Ask the Experts

Q: I Feel Driven to Make Piles, But Then I Get Stuck

Piling similar papers together makes us feel like we’re making progress toward getting organized. But that’s where many people get stuck — unsure how to begin the hard work that follows, and file away the papers worth keeping. Follow this advice for transforming your piles into items completed.

Q: “Organizing stuff into piles helps me sort, prepare, and prioritize. However, the piles drive my husband crazy. And it seems once I organize everything it’s hard to go back to finish the tasks. So what’s the point? It makes me feel good while I’m doing it, but it doesn’t seem to get me anywhere in the long run. Bills to pay now/pay later, things to return, kids school papers to save/to follow up on, things to do/follow up on, etc.” — Momof3Boys


Hi Momof3Boys:

It sounds like what is making you “stuck” is the age-old question of “where do I put this?” It’s not enough to sort, but we need to also store our belongings in a way that makes sense to us. I find with most everyone, once you set up efficient and effective systems that work for you, the rest will flow.

So how do you know what works? Get started by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Am I a filer or a piler?
  • Revealer or concealer?
  • Do I need to see things to remember they exist?
  • Do I like things color-coded?
  • Where do I have ample space to store files and papers?
  • Do others need access to these papers?

By asking these questions, systems will naturally form. And the best method is one that you can comfortably set up, maintain, and access.

[Self-Test: Is Your Clutter and Disorganization Out of Control?]

A few strategies to get you started:

1. Place the papers that you need and use NOW in your “prime real estate” — desktop files on your home office desk, baskets on your kitchen counter, or even a rolling cart that you can move from room to room. Or use your airspace! It’s literally my favorite way to organize papers. Hang magazine holders or wire files on the wall to organize mail and documents you need to access or work on. Using your airspace helps to keep important papers visible and top-of-mind. And the added bonus? It keeps your flat surfaces clutter and pile free!

2. Use my “Triple S” system — short, simple & specific — to set daily goals. Try to organize everything in one day, and you’ll end up overwhelmed and frustrated. Specific daily intentions work better. “Thursday night we’ll tackle the weekly mail.” “Sunday night we’ll review homework and activity schedules for the week.” “Saturday morning we’ll run the necessary errands.” In other words, break down your tasks into manageable parts to feel more in control.

3. Set up a launching pad. This is a designated place in your home to keep the belongings that go in and out everyday. A launching pad takes the stress of “where are those returns that need to go back to the store” out of the equation. Remember to pick a location heavily trafficked. Extra bonus? It will act as a visual reminder to help you activate!

Good Luck!

[When Your Mess Is Causing Stress]


Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, answers questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to Dear Organizing Coach here!

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  1. In order to even make room for my piles, I have to sort out and move / get rid of my roommate’s (recently deceased) Mother’s stuff!
    And I have an aversion to doing anything that *might* upset her (new and old trauma reactions!).
    Any suggestions?

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