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Blog // Productivity
April 8, 2020

The Noguchi Filing System

A simple, elegant and self-organising approach to filing, the Noguchi system might be the easiest and most powerful solution to managing the paper in your life.

I hate filling things, and I can’t be the only one. Filing cabinets are where ideas go to die. But, I also hate mess, whether it’s a cluttered inbox, a den strewn with papers, or bills and letters that defy being tidied up.

I always wished there was a way just to let the mess tidy itself up.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a system designed by Yukio Noguchi, a Japanese economist. Noguchi is a visiting professor at Stanford University and emeritus professor at Hitotsubashi University.

The Noguchi system is delightfully simple and surprisingly effective, which is perhaps why it has a bit of a cult following in productivity circles. So here’s what it is and how to use it.

The Noguchi System In 3 Steps

You start with a stack of envelopes. The specifics don’t really matter. They just need to be big enough to hold the size of paper you normally deal with. I work with A4, but you can use whatever is standard in your part of the world.

Once you’ve got the envelopes, cut off the flaps you use to seal them so they remain open. And have a pen handy (I use a Sharpie) to label them along the right-hand side.

When a document needs filing, say you don’t have an envelope for it. Just put it in a new envelope, label it and put in on a shelf or in a rack. And that’s it. Don’t file it. Don’t put it in order. Just put it back with the other envelopes, on the left if it’s on a shelf or at the front if it’s on a rack. That’s it.

If you already have an envelope for it, grab it, add the new piece of paper and then put the envelope on the left of the shelf or at the front of the rack.

Rack Or Shelf?

The original Noguchi system was designed with the envelopes on a shelf. That works well and it’s what I’d suggest if you want to try this out.

The only reason I use a rack is because I had a few of them in a cupboard and I had a distinct lack of shelves in my old Tokyo home office. The system works both ways. I quite like having the envelopes facing me, it feels a little faster, but it’s not essential to the system.

How Does The Noguchi System Self Organise?

The principle behind the Noguchi system is simple. The thing you need next is probably something you touched recently. Most of us are working on a small number of projects that we need to look at every day or every week, and those will sit near the front of the stack.

The things we deal with regularly, but not all the time, like weekly or monthly bills, or recurring commitments, will organise themselves towards the middle.

The things we haven’t touched in a while will end up at the back. Periodically, you can think about whether you need to keep them or not. They can go into a deeper stack or simply in the bin.

Systems As Algorithms

In most filing systems, you need to do a lot of thinking to make the information yield some kind of sense. In the Noguchi system, the information itself does the thinking as you interact with it. There are no categories to set up and the system doesn’t break if you stop using it for a while.

The Noguchi System Might Not Be For Everyone

If you need fast and precise retrieval from a large archive, then this system probably isn’t for you. It might be close to impossible to run an entire medical practice with hundreds (or thousands) of patient files this way.

Then again, this isn’t a system for running a whole archive, and there’s no reason why you can’t use the Noguchi system in conjunction with another archival system, which is what Yukio Noguchi himself originally suggested. He called the files that leave the system “holy files” as a nod to them ascending to another plane of existence!

An Elegant Solution

I love the Noguchi system’s elegance. It requires very little planning, it is easy to maintain and it organises itself. I’ve been running this system for over five years now and it reminds me, in a very visual way, of the small number of really important things I need to focus on. The things I don’t need to focus on are filtered out and I don’t need to worry about whether they’ve been lost or not attended to.

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