I also have four “Monday” files.  I do this because I have things I want to try to get done each week but I never know WHEN they might get done until that week is close.  So I put all that stuff in the Monday file and then when I get to Monday I sort all those papers and put them into the files for the days that I think will probably work best for me to get it done.  When they get done, I move them into the next Monday file.  If they don’t get done (say, on Thursday when I’ve planned to mop the floors I have too much going on and don’t get to it), I can either move that paper to the Friday file or just decide to skip it for that week and put it in the Monday file for the next week, to look at again.  The other things that go in the calendar files are tasks that have to be done on a certain day. I don’t put that stuff in my little hand-held planner, but it’s nice to have it in the calendar system so that I know when it needs to be done.


Inside the filing cabinet – Project Support files

Just behind the calendar files, is the “Project Support” section.  This is for larger projects I’m currently working on, but is not just a list of things that need to be done (like what is on my desk.)  These folders contain the stuff I need to have on hand in order to GET these things done.  For instance, one of my current projects is the girls bedroom renovation.  I won’t go into all the steps I have listed, but inside my “girls room renovation” folder I have a list of things that need to be done, printed pages of all the ideas I have for their room, instructions on how to do certain things, and information on where to purchase things that I need.  Eventually, when we’re finished actively working on their room, all of this stuff will either be trashed or get moved into other sections (much of it will become reference material and some of it will be filed under “Someday/Maybe” [see below] to be done as finances and/or time becomes available for the other projects we have planned.)


Inside the filing cabinet – Someday/maybe files

This section contains all the stuff that I want to get done eventually or am thinking of doing some day but am not currently working on… everything from unimportant stuff (a list of movies I’d like to watch) to things that are important but can’t be done yet (make/fix things), to things that I dream of some day (having horses.)  If it’s in my head, it’s filed somewhere!!!  :)  In “someday/maybe” I have a “blogs” file (for blog ideas that I might want to write on at some point, or that I know I want to write about but am not CURRENTLY writing), books I’d like to read, crafts I’d like to do, school projects that sound fun, etc.

Regarding my “girls room renovation” folder, you can see how things move from category to category.  What started out in the “someday/maybe” section got moved to the “project support” section when we actually started working on it, and will eventually become “reference” when it’s all said and done (which is why I scribbled out the words “someday/maybe” or “project” on the folder tabs themselves… they might be “someday/maybe today,” and “project support” tomorrow!)


Inside the filing cabinet – references files

This is the biggest section in my filing cabinet and is pretty self-explanatory… it’s just a section for reference… receipts I need to keep, vendor and service provider telephone numbers and websites, documents we get from insurance companies, a list of library books that are currently out, etc.  There is also a “violin” folder in reference, in addition to a “violin” folder in the current projects category.  The difference is that the violin folder in current projects deals with things I have to have on hand when we practice (a project) verses the reference folder which has general information (recital schedules, contact numbers for the instructors, music books we’re not yet working in, etc.)


Other helpful tools

I have an “Errands” file folder on the top of my desk, but wanted something a little more sturdy to take with me when I’m running around town.  The “Errands” folder on my desk contains a list of ALL the errands I need to run and what I need to do at those places, whereas my orange folder only contains the lists of things I need to do at the places I’m actually going to the day I’m out.  The orange folder also holds coupons when we go to the grocery and letters that need to be mailed if I’m going to the post office.

This is our “friend’s” bowl, that sits on top of my dresser (I’ll probably start keeping this stuff in a large tupperware container in the closet, now that my husband installed some shelves.)  This contains everything that doesn’t belong to us that needs to be returned to its owner.  Whenever I’m going out, or when people are coming over, I’ll check this bowl to see if there is anything that needs to be returned.  Makes my life a thousand times easier, and I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to return everything I’ve borrowed that isn’t mine, lately!

Lastly, this is my “read/review” basket that sits beside my bed and contains any reading material that’s too large to go in the file on top of my desk.  It usually contains an assortment of magazines I want to look over and books people have given the kids that I need to read.


And that’s it!  In closing, I think that one of the most important things I’ve learned about working this system is that consistency is the key.  The moment I stop writing things down as soon as I think of them, I find myself getting stressed out from all the things I feel I need to get done.  Once they’re written and filed, however, I can stop actively thinking about them because I know they’re filed away somewhere and I have a peace about the fact that they will all get done (eventually.)  I’ve also found it necessary to look through ALL of my files every week or two, because it keeps everything fresh in my memory and nothing gets forgotten.  It also keeps me on track because as projects get finished, I’m reminded of other projects that I have left to do and I can decide what I want to work on next.  It takes a long time and is a bit tedious, but it really is worth the extra effort.

I hope this helps others who are working through David Allen’s filing system, or maybe offers some helpful ideas for those who have a good organizational system in place to make it even better!  I’m still working out the kinks myself, and learning as I go, but if you have any questions, feel free to contact me!

UPDATE  After three years of working David Allen’s filing system, here are my thoughts and some tips to help you stay on track:

Organizing with David Allen’s filing system – an update after three years


For more great tips on just about every subject, visit Works for me Wednesday


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Getting it All Done!

Our Homeschool Workbox System

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6 Responses to WFMW – Getting it Done – how I work David Allen’s filing system

  1. panvega says:

    Thanks for this very helpful post. I’m reading the book right now and a little overwhelmed – this is very useful guidance.

    • Rina says:

      You’re welcome! It’s really one of the best things I’ve ever done – my husband and I were just talking about it! Hope things go well for you!

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  3. Rachael says:

    Thanks so much Rina. Just listening to the audio book now, but so useful to see an example of the system in action

  4. Pingback: WFMW: Organizing with David Allen’s filing system – an update after three years | Rina Marie

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