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

Works for Me Wednesday :: Giving Up on Perfect



Three years ago, I started David Allen’s method of file-based management and it literally changed my life.  For the first time in roughly 35 years (give or take a few,) I felt completely free of stress and it was AMAZING.  I don’t know if everyone is like this, but my brain is always going in a thousand different directions.  I’m always thinking of 1,945 different things at the same time, making lists of projects that need to be finished, projects that need to be started, repairs that need to be made, work that needs to be done, and on and on and on.  This tends to stress me out just a teensy, tiny little bit, especially considering that I’m constantly forgetting all of the important things I’m making lists in my head about needing to remember.  David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, changed all that.

Unfortunately, I eventually stopped keeping up with the filing system, and slowly but surely things have gotten worse… and worse… and worse.  I forgot to mail a photo CD to a client, and then forgot to deliver another one.  I forgot that my daughter was supposed to wear her Strings shirt to practice for pictures.  I wasn’t even dressed when a family coming to buy a goat showed up my front door, because I’d forgotten she was coming.  And my second daughter missed a recital because I somehow managed to forget about it.  (Yes, it was on the calendar, and yes I knew what day it was, I just somehow woke up that morning and forgot to remember it until it was too late.)  That’s when I knew something had to change (especially considering that I may be starting a new job soon, with a boss who probably won’t put up with these shenanigans as well as my current boss [Me] does.)

So I’ve started working the Getting Things Done filing system again, which is a really long-winded way of saying that I thought it might be a good idea to write about it again.  Since I wrote such an extensive post on the subject three years ago that people are still reading, I wanted to give an update and talk about the things that eventually threw me off course.  (If you haven’t read it already and want to understand what on earth I’m talking about, Start Here.)

After three years (off and on) of working this system, here are my thoughts and some (hopefully) helpful tips:

1.)  Write everything down.  EVERYTHING.  EVERY. TIME.  Yes, I know you think you’ll remember but that’s why you started this system in the first place – because you won’t remember.  Even if you do, by some miracle, manage to remember whatever it was, the entire time you have it in your head before it gets accomplished, it’s taking up valuable real estate in your mind.  I’ve found that I feel better and think more clearly when I don’t have a mental to-do list on my brain.  Seriously, just write it down and throw it in your inbox, which leads to point number two….

2.)  Empty your inbox every single day.  If you don’t make a habit of this, the inbox eventually just becomes a great big pile of stuff that you have to remember to deal with later (see point number 1.)  It also renders everything you’ve written down practically useless, because it never moves from the inbox into a folder that will help you actually get it done and eventually you’ll find yourself worrying and fretting over all that stuff again.

3.)  Check your calendar folder every morning and every night.  If you don’t check it every morning, you’ll inevitably forget about something you needed to get done that day, and if you don’t check it every night you might not realize it if you missed something.  It’s also helpful to check at folders for the next few days, just to be sure you have a grasp of the things coming up in your week.  If you don’t make a habit of doing this, then keeping the calendar folders will be virtually pointless and before you know it the whole system breaks down (trust me, I know.)

4.)  Go through everything in your filing cabinet once every week.  This is the biggest hassle, and the thing you’ll probably be most tempted to skip.  Don’t do it!  It doesn’t take nearly as long as you think it will, keeps everything fresh in your mind and will enable you to actually get these things done (ie. in the “someday/maybe” section of your filing cabinet, you’ve listed a project that would be great to tackle while the weather is still nice, and you don’t happen to have anything going on this week.  Thankfully, you checked your “someday/maybe” folder and saw it in there!  Now it can move to the “current projects” section and you’ll start on Monday!)  This one was a major problem for me, because worrying over whether something would get lost forever in the “someday/maybe” section of my filing cabinet led me to file some things in inappropriate places, which led to stress and eventually contributed to me quitting the system entirely (more on this, later.)

