What to do about piles

What to do about piles

The podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics. If you’d like to comment on the podcast, please leave a review! I read all your reviews, and your positive, creative comments help others find my podcast. If you have a question for me that you’d like me to address on the podcast, please post it on my Facebook page www.facebook.com/ClutterCoachClaire, Instagram www.instagram.com/Clutter_Coach or Twitter twitter.com/ClaireTompkins.

Decisions Move the World

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Diving board I write a lot about decision making. So much of clutter and other stuff that's in your way is the result of not making decisions about it. The pile of needed decisions keeps growing till you just get overwhelmed by it and then the simplest decision seems strenuous. That naturally induces procrastination.

Why decide? Here's why:

  • When you don't decide, others do it for you. Are they going to pick the choice you want? Uh-uh.
  • The longer you wait to decide, the more likely your desired option(s) will expire or otherwise go away
  • When you avoid deciding to keep your options open, you still don't have that thing you want. You just have the option to have it. Would you rather have the daydream or the real thing?
  • When you boldly make decisions, you stir up positive energy. You take action. You move. You pull it off.

Decision making is a skill you can learn. I'm almost ready to publish my new info program about decision making and habit building, where I teach you both those vital skills. So, stay tuned, or drop me a line in the comments. What can I help you with today?

Diving board from vauvau's photostream.

Idea > Decision > Action

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For many people, it’s easier and more fun to think up new ideas than to take action on the ones they already thought of. Buckling down and focusing on one idea and making it happen can make them antsy.

Sometimes the project you take on is very large and there are so many things to address that you’re tempted to start them all at once. When it comes to organizing, this can get you into trouble.

The process is this: have an idea, make a decision, take the action.

For example, the idea could be “organize the bottom shelf,” the decision is “only have notebooks, pads and file folders there,” and the action is getting those items into the spot and finding other homes for anything that doesn’t fit those categories.

Here’s what happens when you leave off the action part.

My client, Annie,* is a big picture kind of gal. She’s very good with coming up with ideas and making decisions. The action part, not so much. She’d rather move on to the top shelf, or the counter above the shelves, or the table on the other side of the room.

She had numerous shopping bags with things sorted into them. Some of them were marked, some not. There were also piles and collections of items on which decisions had been made. This is definitely progress, but it’s not enough.

We needed to spend some time moving the physical stuff around.

For Annie, this was the tedious, low priority part. But not doing it was impeding our progress. It was like having puzzle pieces all over the floor and knowing exactly where each one went, but not assembling them into a completed picture.

Is this a sticking point for you? Look around and see if you’ve collected some piles of decisions that need a nudge to get to the next step. If taking the action seems dreary and monotonous, approach it like washing the dishes. It’s a chore that needs doing and you don’t really need to like it.

The good news is that you’ll stir up some good energy by moving things along. You’ll also see some inspiring progress when you see the results of all that decision making!

* Not her real name. In fact, whenever I write about my clients, I’m usually combining events and compositing people.

Learning to See Clutter

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Secret FilesSometimes my clients have trouble identifying what their clutter is. Here's a case in point. The desk and counters of Dave's office are piled fairly densely, making it hard for him to work. I select a pile at random and here's what happened.

Me: Dave, what's this pile?

Dave: Those are binders from our spring conference.

Me: Is there a reason you're keeping them?

Dave: That's our biggest conference of the year.

Me: Right, but do you need 14 copies?

Dave: Well, sometimes people ask me for them.

Me: Do you have it available electronically?

Dave: Oh, yes. It's on the website as a PDF.

Me: Would it be okay to direct people who want a copy to download the PDF?

Dave: Sure, I guess so.

Me: So do you still need all these copies?

Dave: We always keep copies. Every year.

Me: Is there some other purpose you'll be using them for?

Dave: Um, no. We just, uh, keep them. The extras.

Me: So when you go to create this year's binder, you won't refer to these?

Dave: No, I have all the files on my computer, the templates and stuff.

Me: What if you just keep one copy in your archive files? How would that be?

Dave: Yeah, I suppose one is enough.

Me: Where would be a logical place to keep it?

Dave (looking sheepish): Can't leave it on the counter, I guess?

Me: Well, you probably won't need it anytime soon and you don't want it to get buried under a pile. How about filing it with other documents from the spring conference?

Dave (relieved): Oh, yeah. That makes sense.


