A Minimalist Approach to Organization

I have spent more time experimenting with organizational systems than I have actually organizing my stuff! Eventually, a few years ago, I settled on one method of note-taking that requires very little effort. I cannot promise that it will be at all useful for anyone else, but it has served me well for the last ten years or so. Basically, there are two guidelines I follow.


(1) Put Everything in One Place

When I have everything in one place, browsing through my materials is a lot easier, and a single search can tell me what I have. If I cannot find it there, it means that it does not exist. One problem with this approach is that I am trading power for convenience, and so I am unable to take advantage of features in apps dedicated to certain tasks. Perhaps a relational database like FileMaker could handle my research notes, Evernote could take care of organizing my personal stuff, Wunderlist could organize my todo lists, etc.

What does my “everything bucket” look like?

Physically, this used to mean designating several bookshelves in my home for papers. All of the papers would go into manila envelopes or clear folders and get put there. Now that I have gone paperless, dead trees only take up the equivalent an inch or so of a single bookshelf (certificates, passports, etc.). In my opinion, having everything in a single location has been one of the keys to my successful organization, and I especially recommend considering it if you are going paperless.

Digitally, I was initially able to replicate this by putting everything into Evernote. However, I ran into problems with this approach, because when I went paperless I generated a lot of data, and because Evernote automatically downloads everything onto my local drive, I soon reached the point at which nothing else would fit onto my computer! Nowadays I am only working with 128 GB on my computer, and I simply cannot afford to have 1/4 to 1/2 of my drive consumed by notes.

If you run into this storage problem, here are some tips to optimize your Evernote account. Someday, Evernote will surely introduce selective sync features for the desktop (meaning that you can designate notebooks to keep downloaded onto your local drive), and I might be able to accomplish my goal of keeping everything in a single location using Evernote.

Until then, I “textify” all of the emails and the PDFs I want to put into Evernote by stripping the text out of them. This process removes the formatting and leaves just the text for searching. Usually, this is sufficient for my needs. If I am looking for a citation, I can read it fine without the italics, indentation, etc. However, other times, I need to track down the original PDF in order to see the text properly formatted or view images. Fortunately, the title of the note matches the title of the original file on my external drive (where I dump all of the original files).


If you use Evernote, you can put a lot into the app when it is just text. I typically use two notebooks: “オンライン” (online) and “ローカル” (local). The “online” notebook holds stuff that I sync with Evernote’s cloud service. The “local” one is for data that I don’t want to sync with the cloud and only have on my computer’s drive. I’m sure many people would prefer to have more notebooks, but Evernote designed the app around a tag metaphor. In my experiments with trying to enable Evernote to handle large volumes of data well, it doesn’t help to split things up into multiple notebooks or tag a lot of the notes. Your mileage may vary, but in my case I have found that when you reach about 10,000 notes (especially if many of the notes are at or near 5 MB worth of text) the application becomes quite sluggish. The developers are trying to address the issue, but both the Mac and Windows versions currently work best with fewer notes. You might want to consider multiple accounts using some shared notebooks if you have a lot of data.

Other Applications

If you don’t use Evernote, you can textify everything and put it all into a folder on your drive. I usually have one in my “Documents” folder called “e-brain” (electronic / external brain). Using VoodooPad or nvALT you can dump all of your data here. The problem with both of these programs is that large notes (5+ MB of text) and databases (tens of thousands of notes) can cause them to stumble a little, and neither of them has the kind of easy organization available with Evernote’s tags, so you may need a few “Documents” (in the case of VoodooPad) or folders in the case of nvALT. Even if you have to sub-divide things a little, the point is to have as much of your stuff as possible a single location (the “e-brain” folder). One of the best program on the Mac for handling a large amount of files is DEVONthink.

A Personal Wiki

Whatever app you decide to use for your notes, I recommend thinking of it as a personal wiki. All of the Mac apps I have mentioned in this post (DEVONthink, Evernote, nvALT, and VoodooPad) enable you to make note links. Simply copy/pasting note links into what I call “index notes” can give you a menu that will make navigating your account as easy as navigating Wikipedia or any other web site. I have a video of how to generate multiple note links at once in Evernote. In DEVONthink and VoodooPad, all you need is the note title to make a link, and in nvALT you just put double brackets around the note title. As you can probably tell by now, when you put everything in one place, the way you title notes and files becomes quite important.

