Another analog task management system - The 43 Folders

Another analog task management system - The 43 Folders

(Wilson Ng) #1

The 43 Folders system is a great way of scheduling and deferring projects and tasks to future dates in our lives. I’ve always enjoyed my time with the 43 Folders system and thought it would be a great time to revisit it.

Grab 43 folders from any office supply store. Label the first 31 folders from 1 to 31 to represent the days of the month. Then label 12 folders to represent the months (January to December). File any inbox items into the different folders. If I have a business card and need to call someone on the 15th of the month, I’ll place that business card in folder ‘15’. I have concert tickets for a Guns N’ Roses show in February and I’ll place it in the February folder. I start the day off by pulling out the need materials for today from the numbered folder representing today. If today is December 16, I’ll look in Folder ‘16’. I work on any project materials from that day. If I don’t finish with a project list or task, I can always file it into a future day or month. It’s a very simple setup that I’ve always enjoyed before my OmniFocus days.

I am contemplating returning to it during emergencies. I live on an island and have had experiences with typhoons. Internet service and power are very precious commodities that I might not have and would need to temporarily stop using my iPhone/iPad/Mac and resort back to the 43 folders system. I watch the news in Puerto Rico and wondered how I would be able to keep a task management system without any power or reliable internet access for a long, long, long time. I think 43 Folders is one of the simplest systems to set up and get going.

It’s always good to have an analog backup such as 43 Folders when all else fails. I did a YouTube search and found a wide variety of different hacks for 43 Folders. Some people use 43 folders with folders and a cabinet. Others have converted their existing planners and added folder tabs. My current favorite is by Steven Bailey and it uses 3x5 index cards and a small index card box holder. I’ve included the original YouTube video and the follow up video which streamlines it a bit further.

I’m thinking of switching to an A5 version so that I can take full sheets of paper, folder it in half, and place it in my 43 Folders. But for now, Steve Bailey’s use of 3x5 index card has worked well enough for me. I don’t need a full notebook size but I can see how it might work better if I have a lot of papers I need to file.

I’ve always liked the 43 Folders system that was brought up in David Allen’s original Getting Things Done book. I don’t think he came up with it originally but it gained wide exposure when he included it in his book.

You might find a version of the 43 Folders in the YouTube search and see which one fits you best. Then hack it to fit your own needs. It is certainly a simple setup that takes care of scheduling. You can look ahead the next few days to see what is coming up by flipping through the cards. It feels like a system that has very few complications that might break down and throw monkey wrenches into our lives. I’ve used the 43 Folders for about a year before I discovered OmniFocus. It took a lot of work to get OmniFocus to work for me and I do sometimes wonder if I should have just stayed with 43 Folders. For GTD newcomers, I’ve always liked using 43 Folders to explain some GTD basics and let the person get comfortable with ideas such as deferring and weekly reviews.

If you have any experiences with 43 Folders, I’d love to hear from you and see how you’ve adapted 43 Folders to your own life.

Reflecting While Working
(Rosemary Orchard) #2

Personally I did 43 Folders in a binder. Punched pockets behind each day/month, very simple. It was very useful as I was moving around a lot, so being able to grab the next week’s worth for my trip was useful - but nowadays I have so little paper it’s not worth it. As I still use a paper planner (as a brain extension), I put documents in there in the right week - very handy for the paper showing doctor A referred me to doctor B (for example).

(Wilson Ng) #3

I’m still using digital for my projects and tasks now but have used 43 Folders to hold any physical documents such as tickets, itineraries, coupons, and paper forms (my kid’s school still uses paper) in the appropriate folder. So I’m still mixing my digital and my analog. Gotta exist in both worlds for now.

But it’s nice to be able to return to analog if I needed to,

(Joe Buhlig) #4

I’ve been doing a digital Tickler file for a while on my calendar. I have a dedicated calendar for it that I put all-day events in. If there’s paper involved I simply make a note of where to find that paper, which is mostly in my Hold section of my paper inbox.

