16 April 2011

Home Management Un-Binder

Dear Lissy,
Many moms in their pursuit of organizational nirvana create The Household Binder.  It goes by a variety of names -- Control Journal, Home Management Binder, Family Notebook-- but has a single purpose:  a centralized location to store information, menus, schedules, and lists.
Every time I saw one, I wanted one.  I could spend days on a project this compelling.

Most homemakers considered it the end of their struggles with keeping all the details of life contained, but I encountered some fundamental weaknesses of this notebook system every time I tried to use it :
  • I couldn't easily add or change items I was frustrated trying to keep my notebook functional with the changing phone numbers, schedules, and other details. 
  • I over-thought and over-organized everything, wasting a lot of time.  I've stated before that I don't need a 15 point punchlist for every item on my morning to-do list.  I need to "look well" to the ways of my household and stay focused as I go through each room instead.  If I have a well-stocked pantry and freezer,  I can make dinner for two weeks without batting an eye. Toss in a garden, and I can probably make it a month. Menu planning for a week takes 30-45 minutes.
  • Out of sight, out of mind  I function best when my to-do lists, menus, etc. are displayed at eye level. If I have a list in a notebook, it's just too easy to leave it on a shelf and ignore it.  Pretty sure that's a rare personal character flaw, but I want a system that works with my natural strengths to overcome my weaknesses, not a system I need discipline just to use.
  • I still had to find a place to store bills, tickets, invitations, and all the other paper that's a part of life.  
  • I still had a lot of information stored electronically that didn't "sync" with my notebook.
  • Not one friend who's home I admired had a 3" thick binder that ruled their lives.  One of the basic principles of improvement is analyzing what someone does who has mastered that area.  Those friends had laser focus and did housework routines for a few minutes several times a day.  They had a calendar, and a safe place to tuck important bills and papers.  Chore charts for the kids and a running grocery list were stuck to the front of the fridge, or placed on a family bulletin board.  They kept their storage areas neat, and corralled clutter.  A couple of times a year they would go through and "deep clean" each room.
  • I still had huge areas of responsibility -- home school, scouts, craft guild info -- that didn't fit into the binder.
  • I couldn't take it with me because it was too large.  Great.   I've got battery sizes for every electronic gizmo in my house, shopping lists, clothing size charts, and a bevy of other information I can't use unless I'm at home.
  • It was overwhelming.  This is the corollary of the "out of sight, out of mind" hangup. The notebook just seemed overwhelming.  I'd gone from a humble to-do list to a monster binder full of thousands of tasks.
Eventually I started using a technique I had learned as a secretarial clerk:  The Tickler File.  A tickler file is kind of like a mailbox to the future.  Anything you want to have show up on a certain day or date any time in the future can be "mailed" to that date.

A tickler file takes an initial set up time of 20-30 minutes, but only moments a day to implement.

13 Folders, 1 for each month plus one labeled "Future"
31 Left cut folders, 1 for each date
Desktop file box, 8-12 inches thick or 8-12 inches of filing drawer space
I have a closed filing box, so I chose not to use fantastically gorgeous but pricey decorated folders and stuck with plain old 'nilla.  If you have your system stored in an open filing system, you may choose to get pretty folders that match your home decor.

In the picture above you'll see I keep my financial paperwork in the same box.   Each evening after supper is cleaned up, I pull out the folder for the next day while I make my to-do list.  Any paperwork needed during the next day is clipped to my to-do list after I print it.  The now empty folder is placed behind the next month's folder.
Some items that may find their way into a daily tickler file.

  • Tickets
  • Permission slips
  • Reminder to set appointment with phone # and vital info
  • Coupons/Gift cards
  • Birthday Cards
  • Appointment cards
  • Follow up paperwork/phone messages to return
  • Maps
  • Invitations
  • Reminders for oddball items like taking down the clothesline in the fall.
  • Laminated weekly tasks for that day.  I choose to have my entire week posted on the fridge, but I used a laminated sheet while all of you were toddlers.
  • Laminated daily tasks, if needed.  I choose to go in a room, set a timer, and straighten it, but if you have little ones, a list may be more practical.
  • Tests or quizzes for that day's school work.  Regular worksheets are in the children's work folders.
  • Scout, guild, church, etc. related paperwork and reminders for items to be brought to the meeting.  Example:  Lisa made our family a pot of chicken soup when we were ill.  I want to remember to return the pot the following Sunday.  A little note that says "Lisa - pot" will be enough to remind me to put her pot in my church tote bag the night before.

Since tomorrow is Sunday, the folder for the 17th is turned backwards.  That helps me quickly find a day  instead of a date.  For example:   I make up my grocery lists on Mondays.  Lists of items for science experiments, history projects, and Jr. Church; coupons; reminders for a birthday care/gift; and a recipe I want to try are dropped it in the next Monday's folder.   Capiche?
I also like to mount favorite photos, cartoons (Savage Chickens!), little love notes and other items on the inside of the folder just to make me smile.

On the 25th of each month I open up the upcoming month.
For this May I have...

