Get Rid of Your Physical Piles

Jan. 5, 2013

Physical piles containing work documents, memos, trade journals, or low-priority paper mail, whether on your desk or side table, feel lousy. If you can toss them all in bulk obviously you should. But if they contain things that must be done you can’t just toss them, and the piles remain as unattended responsibilities that will nag at your psyche and lead to dropped commitments.

Here’s a quick way to clean up piles that still have lots of to-dos buried in them—it’s a method that takes advantage of the 1MTD or MYN system ability to track and prioritize your tasks. Doing this will get the pile processed and out of sight, and will move important actions into your single task list (where the associated action can be tackled in priority order). That removes the stress the pile represents and gets things done when needed.

How to Clean Up

This method assumes you already have either a 1MTD or MYN to-do list in place. So assuming you do, next get a cardboard or plastic box ready to move the items into. Starting at the top of the pile, work through it rapidly, tossing a lot. For those items you cannot not toss, do this:

  1. Starting at 1, assign a unique sequential ID number to the item and record the number on a corner of the item itself somehow (use a bold pen or perhaps apply pre-numbered labels).
  1. Decide what action is needed for the item and make an entry in your 1MTD or MYN to-do list, in the appropriate urgency zone. Record its number at the front of the task subject line (e.g. “32 Read December 2013 magazine article about industry trends”).
  1. Stack the item in the box in numerical order.

Continue this without stopping until the whole pile is gone. In other words, refrain from acting on things as you touch them, even for things you want to do today; otherwise you’ll never get through the pile. Commit to only making task entries in your system and stacking the items; when the pile is gone you can come back and actually do the must-do-today items (don’t worry, they will be in the Critical Now section of your 1MTD/MYN to-do list).

Why This Works

A system like this is needed because we tend to do the first thing we see in the pile, even if it’s relatively low priority, and so we run out of time and never get past the top of the pile. Also, objects in a pile tend to take on more gravity. Each time we start to scan the pile, we get lost in the large amount of background in each item—the story behind each one—and that slows us way down. In either case, the pile never gets processed.

Instead, by capturing just the gist of the task and reviewing only it in your list, we can later impassively decide when an action on an item makes sense to do, and retrieve it from the box to do it as appropriate. Over time as you periodically review these tasks along with all your other to-dos, the powerful 1MTD or MYN principles will allow you to get them done as needed, and not get lost in the pile.

Letting Go of Things

A lot of to-dos collected this way end up being low priority, and the 1MTD/MYN Over the Horizon process is perfect for these. You simply review the Over the Horizon list on a slow cycle. Perhaps after reviewing and postponing a particular action a number of times, you’ll be ready to delete the task and toss the corresponding item from the box. That’s one thing this process allows: giving you time to “let go” of things. Again, if you can toss most or all of the pile, do that. But if you can’t, this process gives you a way to gracefully let go of those things you tend to hold on to; otherwise they clutter your life.

What about No-Action Items?

By the way, when doing this process if you find a lot of items that have no action but still need to be saved longer term for for later search only, then don’t put them in the task box or list—they will clog it up. Rather, add them to whatever physical filing system you have. If you have no physical filing system, here’s a quick one you can create that has been used by millions of people for decades. It’s very similar to the system above (some people combine them): Get another box, label it “Vertical File,” and put the numbered no-action items in there in numerical order. As you do, enter a short description of what each numbered item is (and perhaps why you are saving it) in one long paper or computer list titled Vertical File (normally, this is a separate list from the task list we used above—otherwise your task list will get too clogged). Perhaps categorize or tag items in the list in different ways. Later, when looking for things, search the list first. As above, the numbers will tell you where to find items when needed.

Tossing Old Items

As months or years pass, deep archive or toss the oldest items (lowest numbers). Since older items lose importance and are stacked together, that makes tossing in bulk easier. (By the way, this is one reason using a single date-sorted Processed Mail folder for saving old e-mail also works so well. Doing so is quick, and it makes it easier to toss or archive old mail in bulk. That’s also a key part of the 1MTD/MYN systems).

Try it Out Today

Put aside an hour and try this system on one or two piles and see how it goes, perhaps modifying the steps a bit to fit your circumstances. But if it doesn’t work for you, no harm, you gave it a shot. You do need to find some way to clean up though; it feels great to get rid of those old piles and this might be your solution. The key is to get the items off your desks and tables (and off your mind) and into a system where to-dos do not get dropped.

Michael Linenberger
Image courtesy of Gualberto107/

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8 Responses to Get Rid of Your Physical Piles

  1. Rachel R. says:

    That numbering system is brilliant! I’ve been struggling with how to indicate on a task list where to find the item(s) that accompany it, if there are physical support items involved. This is good and specific, but concise.

  2. I was never good at physical pile stuffs so if I can get rid of them, I will do as fast as possible. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s complicated

  3. That’s a fantastic way to keep track of numbers. If there are physical support items for a task, I have been at a loss as to how to specify their location on the task list. This is useful, since it fills in the details yet is brief.

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