5.)  Keep things in the folders they’re supposed to go in.  If you’re not working on it now, and if it doesn’t have to be done on a certain day, put it in the “someday/maybe” folder.  If you are working on it now, move it to the “current projects” folder, or the desktop files.  If you’re working the system properly, it won’t get forgotten.

With those things in mind, here is a refresher course on the GTD filing system:

The calendar or the “tickler” files.

Located inside the filing cabinet and designed to be the place where I write down the things that must get done each day, I started using these files for things that I hoped would get done on certain days.  Eventually, the prospect of going through these files every day and resorting everything to different days (because they didn’t get done) became daunting and discouraging.  In retrospect, I should have reserved the “tickler” files for things that HAD to be done each day, and kept things that needed to be done “soon” but weren’t day-specific in the….

Next actions/current activity folders


these are my old files, from 2012

These folders are placed on top of the desk for easy access, and are designed to hold the things that I’m currently working on, arranged by category.  For instance, we are currently working on getting our property ready for winter and there are about 20 things we need to do, but the order or day in which we do them doesn’t really matter (as long as they’re done before it gets really cold.)  So rather than put those things in the calendar files, they go in their own folder on top of the desk (which, in this case, is just generically labeled “outside.”)  Whenever there is a nice day and we feel like working in the yard, we pull the “outside” folder and get to work.  Currently, I have folders labeled:

Kids (special school assignments, things I need to ask/tell them about, etc.)
Big Computer (for anything photography related)
Little Computer (for anything else that needs to be done on a computer)
Phone Calls
Mail (as in post office)
Budget (this is the place to list we are saving for now, not things we need/want in the future.)

Things we need/want in the future would go in the….

Someday/Maybe Files

Located just behind the “project support” files (see next section) in the filing cabinet, 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.  This section used to really worry me, because I was always afraid that if I filed things here, they’d get lost and I’d never actually do them, so I started filing things as “current activities” that really should have been going in “someday/maybe.”  If you’re going through your files each week as Allen recommends, nothing gets lost or forgotten about – that’s one of the great things about this system.  So now, anything I’m not working on RIGHT NOW goes here.

Project Support

This section (located in the filing cabinet just behind the “tickler” files) is where I keep support information necessary for projects I’m currently working on, and goes hand in hand with the files on top of the desk.  For instance, if we were working on building a chicken coop for winter, a paper marked “chicken coop” would be in the “outside” folder on top of my desk and a folder labeled “chicken coop” would reside in the Project Support section of my filing cabinet.  This “chicken coop” folder would contain plans, a list of items we need, the costs involved and anything else I need to know about the chicken coop.  If I were not planning to build a coop this fall, but did plan to build one next year, this folder would go in the….

Reference Files

This is where reference materials reside if I’m not currently working on a project.  For instance, for the chicken coop we’re planning to build next year, the “chicken coop” file would be in the “reference” section, instead of the “project support” section and a paper labeled “build chicken coop” would be in a folder in the “someday/maybe” section of the filing cabinet, rather than on top of my desk.  When I was ready to build the coop, the “chicken coop” file would be moved to the “project support” section and the paper labeled “build chicken coop” would be moved to a folder on top of my desk.  See how that works?


I’m writing about this last, but this is actually where it all starts – the “inbox.”  This is where all of the thoughts in my head reside until they’re filed away somewhere.  Every time I think to myself “I need to…  I ought to…  It might be fun to… Maybe some day we could…” I write it down and stick it in the inbox.  At the end of the day, all of these thoughts go filed away somewhere, in one of the places I’ve mentioned, above.

So there you have it.  After three years and a few false starts and stops, I still highly recommend David Allen’s book and this approach to organization.  If nothing else, it just might help you breathe a little easier and sleep a little better at night!  As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.  I’m obviously still working out the kinks, myself, but will be happy to help if I can!

Click here to see what’s working for everyone else!


Related Articles

Getting it all done
How I work David Allen’s filing system
A Mom’s Resume


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