Do you still do this? And how do you handle the digital side of things with a binder involved?

(Rosemary Orchard) #5

I put paperwork in my paper planner for the relevant date if it has one, otherwise it goes into my binder filing system.

I often attach files to OmniFocus tasks (as most of them are task related), however as most of my digital filing system is in DevonThink (personal) or OwnCloud (work) I will also copy the links to files and reference them in the task or in calendar events if required.

(Wilson Ng) #6

One thing I like to do is to print out a project all of the tasks from OmniFocus and place it on the defer date. I have started accumulating tax-related stuff inside the February folder because my “File & Pay Taxes” project begins in February. I like working from paper and check it off when needed. I’ll check it off eventually in OmniFocus whenever I am doing inbox processing.

I have a project for “Learn Adobe InDesign - Lynda videos” to start in January. So that project page is in my January folder. Oftentimes it help to have that physical sheet of paper in the file folder. It kind of gets lost in OmniFocus sometimes. But I know that this project will automatically show up in my Big Rocks perspective because I have the project status set to Active and the defer date scheduled to start on a future date.

I think the 43 Folders metaphor helped me reset my use of OmniFocus. My concept was to return back to paper and build up a system. Then figure out how to translate that system into OmniFocus or whatever task manager I chose. The OmniFocus review is similar to 43 Folders. I pull out that day’s folder and review what I need. I might defer it into the future. But it was cumbersome to move multiple sheets around. Nowadays, I have an index card in that folder that says “Tickler: Review the storage shed renovation project list”. I have another binder filled with those transparent plastic sheet inserts. I stuck relevant papers in one plastic insert. This is my Someday/Maybe binder. I can go to that insert and review it. It’s usually physical forms that I need to turn in or coupons that need to be physically presented at whatever store.

If I can, I’ll store scanned documents in DevonThnk and link it like @rosemary does.

I’m just glad that I know I can keep working if I was in a Puerto Rico-type situation where internet and power services are non-existent.

I can only imagine what it must be like with those California wildfires literally destroying neighbors. Hope they can quickly rebound.

(Joe Buhlig) #7

So if I’m following this correctly, you’re not trying to manage a single tickler but two. Correct? One for paper and one (of sorts) for the digital side.

Seriously! You should be on paper entirely. :wink:

On an honest note, it sounds a lot like OmniFocus is purely holding ground for you in this case. It’s only there as a way to get it out of OmniFocus and into the actual working system. Is that fair?

(Wilson Ng) #8

I’m running two parallel systems still trying to find my way through.

I need that security blanket for the moment that is in OmniFocus. A lot of my repeating tasks stay here. But Big projects are often planned out in OmniFocus and saved as a someday/maybe project. When I’m ready to start a project, I’ll print out the sheet and put it into my 43 Folders. I have way too many single one-off actions to want to use the 43 Folders. I can work my single next actions from OmniFocus but I work on projects from the paper printouts.

I’ll use 43 Folders for physical forms like the school raffle tickets, school field trip forms for the kids or any other paper forms that need to be filled out. Otherwise, I’ll go digital.

(Rosemary Orchard) #9

Technically, yes. However the paper documents tend to be short lived as paper (e.g. I will use them at the appointment then scan, file digitally and shred the paper). Essentially this system is just for the few things that haven’t caught up with my digital world yet. I would say 95% of my tickled items are digital nowadays - and they get attached to events or OF items as appropriate.

(Wilson Ng) #10

I’m on an island and the island lifestyle is slow and easy. We operate on something called “island time.” We’ll get there when we get there. Them city folks are always busy and runnin’ n’ trynna git things done. Always in a hurry but we get to the destination all the same.

I can’t completely go paper because my handwriting is the absolute s••ts. I think I can take a picture of my work notebook when I arrive at my office. It’s an utter disaster. My language teacher says her 2nd grade students have better penmanship than me. I have scribbles all over and is meant as a temporary holding ground. So re-writing tasks on a new page ain’t my thing.

