The Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) system

Two weeks ago, I started an exploration of lesser-know filing systems with the Noguchi system. This method, devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, utilizes manilla envelopes and the frequency with which you work on certain projects to organize your projects. Today, I want to delve into a system close to my heart, a system that uses index cards.

Image credit: Hawk Sugano

Hawk Sugano (you’ll find him on Flickr as “hawkexpress”) has devised a system he calls Pile of Index Cards (PoIC). It’s a combination of a “brain dump” (emptying one’s mind of all important information by writing it down), long-term storage for reference, and David Allen’s GTD method. It’s all managed by a “dock” of 3×5 index cards, and the result is tidy and searchable. The following are instructions for how to set up and use the system.

What you’ll need

The list is a short one. Get some index cards, which you can find almost anywhere (or grab some fancy ones here), a favorite pen, and a storage box with customizable tabs. That is all you need to be ready to use the method.

How it works

Hawk describes four types of cards in his system:

  1. The Record Card. He describes it as “a diary, note, account, health, weather, cook, any kind of records about us belongs to this class.” I’d say this is the incoming “stuff” of the day: appointments, notes to follow up on, etc.
  2. The Discover Card. Hawk describes the Discover Card as “Things from my brain, mind, spirit, anything emerge from inside me, are classified into this class.” This is the result of a mind dump. Don’t worry about classifying when filling out a Discover Card. Just get whatever is on your mind out and onto paper.
  3. The GTD Card. Here he combines the title of a project and several actions that pertain to it (here’s a look at the template in English). This reminds me of the “Hipstper PDA Template” I used religiously about 10 years ago.
  4. The Cite Card captures other people’s ideas that warrant attention. He says, “Important here is distinguishing ‘your idea (Discovery Card)’ and ‘someone else’s idea (Cite Card).’ Source of the information must be included in the Cite Card. A book, for example, author, year, page(s) are recorded for later use.”

Each card is stored in a box, or “dock.” Note that Hawk makes a mark on the top of each card. It’s position indicates the type of card, so you can easily identify each one while it’s in the dock. Finally, he uses the tabs to keep the types of cards sorted.

Is PoIC for you?

I’ll admit that this method is a bit labor-intensive. For example, Hawk does not throw any cards away. Instead, he buys another dock. One person took steps to improve upon this by adding what he calls the “43 Tabs” system. Basically, older cards that are no longer pertinent are moved to the back of the dock, while those still in action are moved to the front.

11 Comments for “The Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) system”

  1. posted by Jane on

    I couldn’t grasp the concept of the Noguchi system and now I don’t understand the PoIC system either & it’s frustrating me.
    Are these both fancy versions of what I use which is a spiral bound college-rule notebook with each page or two representing a different category? Or am I not even in the same ballpark let alone game?
    Maybe I’m just not understanding David’s explanation. Not putting the blame on David, but I’ve read and re-read both articles and feel that I now know even less.

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jane — I definitely suggest clicking on all of the links to see images and more descriptions. Dave wrote the piece with the expectation that people would explore the original content instead of reprinting it in its entirety.

  3. posted by Eric West | Rethinking the Dream on

    I mostly use a small notebook for stuff like this. It’s not as well organized, but it takes up less space and is portable. Sometimes I like to flip through my notebook while I’m at work, and I can’t see bringing a box of notecards with me.

  4. posted by Iris on

    @Jane: Both systems are about filing. Noguchi says essentially: Put all your files on a big stack. If you are finished working on a file, put it on top of the stack. Repeat. After a while, the files you often work on will migrate to the top of the stack, the others to the bottom. If you know what to look for (and how often you are working on it now), you can narrow down the search in the pile. In a way, it’s a self-organising system.
    Hawk says: Write everything down on index cards, and put them into four different stacks (or categories). From there, I am at a loss though…

    @David: Your post goes through the “How to set up” the system quite neatly, but it is missing the more important part of “How to use it”. The question is: how do you efficiently access the info on the cards again? If you have to fully go through each category then I don’t quite see the point, I can just as well have a list (or, four lists) or the files themselves. Also, when does Hawk know that it’s time for a new box – simply when the old one is full? Doesn’t seem to be efficient…

    @Erin: This question above is the one I would expect a post like this to answer – in its entirety – instead of simply throwing out some links and let me do all the work by myself. The only link that seems to “describe” what Hawk’s system is doing is the fourth one – and it points to the first post in his blog, which dates back to 2006. You don’t expect me to read through all that, especially as I’d expect David to have done that for me already…

  5. posted by Susan on

    @Jane: The Noguchi system essentially works like a neat pile of t-shirts in your wardrobe. Whenever you wear a t-shirt, it gets washed and folded and put on top of the stack. Over time, the stack organizes itself — the t-shirts you wear most often will be found on top, while the ones that have fallen out of favour migrate to the bottom. If you know you haven’t worn something since Christmas, it makes sense to start looking at the bottom rather than the top.

