What is "pile up"… and how to stop it in its tracks

clutter Jan 23, 2019

It starts as a single item – for example, a borrowed book. We don’t know what to do with it, so put the book out of the way on the kitchen bench. Then an invoice arrives – it needs to be paid within a couple of days, so on top of the book it goes. Then someone brings home a new gadget and they want to keep the box – to keep the bench tidy it is put on top of the book and the invoice. Now they need a screwdriver for the gadget - and you know where that’s going to end up. Now we have a pile that acts as a magnet for more mess. Bills aren’t paid on time, important things are thrown out or lost and the mere presence of the pile is stressful, irritating and a source of nagging guilt every day. 

I bet that sounds familiar! 

The good news is that you can stop piling up in its tracks. I’m not sure if you can banish it forever (if you manage this PLEASE get in touch as that would make an epic how-to guide!), but you can learn to recognise it early on and simply not allow it to grow and flourish. Here’s how. 

Stuff needs a home

Pile up begins because we have something in our hands that we don’t know what to do with. We might wander around with it for a while before eventually putting it down, planning to deal with it “later”. To cut pile up off at the knees, your stuff needs a home. Loose guidelines are better here than overly prescriptive rules; for example, borrowed books go on the bookshelf (rather than having a home specifically for borrowed books). Invoices are paid immediately, and then shredded/recycled/fed to your worms immediately. Boxes go in the recycling bin (preferably without ever making it into the house). Screwdrivers live in the toolbox, and so on. Once you know where your stuff “lives”, it’s easy to put it away. Massive bonus: it is easy to issue the instruction to someone else to “put it away” when stuff has a home - delegating for the win!

Touch it once

I love this pile-up buster because it is so simple. Your goal should be to touch everything you encounter, only once. Putting something down to deal with later is against the rules - that would mean touching it more than once. So whatever action is required on the thing you are holding - do it now. Put it away (it has a home, remember? see the point above!). Pay it. Recycle it. Wash it (or load it in the dishwasher/washing basket). You get the picture! This one can actually be a fun game to play, especially if your kids are younger. (Along the same lines as “who can stay quiet the longest?” The kid thinks it’s a fun game that they can win, meanwhile, the parents are winning as soon as the game starts.)

Talk to your stuff

Buckle up folks, it’s about to get weird! If you come across something that is so far out of left-field that it has you stymied - ask it a question, out loud. “What do I need to do with you?” Don’t expect it to talk back! Asking a question out loud has a funny effect on us - it feels a bit uncomfortable not to answer. I know, this sounds really bizarre but try it. You will be surprised.

The answer will most likely be:

  • I need to do something with you in the future - which means you need to give it a home; OR

  • I need to do something with you now - which means you need to take that action now, in order to touch it only once.


So that’s it - the definitive guide to what pile up is, and how to defeat it (at least according to The Ship Shape Shoppe). Now I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to hear from you if you have any curly items that come into your home that defy the suggestions above. Email me with your head-scratchers and I’ll do a follow-up post that as many as possible that come in.

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