In Defense of The Piler

I was recently in a conversation where someone tried to convince someone else that piles were bad, and papers should always be filed. Somehow, this person thought being a Piler or a Filer, the Filer is the only “right” choice. I stepped in, protecting the honor of the Piler. You see, piling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People can be pilers. But understanding a bit about the piling can be helpful.


In Defense of The Piler

Are you a Piler?

  • Pilers typically will gather items in a “this is for later” or “this is for a particular purpose” on surfaces. 
  • Pilers tend to be more visual in their learning style or their sensitivities. They’re more likely to be the person who thinks “out of sight, out of mind” and likes to have visual cues to remind them what is important.
  • Pilers can also be visual in the sense that they know what a piece of paper looks like or have an experiential memory of where an item is, and filing systems don’t provide them with the same breadcrumbs to find or identify an important paper.
  • Pilers will often have an internal or external trigger to remind them that the pile needs to be conquered and addressed. While it doesn’t always make the top of the priority list, they will often allow for items to build up to a certain threshold and then they know it’s time to do deal with it.
  • Pilers can often recognize that, if left too long, eventually almost everything in a pile can be tossed.


Is Being a Piler Working For You Or Against You?

Maybe you’re reading this and saying, “YES! I’m a Piler! Somebody gets me!!! WHOO-HOO!”

Well… don’t rejoice just yet… I want you to consider your piles and your styles: 

1) Are your piles *meaningful*? Is each pile its own category based on content and it’s clear just by looking at it what is in it? 

2) Are the piles representative of papers in different statuses — to do, to file, just can’t deal with yet, have to give to someone else, etc.? In this case, the piles are meant to generate action. So, how is that going for you? Are there particular actions you’re good at vs. avoiding?

3) Are the piles just stopgaps for tidying or cleaning up? Are they completely random in content, but just more based on “where was this before it was in the pile” or “When did this come in the house or office and I just gathered it”? This is the least helpful pile if identifying important items or next steps is something you struggle with.

4) Are the existence of your piles a frequent source of conflict, stress, or delays in action with real ramifications, like late fees because you lost sight of bills, missed social obligations, the birthday card you found that you bought but didn’t send out last month, or feedback from your boss or colleagues that the condition of your office is a problem?

5) What are your habits related to building, processing, or eliminating piles? Workflow and habits can be excellent with some pilers when there is a system to the piles. 

What do you think? What can you learn about your own piling style from these questions? 


Three Ways to Make Piles Work For You

Ultimately, the system that will work for you is one that works WITH your tendencies, with your strengths, and acknowledges what you’re just not going to be inclined to do naturally. But you can build better skills around pile creation and pile management to make being a piler a strength, and not a weakness.

1) Build your “Deal With Me” system. Set a regular time and a place to grab a pile and move it to somewhere where you can sort it, narrow it down, and move each piece of paper forward to whatever destiny is in store for it — keep and file, action, recycle, shred, etc. While you’re it, locate and address the old piles. Many pilers have old piles, and they’ve just moved on to creating new ones, and quite frankly, have become blind to the old ones, because they just haven’t had to visit them in a while. The older the pile, the less likely they need to still exist, but diving in to determine if there is lost treasure or something important you needed to take action can help you resuscitate the pile long enough to harvest the most important parts and then let the rest go. 

2) Reduce what gets put on the pile in the first place: Consider the Two-Minute Rule from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology: If you can address a to-do in 2 minutes or less, do it right away. Putting it on a pile instantly diminishes the probability that the action it needs will even get taken. This is helpful for sorting mail or papers that come home from school; instead of the instinct of “I’ll do this later”, consider sorting and setting 5 minutes for “Instant Action” to resolve to-dos and not let something end up on the pile at all. 

3) If you live with other people, recognize that your system may not jive with theirs, and conflict can come up. Part of making piles work for you is to make sure they’re not a source of conflict with others; you’ll spend more time and energy fighting about the piles than processing them! Consider where they live, how tall they get, and whether someone else’s ability to get things done is impacted by your pile. This could mean they couldn’t find something that they needed, and only you knew where it was and how to navigate the pile. It could mean the pile is just in a place that is physically inconvenient to other things getting done, for instance, in the middle of the kitchen counter when someone else is trying to cook, or on the desk when someone else is trying to do homework or pay bills. Determine whether your locations or your process need to shift in order to promote harmony and productivity for all! I’m a piler and took me years to figure out how to have a piling style while living with other people (hard fail in college and in my 20’s by the way). My piles were instantly subject to my clutter blindness, so I stopped seeing things, stopped realizing I had things to do, and every roommate wanted to kill me, I’m sure. (Apologies to all I’ve lived with, including Handy Boy, for taking so long to figure out how to stay on top of this and make it work!)


I’m a piler and I embrace it. It’s taken me years to understand myself, my strengths, and what I just had to stop kidding myself over. In my 20’s it was late payments and having piles out of control literally cost me money each month. When I worked in the corporate world, I had to navigate between projects simultaneously, and each one was its own pile, and when I was lucky, I had a handle on what I was supposed to be doing next. 

It was only once I stopped to think about how piles could work FOR me and the systems and habits I could put in place for myself did I breakthrough and stop feeling like a failure, drowning in no-longer-relevant paper. If you’re a piler and looking to become a PROUD and SUCCESSFUL Piler, not one who is drowning and failing, try out these tips. And when you’re in a spot where you can say that you can get your hands on everything you need in 15 seconds or less, without creating havoc on the rest of the world to do so, you should proudly wear that Piler Patch! 





  1. Sabrina Quairoli

    Great post, I had a downsizing small business client who was an extreme pile maker in his office. He had purposefully bought a big desk to stack all the piles on them. When we had our meetings, we would go through the piles to bring the piles back down to a more manageable size.

    I found that having a larger stackable bin for each of the categories piles worked well. We would stack bins and label with with categories. Then we agreed that when the bins got too full he needed to take action on them. It worked great and he was able to reduce his desk size when he moved.

    • clevergirlorg

      The big desk as a system… so glad he had you to help him reconfigure how to make a system work for him! Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!


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