The Noguchi filing system

I’ve said this before, and so has fellow Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown: I’m always willing to try a new system if it might turn out to be better than the one I’m using. I was reminded of this earlier when reminiscing about my old job and the Noguchi filing system. It was devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, and for about a year I used it extensively.

The Premise

Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a residential school. There was a lot to manage, from help desk requests to purchasing, maintenance, networking issues, and other administrative tasks. I typically had several projects ongoing at once, large and small. Nearly all of them had support files that needed to be referenced or updated regularly. This is where the Noguchi system was brilliant, as it moves frequently-used files together while creating an archive of seldom used files.

The Setup

Image: Dave Gray,

Instead of a filing cabinet or set of drawers, you’ll need an open shelf and several 9″ x 12″ (or larger) envelopes. Using scissors, cut the flap off the top of the envelope, as shown above. You cut the top off to make it super easy to get at the envelope’s contents. Next, write the date and title along the side of the envelope. Again, see the image at above for a reference. Make one envelope per project and place the envelopes next to each other on the shelf, with the date and title side facing outward.

In Practice

Don’t attempt to organize, classify, or otherwise sort the envelopes. It will be tempting to do so, but the beauty here is that the system takes care of organizing for you. As you take a folder off the shelf to use it, return it to the far left. Over time, three things happen:

  1. The folders you use most often appear on the left hand side. Because you access them regularly, you always know where they are. With time, the project you work on most often will be in the leftmost envelope. Then the next project in the second left position, and then the next, all the way down the line.
  2. Files you use less frequently will migrate to the middle and right. You know how hard it can be to find a paper or file you seldom use? With the Noguchi system it’s easy because you know it’s not on the left.
  3. The files you never access make it to the far right. These “holy files,” as the system calls them, can be removed from the shelf and safely archived away or purged, thereby preventing the shelf from getting cluttered with countless envelopes.

You can color code your envelopes if you want. This is most useful when archiving, as you can quickly find what you need in that pile, or sort them by color once they’re off the shelf. Finally, since you needn’t spend time organizing the envelopes on the shelf, you save a lot of time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. It can take a couple of weeks to set it up (moving everything into an envelope) and kick in (as you move files right and left and on and off the shelf), but it’s a nice system for managing multiple projects once you get it established.

17 Comments for “The Noguchi filing system”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    I did something similar years ago, but I used colored folders (didn’t have envelopes) and because space was a premium and I had to use what was available (I worked for a publisher), instead of left to right, it was top to bottom. And since this was an academic publisher, there were some projects that could be ‘in process’ for upwards of 2 years (some more). How it worked for me was that once or twice a year, those projects that found their way to the bottom would get a follow-up call/letter from me to find out the status (yes, before email). If I wasn’t able to push the author along or get some sort of commitment from them, the file was relegated to the dead file. A very large bank of file cabinets (publishers NEVER threw anything away) that would get followed up on/purged every couple years before going to archives (giant warehouse across the country). But having the more active projects readily accessible without having to worry about alphabetizing, I could simply put my hand on it, saved me considerable time and also made me look good when my boss was looking for a file. 🙂 I’m in process of organizing my personal files and getting stuff together for an attorney. I’ve been battling with how best to organize this stuff. Thanks for the reminder, I think this may work for me.

  2. posted by David Caolo on

    Leslie, I’m hoping it works out for you.

  3. posted by Christina on

    Ha! I definitely came up with this same method at my job except I use plain file folders. I write on the tab in pencil so they can be reused when a project is done, and for me the process is front-to-back in an organizer on my desk. Every now and then when I have a little extra time I’ll sift through the back stuff to either take care of it or decide it’s not important enough to pursue anymore. When a project is done, I shred anything that’s not critical (scratch paper notes, duplicate pages), scan the rest (saving by date in an “archive” folder if it doesn’t belong anywhere else on my office server), shred the hard copies, erase the title on the folder and put it back for re-use. I’m amused to find this method has a name; it’s really awesome when people across the world come up with the same things!

  4. posted by Janet on

    It sounds as if you’ve replaced this system with one that works better; what system do you use currently?