  •  Window clings for Memorial Day that I'll file into the 15th of the month,  
  • A (short) list of birthdays.  This card will be filed into the Monday before the first birthday to remind me to get a card and/or gift when I shop.
  • A reminder to make a pre-payment on my water bill and check the electric meter that has been read incorrectly 3 times this year.  I'll re-file this into the first Wednesday of the month because I pay bills on Wednesdays.
  • Paperwork for jury duty that I'll file into the Monday folder on the date I have to appear.
  • A new weekly and monthly checklist for the fridge.  I only cross out monthly tasks so that the same sheet can be used for a whole month.  That would be the tightwad Yankee in me coming through.
  • Occasionally I'll find a perfect birthday card or gift when I'm looking for another person.  I drop the card directly into the month I'll use it.  The gift is wrapped and tucked away with a note dropped into the folder that reminds me where it is.
Some months are crammed full.  August holds all the school book order forms, reminders to file state paperwork, and supply lists for starting the new year.  December is usually half an inch thick with Christmas paperwork, recipes, and reminders.

Most of the weaknesses I found with the binder were covered in the instructions above, but I will make a few last observations.

The only critical folder in the tickler is the one for today.  I find this incredibly freeing.  If I need to take the whole folder with me, it's a cinch.  I don't have to flip through multiple sections to accomplish my work.  It's all in one small folder and can be added or clipped to my to-do list.

Additions are easy with the tickler system.
We just got Dad a new cat.  Until I add "clean cat dishes and litter box" to Tuesday in the weekly schedule, there's an index card moving from week to week to remind us.  Eventually I'll get kitty food and litter on my master grocery list, but another card with those items reminds me to check supplies on Mondays.

I don't overthink things.  
If I notice a job that needs to be done that's going to take more than a few moments, I can just jot it on a scrap of paper and drop it into the file for the following day (or any day, for that matter).  If it needs to become a permanent addition to a list it can float in the file until I have time to re-do the list.

Not a lot of people use a tickler, and it looks complicated.  It's not.  It's incredibly easy and freeing.  Hopefully you will have used my tickler for several years before leaving our home for your own so you have an idea of its powerful simplicity.  This letter is simply a reminder of how I set up and used mine.  During your single years or before and after children you may find it easier to simply have Sunday through Saturday folders in place of the 1-31 folders. There are multiple places on the web to find instructions for setting up an electronic tickler to augment the paper one, too.  It's been a century since the first ticklers were created, but they are still a great way to "git 'er done".

Love and a tickle,


  1. I completely agree with you on the binder issue. I have one for many years and the truth is I would use them for perhaps a month or so after each revamping and then it would just sit on my counter (shame on me). As a person who loves binders, I embrace the idea but lack the diligence to follow through. I have come to a point that I would only use what come "naturally" to me, as each one of us deal with things differently. I have found my most "natural" tools are (surprise) my calendar and my "to-do notebook". I have tried the wonderful trickle system as well, again, I was not disciplined enough to make it an efficient tool for me. But I heard good results from friends who have used the system and love it! Thanks for sharing your thought on this subject.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences and successes! If you have the time to let Lissy (and everyone else reading along) how you manage the papers and reminders that tend to get misplaced, I would really appreciate it. The tickler became a very natural solution after I used one for three years at work, but Liss may not find it works well for her, either.

  3. Oh my you are such a blessing!I can't get over how much your blog has lifted me up! I just had to say thank you! :) I truly hope that your daughter comes to cherish these letters. My mother worked and has never been the homemaking type so I love reading the wisdom found in this blog! :) xo

  4. All sorts of organization makes me all sorts of happy! Great ideas you shared here. :)

    Wanted to stop by to say thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog!

  5. I have always used a tickler file at work, but never thought of using one at home too. What a great idea!
    thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love that you include fun things in your folders too, like cartoons and love notes :)

  6. I have a system a lot like yours!! I LOVE it! I'm blog hopping and found yours. I'm a new follower. Would love for you to check out my blog and follow back!

  7. I'm a young mom looking for ways to get organized and I found your blog. I love this idea and I definitely want to try it . Thanks!

  8. Thank you for this great idea! I want to try this!

  9. tried the binder....it does NOT work from the shelf lol.....just bought some folders and am going to try this idea...you make is sound so easy!!! Thanks for the detailed article!!!

  10. I just came across your blog from a comment you left on "Our Little Corner" and I'm pretty sure I've met you in real life! :) I just wanted to say hi and that I love your blog. What a fabulous way to make a personalized homemaking "manual" for your daughter. Such a treasure for Lissy when she is older!! I noticed this post on the un-binder and I love this idea. In fact, I just read about the same method recently on Simple Mom--and it must have been God directing me to both posts within a few days of each other because my paper piles are driving me crazy and I need a better system! So thank you for sharing this. I am going to try it! I have done the home management binder a la Flylady to some extent, but it has never worked quite like I envisioned. I think the tickler file would be a better solution for me. :) I will definitely be back to visit your blog again and again, and plan to link up on my blog too if that is OK! :)

  11. Thanks, Carrie! Yes, I'm pretty sure we've met. I'd be honored to have you link up your blog, too. I loved the ideas for the tickler that were just on Simple Mom. I like having one folder per day right now, but one folder per month would be plenty once I'm through home schooling, especially with the little "T" on my calendar as a memory jogger. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

  12. I completely agree with the binder thing- I have one- but it is too "out of sight out of mind" for me. I use my own modified tickler file system. I have the monthly folders, but instead of daily folders I use weekly folders- it works for me. Having fun reading through your site.