The Three-Legged Stool of Organization

Practical strategies to organize your mind, your life, and your workspace.

The three-legged stool embodies stability and simplicity. In the busy world of middle-level education, our time is finite yet the demands on it seem unlimited. Technology places countless resources at our fingertips, sometimes in overwhelmingly large numbers.

Three simple tools can give you the control over your day for which you have longed and the peace of mind that nothing has been forgotten.

Taming the Paper Beast

Sometimes the best tools are the old tools time has forgotten. As a young boy, I watched my dad run a small law office from a set of 43 folders that I later learned is called a “Tickler File.” You could have this one today. Grab some hanging file folders. Clear a hanging file drawer in your desk. In a pinch, an inexpensive milk crate will suffice.

The Tickler File

Number the folders 1–31, each representing a day of the month. Label 12 more folders with the months of the year. In minutes, you have created a system that will tame the paper beast for the rest of your life.

Look at the papers cluttering both your mind and the surface of your desk right now. As you pick up each piece of paper, ask yourself, “When do I want to see this item again?” Drop it in the folder for that day. You have just earned an important right … the right to forget about it.

What’s on your desk right now?

  • Papers you must remember to take to a meeting on Thursday? Drop them in the folder for Thursday.
  • Tickets to a concert that won’t happen for several weeks? Drop them in the folder for that date.
  • A letter from a parent to which you must reply? Decide when you want to reply and drop the letter in the folder for that day to serve as a reminder.

I have given you three examples. I could just as easily have given you 103. The Tickler File is a tool that intrigued me as a young boy. When I started my teaching career as a junior high band director, setting up my own Tickler File was the first order of business. When I retired as a central office administrator almost 30 years later, that Tickler File was still keeping my desk organized.

Can I Do That Digitally?

When I explain to people the magic of the Tickler File, the next question is predictable, “Do you have something like that for the digital stuff?” The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Everything I have to do, every idea I want to put in place, and every goal I have for myself or my organization is in one digital list.

Get rid of the sticky notes which adorn the computer monitor. Throw away the scraps of paper in your pockets. Consolidate the variety of notepads on which you have been writing reminders to yourself. Adopt a digital task manager and put everything in it. My personal choice is Toodledo, located at Other effective digital managers include Wunderlist, Asana, Remember the Milk,, and Todoist. Google has recently made great strides with their “Reminders” feature. Most services offer both free and paid versions. I have found the free version of mine to be more than adequate.

As you make a decision on the one you will choose, look for these seven features:

1. Has a “due date” field for each task and the ability to sort by due date. When you add a task to your list, ask yourself, “When do I want to see this item again?” Assign the due date accordingly. It’s just like the tickler file! Some of what you have on your list will be tasks for today. Other tasks need your attention a week, a month, or a year from now. Your list gives you one place to put it all. The due date ensures that the right thing comes back at the right time.

2. Handles repeating tasks. Our middle-level environment is rich with routines and traditions. Many of the projects we will undertake this year are those you undertake every year. Some are exciting things you do with your students. Others involve mundane, yet necessary tasks. Put them all on your list. Assign a due date and repeating pattern. You can have the confidence that your system will continue to put that task in front of you each time you need to see it.

3. Displays a note section. Often, there is information you want to have at hand when you complete a task. For example, a task scheduled for several days from now includes a phone call. You have five items in mind to discuss with the person. How will you remember what those five items are? Having a note section within each task gives you a place to put that type of information.

4. Allows you to search. Every good digital tool is going to have a search function, usually designated by a magnifying glass. When I create a task that reminds me to make a phone call, I am careful to include the word “call” in the task. Later, searching for “call” returns a quick list of every phone call I need to make in order by due date. Likewise, a search for “Jane” will return any tasks related to her. When Jane happens to call with her own agenda, I instantly access the items on my list I wanted to cover with her.

5. Syncs across all devices. Having your list available from everywhere is a must. Look for a web-based task manager that also has a companion mobile app. I can get to my task list from my computer, laptop, tablet, phone, or any computer in the world that has Internet access.

6. Works with your e-mail. How many tasks are sitting in your e-mail inbox right now because they are reminders of things you need to do? Any good web-based task manager is going to supply you with a special email address. Forwarding an e-mail to that address puts it on your task list. Create a new entry in your Contacts for that special email address. Before forwarding the e-mail to your task list, edit the subject line. The wording of the subject line becomes the wording of the task. The entire body of the e-mail shows up in the note section of the task. With the to-do over on your list, where it belongs, you can delete (or archive) the e-mail!

7. Allows voice Input. The Achilles Heel of the mobile device has always been data entry. Voice input has changed all that. As an example, the Toodledo mobiles app has a setting allowing the user to sync with Reminders. Tell Siri to “remember to” or “remind me to,” and the task goes to Reminders on the iOS device and straight into Toodledo. On an Android device use the Google Now command “Note to Self.” The first time you use the feature, the device asks you where to send the note. If your task app supports voice input, it will appear as one of the choices. When prompted, tell the device you want this action to happen all the time and not just this once.

Mastering Documentation

From teacher preparation courses through upper-level administration, we are told the importance of documentation. Yet nobody gives us a system that makes it easy. From phone calls from parents to those one-on-one, drop-in visits, you are accountable for everything said. Most of the notes you take, you will never need again. But which conversation, which seemed like nothing at the time, will be the one that turns into a big mess? For those times, you will be glad to have this third tool.

As digital as I am in many areas, my paper journal makes documentation easy. Nothing more than a book of blank, lined pages, where one day leaves off, the next begins. Every phone call, one-on-one conference and small-group meeting gets logged there in real time. When the interaction is over, the documentation is over as well. Nothing to re-copy. Nothing to file. At the end of the day, I look at what I have written, decide on the “to-dos,” and enter those to-dos on my digital task list. If I ever need the raw notes again, there’s only one place to look.

Total Control and Peace of Mind

Say good-bye to the paper avalanche on your desk. Say farewell to breaking out in a cold sweat trying to remember what you forgot. Say so long to wishing you had taken notes during that phone call with the angry parent.

Say hello to a three-legged stool of productivity that will handle the details and put what you need in front of you when you need it.