5 Tried-and-True Ways To Harness the Power of Piles

5 Tried-and-True Ways To Harness the Power of Piles

Decluttering can be a daunting task, especially when you’re faced with an overwhelming mess. It’s time to be strategic and turn chaos into order: use piles to divide and conquer.

It may seem counterintuitive at first – making a mess to clean up a mess – but it’s a method that breaks a big job down into smaller, manageable pieces and significantly streamlines the decluttering process.

Make a Mess to Clean Up the Mess

“Make a mess to clean up the mess” captures the essence of a key decluttering principle–breaking jobs down into manageable pieces. When you’re dealing with clutter, it’s important to pull everything out and sort it into categories. If you understand the power of piles, you’ll go from overwhelming to “I’ve got this!” But if you don’t utilize piles well, your piles may become avalanches or sprout additional piles of clutter. In other words, piles can work for you or against you.

Skeleton key in the palms of two out-stretched hands

What Piles Do I Need?

Typically, you need 5 piles:

  • Keep – items that go back into the space you’ve pulled them from
  • Trash – items to be placed in regular trash pick-up or bulk pick-up
  • Recycle – items that can be recycled
  • Donate – items that go to a thrift store or to friends & family
  • Relocate – items that go somewhere else in the house other than where they were pulled from

Do I Really Need That Many Piles?

Not necessarily. While we all want to minimize waste and be good stewards of our possessions—even the ones we’re getting rid of–it’s important to recognize that sometimes it’s okay to skip recycling and donating. If trying to find just the right spot to take everything or wrangling the collapsing of a ton of cardboard boxes leaves you feeling overwhelmed and keeps you from decluttering, it’s OK to skip recycling and donating this time and just put things in the trash. Once you’re past feeling overwhelmed, you can go right back to recycling and donating with a clear conscience. In this case, your piles will be Keep, Trash, Re-locate

Marking Piles

You don’t have to mark piles—especially if you take my advice (smart you!) and declutter in small chunks of time. However, if you’re doing a big block of organizing (you’re still smart because you’re decluttering!), you may forget what each pile contains. No worries, just write what’s in each pile on a piece of paper and put that paper by the pile. Clearly marked piles prevent confusion and second-guessing about which items belong where.

Leave Time Each Session to Dispose of Piles

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a big believer in decluttering small amounts consistently over time rather than looking for a big block of time. Whichever way you declutter, it’s critical to allow time at the end of each session to dispose of the items in your piles. What happens if you leave the piles between sessions?

  • You don’t get to see your progress and benefit from your hard work.
  • Piles don’t stay where you put them. They spill over and creep into surrounding areas. Your ‘purposeful mess’ is now out of control.
  • Piles act as clutter seeds. When people in your household (including you) see piles, it removes inhibitions for depositing more stuff in that area since it already feels messy.
Small sprout growing out of dirt

Harnessing the Power of Piles


Creating piles when decluttering help:

  1. Visual Clarity: By categorizing items into distinct piles, you gain a clear understanding of the quantity and variety of things you own. This clarity is essential for making informed decisions about what to keep, donate, or discard.
  2. Efficient Decision-Making: Sorting items into piles allows you to assess them in smaller, manageable groups. This makes decision-making much less overwhelming since you can focus on one category at a time.
  3. Measurable Progress: Watching the piles grow smaller as you sort through items can be incredibly motivating and spur you to continue decluttering and maintain your momentum.
  4. Minimized Distractions: Instead of getting sidetracked by individual items and their stories, you’re guided by the overarching categories you’ve established. This minimizes the potential for emotional attachment dictating your decluttering decisions and keeps you on track.
  5. Simplified Disposal: Creating piles streamlines the disposal process. Instead of handling items individually, you can batch-process them in each pile. For example, you can make a single trip to donate items, reducing the number of trips.

Leaving piles for another day leads to re-cluttering and dampens your enthusiasm for the journey. Instead, take care of each pile at the end of each session and congratulate yourself for having done a great job decluttering. Tackling each pile gives you that organized, peaceful space you crave.

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