Creating a GTD Tickler File in DEVONthink

I’ve been following the GTD methodology for many years now and I use OnmiFocus to handle my projects and tasks. I also make use of the file linking capabilities that exist in both OmniFocus and DEVONthink to create synergy between the two apps that also carries over to the iOS apps for both products.

This system works very well for managing my tasks and projects, but I still have need for a ‘Tickler File’ in DEVONthink to handle the flow of paperless documents. The Tickler File is a GTD concept (also made popular by the name ‘43 Folders’ by Merlin Mann) that organizes documents into 1-31 days over 12 months. An excellent PDF document on the Tickler File is available from David Allen at this link. The document assumes that the tickler file will be used with real file folders, but here is how it can be done in DEVONthink.

This is how I have set up a tickler file in DEVONthink using the templates available from the ‘Data>New from Template’ menu. The screen shots below show mostly empty folders because I walked through the process with newly created groups so that I would not miss a step for this posting. My working Tickler file is much more heavily populated.

  1. Create the 31 days of the month using ‘Data>New From Template>Registers>1-31’

  2. Rename the ‘Register 1—31’ group to ‘Tickler File’ or whatever name you prefer

  3. Create the months of the year using ‘Date>New From Template>Registers>Months’

  4. Drag the 12 months from the newly created ‘Months’ group to the ‘Tickler File’ group

At this point you will have a group named ‘Tickler File’ that contains 31 groups for the possible days of the month and 12 groups for the months of the year. Note that the ‘Tickler File’ group contains 43 items, which is how Merlin Mann came up with the name ‘43 Folders’.

You’ll want to set the Tickler File group to unsorted so you can manually arrange the groups in the list on a day-to-day basis. I’ll not explain the how’s and why’s of doing this as this is documented in David Allen’s PDF ‘Using The Tickler File’ document linked above. I also apply a label to the months of the year to easily distinguish them in the list, and I also make sure to enable tags for all the groups to simplify the daily workflow

Here’s how the system works on a daily basis. Just today I received a PDF of my wireless bill that is due to be paid June 17. The bill will be paid on June 15, so I add the tag ‘15’ to the other tags for the PDF and a tag replicant is created in the group ‘15’.

Now here is where the only tricky part of this system comes into play. If the wireless bill was due July 1 and I wanted to pay it on June 30, I would not tag it with ‘30’, instead I would tag it with ‘June’. The reason is that if I tag it ‘30’, then this bill will appear on my radar on May 30-one month before I want to see it again. You can see in the screen shot above that I have 2 documents in the ‘June’ folder, which are items that will need my attention in June, on a day of the month later than the current day in May.

As part of my daily review, I will scan the group for the current day for any documents that need my attention (as this post was written, I reviewed the group ‘28’) and act on them as needed. I’ll then manually move the folder ‘28’ down in the list so that it appears below the group ‘27’, to indicate that it is now active for the month of June. I’ll also review the June folder to see if there are any documents that need my attention on June 28. If so, I’ll now drag the document from the June folder to the 28 group.

You could add the ‘28’ tag to the document so that it will have a tag replicant in the ‘28’ group, but if you do that you’ll also need to remove the June tag so that you are not reviewing this document the following day when it has already been moved to the proper day.

This system will handle any date situation for the next 12 months. If you do plan out further than that, you could always add a group for the respective year. That is, if you have a document that needs your attention in January of 2013, then create a group ‘2013’ and review the group as part of your monthly reviews in 2012. There is no need to duplicate the 43 folders inside the 2012 group. The only other aspect of this system that you need to consider is how to handle tickler documents across multiple databases. I do not encounter this often, but when I do I create a text file in my tickler file with a link to the document that is located in another database (select the target document, right-click, and ‘Copy Item Link’).

As a final note, I save the Tickler File group as a Sidebar Favorite but the new Workspaces feature in 2.1 would be another way to save a window of the Tickler File. Enjoy, and share with us how you might use this and/or improve upon it!

I’m interested in hearing why you use a tickler file while also using Omnifocus.

I’ve stopped using a tickler file now that I have omnifocus. Following your example, I’d bring the bill into DT and file it as normal, then create an Omnifocus item that links to the bill to remind me to pay it. I’d set the start date on the Omnifocus task to June 30, and then forget about it. For me, that works well.

What do you like better about a tickler file?