Because I’m on the sales floor a lot, it’s easier to have a paper checklist instead of turning my iPad on just to see something. I think I can set the auto-lock/sleep to a longer duration but that’s something else I’m working through. After I check off tasks on my paper checklist, I can visit OmniFocus at the end of the day, shift-click or command-click a bunch of tasks, and finally control-click to set the task status to complete. If I’m lucky, I’ll just check the project as complete and it’ll auto-check the next actions inside as complete.

I’m not at my desk long enough to stay on the computer except for the early morning and late afternoons. So, it’s paper when I’m focusing on 3-5 single actions for today and the Big Rock project I want to work on for my deep work hour.

(Wilson Ng) #11

I just have a small A5 notebook with a ribbon bookmark. I go to OmniFocus and write 3-5 single action tasks to focus on.

My handwriting is basically chicken scratch. I have a HORO writing project that I’m working on. Then there’s balance the checkbook.

The next 3 items that are scratched off as completed are some utility bills that were due 12/18.

I have a CyberTec security alarm payment due 12/27. I’m gonna pay this a little early and not have to worry about it later.

The last task on the bottom is to use Apple Pages and rewrite some sales copy for the new year.

I have an index card that contains a list of some Big Rock projects I want to work on during deep work time. When I want to work on a Big Rock, I’ll put out the OmniFocus printout and work off of that.

So I’m still a hybrid. I work digital but I plan and record in digital.

(Ashley Grant) #12

I do the same as you, Rosemary. I put all the virtual docs in OF or else as a calendar event attachment. For events, I share calendar items with my family, so they have the digital links they need. I store these in Dropbox family shared folder.

As far as filing things appropriately, I use tags and/or file name keywords and hazel mostly does the rest.
It works well getting files into OF. Though I could use an AppleScript to actually add the event attachment to my calendar app. I do it semi-manually now, with hazel opening fantastical to create an appointment on the right date and I add the details and links manually.

(Joe Buhlig) #13

Ashley, how do you handle the paper side of this? I’m still working out some of my paper reference and tickler concepts and looking for ideas. :wink:

(Ashley Grant) #14


I manage all the documents for our home, business, and family of five — going paperless has been a lifesaver.

Anyhow, here is my suite of go-to apps (not surprising):

Incoming: Scansnap, Hazel, PDFPen
Ticklers: Fantastical, Ominifocus
File Storage: Dropbox and Devonthink

I pretty much shred or trash all paper after I scan it. Like Rosemary, my calendar and OF provide with notes fields importing/linking to Dropbox or Devonthink files provide all the ticklers I need. I use Hazel in two ways for this:

  1. For OmniFocus:
    a.) Some files Hazel automatically imports into the note field - e.g., recurring bills to pay; expiring gift certificates/coupons - based on rules I’ve set up for each
    b.) Other files I manually apply a tag to indicate the file needs to be imported into OF. Hazel does the rest after that.

  2. For Calendar: I use a date and key word (“invitation”) naming convention. Hazel then pre-populates my Fantastical calendar with the file name on the desired day, though I have to manually enter all the other details, including the links and save. I tried to script the file link into the notes, but gave up — I’m no programmer. Would love to automate this fully although this gets me more than half the way there.

Anyhow, I can always print up a copy of these notes on a just-in-time basis. Most of the time I don’t need to though. This works very well since my husband (and kids, if they bothered to look) have all the details they may need on our shared calendars. I still get asked for these details, but my husband is getting to be better trained…albeit reluctantly!


  1. Certificates: In addition to electronic copies, I save physical copies in a safe place (birth certificates, deeds).
  2. Mobile check deposits: hold them in a “wait” inbox and clear it out during my weekly review
  3. Non-virtual event tickets: I pin them on my bulletin board by the door to grab the day of, but very few of these anymore.
  4. For an ongoing project I am working on, I also have a few physical, temporary files in containers as needed in addition to my virtual files.