  5. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    I like this system and have used it on a couple of different jobs. The only thing I do differently is use poly file jackets ( because they hold up better than paper envelopes and they are easy to clean.(Hygiene was very important in the workplace for one of my previous clients.)

  6. posted by Geralin Thomas on

    Interesting! I’ve never heard of this system. I’m wondering . . . does this system work if several people have access to the files? It seems like things could get wonky quickly.

  7. posted by David Caolo on

    Christina, very cool.

  8. posted by David Caolo on

    Janet: I’ve since got electronic and now use an app called Wunderlist:

  9. posted by David Caolo on

    Geralin, I haven’t tried it with a group. Could be interesting…and maybe confusing. As long as everyone knew the rules, it might work. Color-coding could come in handy here, too. Just put a put of colored tape or a bit of marker on the side. It you give it a shot, let me know how it goes.

  10. posted by JainaKay on

    I actually do this with my closet. Anything that makes it to the far right is something I haven’t worn in ages and I clearly don’t like very much. Makes it much easier to sort out what needs to be donated! Occasionally I will poke back through the right side to see if there’s a hidden gem I’ve forgotten about, but I’m pretty harsh with stuff that’s made it that far back. There’s a reason I never wear it, after all. And it means when I’m looking for something to wear and I don’t know what to pick, I know to start at the left to have the best chance of finding something that works.

  11. posted by David Caolo on

    JainaKay great idea.

  12. posted by Cricket on

    I prefer a regular file cabinet with normal files. They’re faster to put things in than envelopes, and speed of dropping something into the file is important. I tried a shelf of end-tab file folders, but that looked too messy.

    I use this method for my “current” pile, and my “deal with later” pile, but not for things I want to find together, such as bank statements.

    I use a coloured paper between months, so I have a rough idea how old each section is.

    New thought: Make a file for “bank statements 2014”. When a statement arrives, pull the file, add the statement, and file as normal. All the 2014 statements will be together, and will quietly move to the old section of the shelf. Might be too big of a change for now.

    The Nogouchi method also encourages purging of old materials. As your shelf gets full, take a good look at the oldest file. Usually it can be reduced to the essentials and sent to the next level of archiving.

    You can add tabs to force a faster review. The Datafile system has labels colour-coded by year (and also by letter). (I make my own with crayons and white labels.) Normally, the label is year last opened, but since we already have that from the file’s position, it can become year to review.

    My doctor used a variation of Nogouchi (before computers). Within each year she filed alphabetically. All the files that hadn’t been touched in 7 years stayed on the old shelf, ready for off site archiving.

  13. posted by Laetitia on

    I do something similar with our ‘important papers’ files. They are in document wallets in hanging file folders in a regular file drawer. While the last thing used isn’t moved to the front of the drawer, all the most frequently accessed ones are at the front of the drawer and things that might only get accessed once or twice a year are at the back. The wallets are colour-coded so statements from assorted banks are in wallets of one colour, medical things are in a different colour etc. Some ‘unlike’ things are in the same colour (there are only so many colours available in stationery) but wallets of a different colour separate them. Two of us use these files.

  14. posted by Susan on

    That’s funny — I seem to have come up with this system all by myself as well, but I use hanging folders rather than envelopes. I return folders that I have used to the very front of the stand, so less recently used folders migrate to the back over time. All folders have tabs so I can easily find what I need but I always know if I have to start looking at the front or the back of the frame.

  15. posted by Hassan Abdulla on

    like it

  16. posted by Janet S on

    This is essentially an LRU (Least Recently Used) queue: the least recently used items move the end of the queue and are archived/evicted. (Like JainaKay, I use this principle in my closet.)

    The side-labels and left-to-right ordering of the “Noguchi” system are a reflection of the Japanese writing system, in which lines of text are vertical, arranged left-to-right. For anyone who uses a horizontal, top-to-bottom writing system (i.e., most Western languages), file folders with top labels are probably more intuitive (and require less modification).

  17. posted by Lisa Zaslow on

    Hmm – how do you keep all those bulky open-ended envelopes from falling off the shelf?! Excellent points by Janet and Geralin about potential problems.

    I can see something like this LIFO (Last In First Out)-type system working for a limited number of projects, but not for a full filing system – would not not be easy to find the old info.

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