    The Noguchi system is the same thing, just with envelopes filed left to right instead of t-shirts stacked top to bottom.:)

  6. posted by Susan on

    I’m with Iris (and Jane) about the PoIC system — I don’t understand how the system works once it is set up. It’s a shame as it might be very useful. Ideally, I’d like to set it up with notebooks in Evernote instead of actual index cards and boxes (the last thing I need in my life is more paper clutter). That way it would be easily searchable, too).

  7. posted by liz on

    We’ve used index cards to organize many things – mom’s recipes are one example. While mom stuck envelopes in her cookbooks to help find recipes, I’ve downloaded the recipe pdf into recipe files on my laptop. If I use the recipe several times, I make an index card for the recipe box. Easier to find in a pinch.

    I’m starting a file box for emergency situations, when it might be hard to get to computers or the net. A card might list what i have and where it is located in the house. A card might list things I want to get and I note where I can get it and costs.

    A future use will be in redoing my kitchen – I can draw out ideas and list things to research. So, it can be useful for project development. I see the use for smaller projects. But once finished, the cards would be scanned, summarized and tossed.

    I have used notebooks for planning projects but they get messy real fast and I have to flip through the book to find similar issues.

  8. posted by Pat Reble on

    This post is a classic example of phenomenon that occurs universally. One person devises something that works perfectly for them, be it a mouse trap design, a method of teaching reading or … an organisation system. Other people see it in action and ask for the instructions. They try to copy it and … fail. We are all individuals, and what works for one does not work for all. Some people reading this post go “wow, cool!” Others go “What…???” One size does not fit all. Celebrate the difference! The trick is to keep looking for the method that works for you, not give up because someone else’s system makes your eyeballs spin!

  9. posted by Ambrose on

    @Jane: As others have noted, the Noguchi filing system is simplicity itself. Most recently used folder/envelope goes to the top of the pile of folders. Except the pile is turned on its side. That is it.

    Imagine you are a real estate broker. If you had all your current pending sale-closings on your desk in a single “traditional” vertical stack and you pulled one folder from the middle of the pile you would NOT put it back in the middle of the stack when you were done, you would put it on the top of the stack. All Noguchi did was incorporate this idea in a less “falling over” prone orientation and changed open sided file folders to special open-topped envelopes.

    In detail:

    1. User takes a blank “folder” (envelope) and labels it along the edge to identify the contents in whatever way makes sense so they know what that folder is for. New folders are (by definition) the most recently used file so they are **always** put on the right-most side of the “pile” (the shelf).

    2. You pull an existing folder from where ever it is in the pile (just read the envelope labels to find it just as you would read the tabs in a file cabinet). When you are done using that file put it on the right edge of the shelf (“top of the stack”).

    3. Over time any files that are not used (“pulled”) will gradually migrate to the left as the pulled folders keep being put on the right. Less often or never pulled files will gradually be pushed left by virtue of never being moved right.

    4. Periodically you need to review/purge the left **half** of the shelf and put older (seldom used or not likely to be used soon) folders into a long term reference filing system like a regular file cabinet with index tabs or in organized notebooks. For me “periodically” is about four times a year, other people may need to do it more or less often depending on how often they add new folders.

    I hope this helps explain it.

  10. posted by Ambrose on

    @Iris, @Susan, and Pat Rebel: If you go to the “Pile of Index Cards” link above [at ] you will see a link on the lower right of the article (just above the start of the comments) labeled “Installation —>” [at ]. Click that, read the Installation article, and then continue by clicking the “—>” link on each page to see the whole system.

    I think this is mostly just a very compressed version of Dave Allen’s GTD system. I’m not sure if I would use it but if you like things compact this may be for you.

  11. posted by Jacqui Cooper on

    I like the idea but as I travel a lot it just doesn’t seem practical. I use my ‘magic pen’ a Live Scribe pen and notebook. That way I can transfer all my notes to my laptop and keep the originals as back up. I can edit note, copy and paste them into articles, emails etc. Not as cheap as pen and paper but having tried the tabbed notebook (I gave up after realising I had more than a dozen) and the index cards, it’s what works for me.

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