Brandon's Notepad

August 28, 2013

Getting Things Done With The Paper Tiger

Home > My Research > Improvement > Getting Things Done > The Paper Tiger


The question of how well The Paper Tiger filing system (c.f. Barbara Hemphill) integrates with GTD was posed on an online GTD forum about a year ago. I had never heard of it, so I started to dig and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. I had dreamt up a very similar system a few years before, when I first started experimenting with GTD, but dismissed it as a “crazy idea”. I’m not yet convinced that it is the best system, so I have not implemented it myself, but I do think it is an interesting concept worthy of exploration.

Disclaimer: My opinions below are based on Paper Tiger software training videos on YouTube and information gleaned from websites and ‘blogs. I’ve never read the books or used the software, so it is entirely possible that I’ve left something important out here.


The Paper Tiger

Despite the cool name, this system at its core is nothing more than an index of papers, a document inventory if you will. Each paper document is recorded in a database, the three most important data fields being title, location, and keywords. The location is a combination of the named storage location and a folder number; for example, “2011 Tax Return” may be located in “Reference #359” or “Drawer D #42”. Of course, the software has bells and whistles to make operations like moving, merging, and purging files quick and easy, but a bare-bones system could easily be created with text files in a directory where the file name is “Location – File Number – Title” and the contents are the keywords. Homegrown spreadsheets are probably a popular alternative to the software as well. An incoming document is filed in the next available folder, which the software identifies automatically. Keys to success include keeping the physical files in-sync with the database, and purging files on a regular basis — and the software provides controls to assist with both.

GTD Compatibility

My first reaction to The Paper Tiger was that this was not going to work with GTD at all. The reason was based on how files were split between “action” files and “reference” files, which I perceived as a similar but separate GTDesque system. When I learned that “action” files simply meant those papers that need to be close-at-hand because some action is tied to them, my skepticism subsided. I then saw how this system could potentially integrate quite naturally with GTD.

Action Files. Let’s consider this concept for a moment. GTD advocates using papers as reminders about things that must be done (think tickler files and the trick of leaving that important file under the car keys near the front door so your remember to take it with you in the morning). In essence, an “action file” is really just a reference file according to GTD nomenclature. Instead of shuffling an actual document around, a reminder bearing the file location could be used instead. This provides several gains. It reduces the bulk, making the GTD system more uniform and fluid. It also keeps all of the working files together, at hand, making it easier to regroup if the GTD system becomes stagnant — just dial through the folders and create a completely new set of reminders if necessary. Having prelabeled folders cuts down the resistance to filing even more than using David Allen’s recommended A-Z system, and retrieving documents becomes an almost mindless effort. Allen claims that filing with an A-Z system reduces the number of places a document could be, but how can that be better than just searching for it on the computer?

Reference Files. If Paper Tiger filing provides enough value when dealing with working papers, then seemless integration with the permanent filing system makes sense. It’s also scalable. Adding file cabinets means defining more locations in the system. Regarding GTD, Allen acknowledges that filing needs vary depending on the type of records (e.g. customer or client records) and how the files must be shared with others (e.g. coworkers). I suppose as long as The Paper Tiger system is the established norm, there is no reason why it cannot work.

Why I Don’t Use Paper Tiger

As attractive as it looks, there are several reasons why I will not use The Paper Tiger myself, at least not on a large scale. First and foremost, I am married to an avid filer, and this system does not mesh with her way of thinking. If I were single or dealing with a set of files over which I had exclusive control, I might be more willing to experiment. We do apply the K.I.S.S. Principle (“Keep it simple, sweetie!”) as much as possible when managing the household, and to be honest, our filing cabinets are not out of control, so why mess with a good thing? Likewise, my team at work is not going to buy into this one at all. Another reason is that I’m always trying to eliminate paper, not file it, and while The Paper Tiger can be used to index electronic documents as well, today’s operating systems usually sport respectable document search features. Third, I really don’t want to find out what happens when the system crashes or becomes corrupted. Backups help, of course, unless the corruption is slow to spread through the system.


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