(2) Name Files with Dates (YYYYMMDD) and Keywords

I have one rule of thumb for organization: name everything with YYYYMMDD and keywords. Today’s note for my research journal is named “20130613 journal thursday.” That’s it. The flat organizational scheme keeps things simple, and for most tasks, this is more than sufficient.

I prefer lower-case in titles, tags, and notebooks for consistency, but this is mainly just personal preference. Whatever you do, I recommend you are consistent to avoid any hiccups down the road. I used to name everything with just two numbers for the year (for example, 130613), but in re-organizing my research recently (in April 2014), I found that it helped to put the full dates in the titles, and with several centuries to cover (I am a historian), I needed to revise my system a little. Renaming my text files with Mac’s Automator only took a minute or two.

It is a good idea to make a “style” note with any naming conventions you want to maintain over time. Initially, it might be difficult to remember, but after a few days, you probably will not need to refer to it anymore. These are the main keywords I use:

  • “listening” is used for classes, lectures, and conferences I have attended. A typical note will have something like “20120219 listening history 840” in the title.
  • “reading” — is used for my notes on materials I have read (20120424 reading mayo christopher 2012). This includes secondary sources, translations of primary sources I have made, etc.
  • “speaking” — is used for presentations, lectures, and so forth. (20120424 speaking workshop ipad).
  • “writing” — is used for oiginal work by me such as papers, dissertation, etc. (20120424 writing fellowship funding application).
  • “clip” — is used for material taken from a larger source: web pages I clip from a site (20120424 clipping east asian department guidelines), forum posts, blogs, or scanned pages from a book.
  • “correspondence” — is used for emails, chats with customer service, letters, etc. (20120424 correspondence email john smith).
  • “journal” — is used for my daily research journal (20120424 journal tuesday).
  • “record” — is used for important receipts, papers, etc. (20120424 record small world coffee).


No rule would be complete without an exception! Below is one convention I use for data that isn’t created by me.

  • Published Sources. Published sources follow a different naming scheme. PDFs of books, journal articles, and so forth have an “author name + publication date” format. For example, a PDF of an article I wrote earlier this year is called “mayo christopher 2012.” I’ll complete another article later this year, and that will be named “mayo christopher 2012b.” Scanned materials, completed projects, and everything else goes into a single folder on my computer called “archive”. With few exceptions, I have no sub-folders. How do I get all of this into my “notes”? I strip out the text.

Folder Hierarchies Are OK

There’s nothing wrong with weaponized GTD, 43 folders, or any of the other systems people devise to stay organized. In fact, my approach to naming is entirely compatible with a complex system of nested folders, and I can certainly see why someone might want to do that, especially if they are collaborating with others who may not derive much benefit from dating that is only relevant for the person who made the file or folder in the first place.

Why have I given up on traditional filing methods? I have found the main barrier to organization for me is the psychological toll it takes to categorize and file everything (class handouts, fliers, pamphlets, bills, receipts, junk mail, etc.), and I prefer to expend this energy in my research instead.

The Theory Behind My Approach

Organization for me starts with refusing to organize. I got this from organizational guru Noguchi Yukio’s filing system. In his “Chō” seiri hō「超」整理法 system (published in several books) he recommends sticking every piece of paper you get into a large envelope with a title and date on the outside. You place this on the left side of a shelf that you have cleared off for your files. Do this every day and you will have hundreds of envelopes lined up on the shelf in order by date. In the days before I went paperless, I had several shelves packed with these. I was originally inspired to do this by a fellow translator in Japan, William Lise, who posted about how he stays organized. He has since removed the page from his site, but you can find it on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

It probably sounds like a nightmare to classification junkies, but the key to using this system is Noguchi’s theory that we naturally remember things temporally, and not by artificial classification schemes. In other words, we will be more likely to remember “when” we classified something than “how” we did it. I’ve found this to be true for me.

Setting up the system is pretty straightforward, but using it is a little counter-intuitive. Every time you pull out a folder and access it, instead of putting it back in chronological order, you place it on the left. This addresses two problems: hoarding and quick access. Over time, stuff you never access naturally migrates to the right, and you can start throwing it away. In addition, papers you frequently access migrate to the left and can be quickly found. There are various modifications for important papers and so forth, but you get the idea.

Taking Noguchi’s Method Digital

Noguchi’s system is easily adapted for the digital environment, because many applications, and all operating systems, tell us when something was created or updated. I have used this system successfully with some of the incredible applications that we now have available for keeping organized: OneNote and bLADEWiki in Windows; DEVONthink, VoodooPad and nvALT in OSX/iOS; and Evernote everywhere.

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