This is the source of a lot of desk clutter; papers that were important last week or five months ago, but aren't now. They need to be tossed out or filed away. Paper like this very quickly becomes part of the backdrop in your office. Because it started out being important, you forget to question its presence.

Start questioning. Leave the room and come back in. Investigate the first pile you see. Does it have a compelling reason to be there; i.e. it's important to your current work? If not, is it worth keeping at all? Be ruthless, especially if you have electronic copies.

Reduce Gift Clutter

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Cover design2 It’s book chapter Wednesday (um, Thursday). Here you go! Like it? You can buy the ebook here.

Simple Way #8

Reduce Gift Clutter

Request non-cluttering gifts such gourmet food, show tickets, donations in your name, wine, flowers, etc. It may seem awkward at first to tell friends and family about your new policy; after all, they’re giving you a gift! But it can also help them to know that you’re going to like what they give you and they don’t have to try to read your mind. There may always be an Aunt Martha who insists on giving you an unwanted fruitcake. Refer back to Simple Way #7 for advice.

Make it your policy to give clutter-free gifts yourself. Ask what they want. Develop your own selection of gifts such as memberships, special excursions or a personal service that you provide.

Right now:
Make a list of gifts you’d like to get so when people ask you, or when holidays are coming up, you can suggest them.


Take the Organizing Challenge

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Dog race Here's how it works. Find a spot where clutter has been allowed to congregate (and propagate!) This could be your desk, your kitchen counter, your dining table, your briefcase; wherever. Set your timer for one minute. Ready, set, go! Race around putting away as much as you can from that clutter spot. Sound effects can help: "Whoa!" "Yikes!" "Outta my way!" "Aaaack!" Hint: if you don't need sound effects, you're not moving fast enough.

Time's up! How did you do? Rate your performance below.

I put away 10 things. You are an organizing Jedi knight! If there was any clutter still left, I'll bet you could eliminate it in another minute or so. You wasted no time trying to remember what drawer to put the thingamajig in. The added benefit is that now you know where everything is!

I put away 5 things. Not too shabby. One minute isn't very long. You may have had to think a bit about where things went, which is part of the reason for this challenge. The more you have to think and re-decide, the longer putting things away takes. That means identifying specific, easy-to-reach homes for your possessions is critical to keeping that clutter from breeding.

I put away one thing. Hmm, either that one thing was the size of a baby elephant, or you need to refine your stuff storing skills. When tidying up is time-consuming drudgery, your motivation to do it will be approximately zero. On the other hand, when you know exactly where things go, you can polish off this task in no time.

I didn't put anything away. Were you overwhelmed because you knew you couldn't make much headway in one minute? Did you not even know where to start? I made up this speed challenge because I know that decluttering has to be somewhat automatic if you're ever going to fit it into your day. Imagine if every time you took a fork out of the dishwasher you had to figure out where to put it! You'd be living in chaos-land. Imagine that everything you own is a fork and find a fork drawer to put it in.

How did you do? Let me know in the comments section.

Racing dogs from Nebbish1's photostream.

Donating Clutter

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Here’s the second chapter of my new book.

Simple Way #2


Make it easy to give things away to charity. It’s one thing to decide that your old green sweater or the picture frame you got as a gift and never used can go. It’s another thing to get it out of the house. Here’s how.

Put an empty shopping bag in your closet. Whenever you come across an item of clothing you don’t want anymore, chuck it in there. Put bags in other places too; the kitchen, the garage, the front hall closet; wherever you might encounter something that makes sense to donate. When you have a bag filled up, make a trip to the donation station and drop them off. Don’t forget to start a new bag!

Right now:

Find a bag and put it in your bedroom closet. Label it “Donations” so you don’t forget why it’s there.

Donating is Green

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Your local Goodwill store, never on the cutting edge of anything at all, has leapt into the spotlight with a campaign to increase donations, complete with Facebook and Twitter buttons. Wow!

They've got a logo that they want to be as ubiquitous as the recycle logo so that people are always reminded to donate. A nifty graphic calculator lets you enter in your donated items and see what services they provide, such as an hour of on-the-job training. You can see the direct link between your unwanted items and helping someone get a better job. Pretty nice. And inspiring.

Keeping usable stuff out of the landfill is what makes donating green. I know my clients are always happier to fill up a bag for Goodwill than they are to throw things in the trash. Here's my tip: keep a shopping bag in your closet so every time you come across something donatable, you can toss it right in. As soon as the bag is full, take it to Goodwill! Your clutter could be someone else's classic.