That’s an excellent question. For most tasks that originate from DEVONthink, or Mail, or wherever, I do the same. However, for tasks such as paying the bills I find the tickler works better for me.

Expanding a little deeper on paying bills, I do this on the 15th of the month and again on the 30th. I already have two recurring tasks set up in OmniFocus in a Single Action list-‘Pay Mid-month Bills’ and ‘Pay EOM Bills’. The two tasks have a link in the note, but not to a particular bill. The links are to the 15th folder and to the 30th folder inside the Tickler File group.

As bills arrive during the month, I scan them or import them depending on the billing system. The bills go directly into the folder structure where they belong, and are also tagged with either ‘15’ or ‘30’ to put them in the Tickler File. I never need to think about filing them again. When the 15th of the month rolls around, the start date for the ‘Pay Mid-month Bills’ kicks in and all I need to do is click on the ‘15’ group link in the notes field of OmniFocus and DEVONthink opens to all the invoices for the 15th. I pay each bill in turn, delete the ‘15’ tag as I go, and I’m done. Check off the task in OmniFocus and it will start again on the 15th of the next month. This workflow pretty much runs itself once I have the invoice in DEVONthink and I tag it with a day-of-month from the Tickler file. I don’t have to create multiple tasks in OmniFocus each month to link to a specific invoice in DEVONthink. Saves a lot of time.

I also continue to use a tickler for most of the someday/maybe stuff rather than dump it all into OmniFocus. One example is the Productive Macs promo going on now for TextExpander, PathFinder, Keyboard Maestro, etc. that ends June 1. When this bundle was first announced, I was not sure if I wanted to pick it up or not, but I didn’t want the end date to slip by without revisiting the purchase. Rather than capture the bookmark into OmniFocus, I saved it in the ‘1’ group in the Tickler File instead. Having it there, it will still appear in my radar on the 1st of the month, but it won’t be part of my tasks in OmniFocus that require my full attention.

Sorry to reply to such an old thread. Greg, you talk about interlinking between OF & DT. I’m a longtime OF user and relatively shorttime DT user, and interlinking functionality seems key in making sure everything plays together nicely. Would you mind pointing to an article or post on the site that explains how you do this, or explaining it briefly here? This newbie would be most grateful.

Thanks for any help,

Eric Grey
Portland, OR

First, I have edited the original post to correct the dead picture links due to problems in the TinyGrab picture hosting service.

As to linking with OmniFocus and DEVONthink, the DEVONthink > OmniFocus link is easy (assuming that you are using Pro or Pro Office). Just select a document in DEVONthink and choose the ‘Script Menu>Reminders>Add as To Do to OmniFocus’ and a new task will be created in OmniFocus with a link in the notes field back to the document in DEVONthink. If you are also using DEVONthink To Go and OmniFocus iOS, and the document has been synced to DEVONthink To Go, then clicking on the link in the notes field of OmniFocus iOS will open the document in DEVONthink To Go.

Linking from OmniFocus to DEVONthink works about the same, although it is not automated by a script. You can drag folders, projects, or tasks from OmniFocus into DEVONthink and a RTF document will be created with a link back to the item in OmniFocus. You can also add links to an existing document or group in DEVONthink by selecting the item in OmniFocus, right-click, and select ‘Copy As Link’. To link projects or folders in OmniFocus to groups in DEVONthink, copy the OmniFocus item as a link, select the group in OmniFocus, show the info for the group, and paste the link in the URL field of the group. When you right-click on that group, ‘Launch URL’ will be an option that opens the item in OmniFocus.

There are also some excellent scripts in the scripting forums of both OmniFocus and here that do some other more advanced things with OmniFocus and DEVONthink.

Wow! I was excited by Devonthink right away, but the more I learn (and I have a lot to learn) the more I love it. Thanks for the info!

Just checking if this script still works with the latest version of DEVONThink Pro Office & Sierra? It was suggested on my splash screen - also the bit linking files to OmniFocus. I have similar processes to Greg Jones.

For anyone coming to this thread and looking for the link from OP and finding that it’s broken, it’s moved to here.

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imho A tickler file is an archaic relic from pre-computer days
We had one in our office back in the day

These days, I assign a date to records in Devonthink
Devonthink has a reminder feature; I use a custom metadata field
Records can be sorted into date sequence
I export the note list to a spreadsheet for a gantt chart view


Not a bad way of tackling the idea!