I enjoyed reading this thread. A back to basics trip I would call it, good to know if we are getting too unnecessarily complex.

A bit of a surprise to me that it comes from wilsonn: I read (study) your omnifocus posts series (will it be a part 3, on the today perspective?), actually I am using your clever approach to improve my setup. Thank you for this. The surprise comes from imagining that you master and are truly comfortable with your system, so I didn’t think you were thinking of letting it go.

I’m too soon in the learning how to make omnifocus work for me (and not the contrary) and also going paperless (I see so many advantages in my city lifestyle, also for disaster recovery), so I will not try this paper system in a while.

I didn’t have any system before, I mean ‘closed’ system, other than emails and folders on my computer and drawers, project plans, reminders, etc, but not integrated ia a seamless system, like I’m trying now.

Just thank you for the learning, wilsonn and the rest of you.

(Wilson Ng) #16


I’m about 80% finished with it. Didn’t like the direction of where it was going and threw it away to start over again. But it’s the Holiday Retail Shopping Season now and I’ve had to set aside deep work like writing for after the new year. The idea of the Today list sounded great but it became a “planning” perspective for me instead of a “doing” perspective. So I’m still trying to iron it out. It’ll come when I finally think it’s baked enough. But if you have your own ideas of what a today list looks like, we’re all ears and would love to see it. :slight_smile:

I hope you (and others) can take whatever works and fit it into your own system. Then it becomes yours.

I don’t think I’ve let go of OmniFocus. As much as many folks wants OmniFocus (or whatever task manager app of choice) to be the “everything plus the kitchen sink” app, I’m finding its role in my overall system. Some folks want to go all digital and some folks want to go all analog. I like finding my own place and getting comfortable. Life changes and what used to work in a previous situation doesn’t apply as strongly (if at all) in a new situation.

When I had stopped using OmniFocus years ago, I went back to analog. I wanted something basic and simple enough to work in. Create a simple system that I can work in. I can create my productivity habits and systems when it is stripped down to the basics. GTD was tough to absorb because there were all these building blocks that I was trying to adopt all at one time. The Zen To Done (ZTD) variation helped me slow down my learning process and add on blocks as I practiced and got better.

Later, I was able to get the habits in place and explored how OmniFocus and my digital tools would fulfill my needs. GTD is complicated because beginners want to try to implement everything at one time without taking the time to master the basic foundations of GTD - capturing, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage.

Our tools are worthless if we don’t have a system or set of habits in place to make it work. If we can get the system baked into our psyches, the digital or analog workflow works better. Returning back to paper allowed me to work on my fundamentals so that I can easily translate it back to digital if I wanted to.

I didn’t need to stay “all digital” or “all analog”. Pen and paper has its place in this world right next to my iOS devices and Mac. I have OmniFocus, Fantastical, and DevonThink working together. My 43 Folders and Hipster PDA. I think it’s more about developing an ecosystem with multiple tools instead of just finding a tool that does “everything.”

My interest in analog started up once again shortly after the 2017 hurricane that plunged Puerto Rico into chaos. What if I didn’t have access to the internet or basic things like power? What if foreign agents decide to crush our internet system and overwhelm us with denial of service attacks? I wanted to make sure that I can carry on without relying on a phone or computer.

And now I return back to my Holiday Retail Shopping Season. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

(Joe Buhlig) #17

I totally get it. It seems like the more people in your family the more paper that arrives.

Do you use any form of scanner from your phone? I’ve been using Scanner Pro. A while back I had a ScanSnap but turned it in when I left my last company. So I’ve been running with the phone scanner only for a couple years. Granted, I have been quite terrible at actually scanning things in and have a huge backlog at the moment.

+1 for Hazel. :wink:

(Justin DiRose) #18

I’m in the same boat, but I keep telling myself if I had a ScanSnap I’d be better at it.

(probably not)