Piles pt. 2: Systematized Chaos
So, as I’ve said before, I need my piles of stuff. When they are all nicely filed away in folders, I’m lost, confused, and forget everything. However, there’s a remarkably fine line between a functional pile and a disaster pile. Hopefully this post will help you find out how to navigate this tension with your piles.
I think that if you ever want to tackle some organizational challenge, you have to first understand what motivates the underlying “problem.” The trouble with this is that the world basically says, “Mmk, you can’t keep a clean desk? You’re dumb and lazy.” And then you feel ashamed and full of feelings and feelings are not going to help you get your life in order. I spent a lot of time having a lot of feelings about my piles. And then I had to start filling out the FAFSA by myself.
At this time in my life, I was living away from home and grasping eagerly at independence. Prior to this, I never thought much about the vast quantity of papers I had acquired. I knew I had these papers because I three all the papers I received into either a filing box (without file folders) or one of two drawers. However, until I tried to fill out the FAFSA by myself, I never thought much about why I kept these papers and how I planned to retrieve them. So, I would have to dig through all of my receipts, hospital bills, birthday cards, and other random papers to find the few pieces of paper I needed to fill out this form and it was annoying. But, the thing that made meso madboth times was that I would get all the way through, I would find all of the papers, and I would go to submit it and it would ask for my goddamn PIN, which I could never remember.
After two years of RAGE, I had a brilliant idea. I could write my PIN on a folder and keep all of the things I needed for the FAFSA in that folder! However, this brief appearance of organization was not enough— when the next FAFSA came up, my whole folder was lost somewhere amongst the piles and piles of paper I had crowding my desk and hiding under my bed. Around this time, I needed my passport and, of course, I had no idea where that was. While I was looking for both of those things, I found a birthday card from a year and a half ago with a $60 check I’d never cashed on top of the thank you card I thought I’d sent out. And, I remember going, “Okay. This is it. Something needs to change.”
So, I decided it was time to have a system for dealing with papers. A system is not just a few file folders, instead it involves really understanding what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you need to change it. I realized the following:
- I was keeping papers in piles around my space because I knew they were important and was afraid I would forget about them if they went away.
- However, I was unable to prioritize my papers. They were all lumped together as “something I need to do something with.”
- This resulted in omni-piles that didn’t actually help me remember things. When I needed to find something, I was (most of the time) able to retrieve it, but it did not actually remind me of things I forgot I needed to do. They became white noise in addition to being clutter.
So, my goal was a system that would allow me to put things somewhere immediately without having to think about it, since I couldn’t count on myself to prioritize in the moment, but still have enough structure for me to find the things I needed and be reminded of the things I would forget.
Much like with the to do lists, it was time to sit down and figure out what the categories of things I piled up tended to be. Important stuff was too big a category, so I brainstormed the following:
- Knowing where my passport is would be nice?
- I get all these paycheck stubs and I’m not sure what to do with them.
- I have so many receipts.
- I keep everything at all medically related ever for some reason.
- The things people give me are meaningful to me (cards, drawings, letters, etc.)
- I get a lot of bank statements and credit card information.
- There’s always random stuff oh god.
Before I’d split it into categories it was either one giant omni-category or a completely overwhelming jumble of TOO MANY THINGS. This way, though, I could see different ways of breaking it up.
The next step was figuring out how to know when to get rid of things. I realized the key to this was actually figuring outwhenI would ever need something. In the moment, when I have a paper in my hand, it almost always seems important. But, actually sitting down and thinking about it made me realize the following:
- Knowing where my passport is would be nice.
- I need my paycheck stubs for taxes, but after that I can get rid of them and just hold onto the W4.
- I only need to keep receipts where I might actually return the item. Since I am young and poor, this is essentially never. But, in the rare case that I do, it would be nice to know where to find it.
- Holding on to medical bills is probably good practice, but there isn’t a whole lot else that will actually be relevant ever.
- Yes, having things people give me in a place is good. However, I don’t actually care about store bought birthday cards that have nothing more than someone’s signature on them. Once I’ve sent them a thank you card, they can go.
- I could keep bank statements… or I could switch to paperless banking because, really, the internet is a much more accessible means of looking at my history if I ever need to.
- You can’t account for everything!
So, now things were rapidly becoming clearer. At this point, I could come up with a plan that was workable, both in the immediate sense and in the long term “I need to actually do this all the time” sense.
I ended up buying a few colored folders and a magazine file, which forced me to keep the number of “important papers” that I was keeping down to a reasonable amount. This was also useful because I knew that most of the time, when I got something important I wouldn’t take the time to find the proper folder and stick it in it (this is why I get piles in the first place). When that (always) happens, I just stick it into the magazine file part, outside of the folders, and deal with it when I pay my bills once a month (routines!). So, all of my important papers (which are narrowly defined as numbers 1-4 above) go in this magazine rack.
Next comes the papers that are not important papers by my definition. The first bit are things people give me. I got a nice box with a lid and decided it was my “these things make me happy” box. Generally, since the things that go in there, by definition, make me happy, I’m motivated to actually put them in the nice box and don’t need a backup option like I did with the magazine rack. However, if I ever do leave something about that goes there, it is easy to tidy it because I know where it goes and don’t have to think about it. (This is bold-ified because I think it is crucial).
The birthday cards were there own thing. So, when it is card season, I have a bright folder that I put all my cards in. It then sits on my nightstand until I’ve written all the thank you cards necessary. Then, they all go away. Magic!
Finally comes the dreaded “everything else.” This is the worst category. However, the fact that I knew that the things I cared the most about were already being cared for by the previous two systems made me less anxious about the whole business. I simply decided that a very easily accessible box in my room was the “paper I need to sort” box and made going through them a part of my weekly tidying routine. If I ever discovered I had a new “important papers” category (Grad school papers), I simply added a new folder in my magazine file.
Now, I never waste time dredging through endless piles looking for something, I always know where my passport is, and I always know what I’m doing with whatever part of the pile is out and about.
I realize this is a loooooong post. So, I’m going to leave the next bit (how do I throw things away?) for the next installment. Whee!