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De-Stress Your Declutter with the Three Pile Method

A woman folds clothes and creates different piles.

Is it a struggle to sort? Does decluttering cause more stress than it solves? One simple method can make organizing a breeze.

One of the most frustrating parts of the whole decluttering process is when you run across those items that don’t immediately slot into an obvious “keep” or “get rid of” pile. Our brains get overwhelmed or start spiraling into “mights” and “maybes,” and things we never use wind up in the “keep” pile because of it. Instead of getting stressed or putting items in a pile where they don’t really belong, try this “three pile method” to help your brain chill out and get rid of things that you don’t actually want anymore.

The Pile to Get Rid of

A clear storage tub, labeled "Get Rid Of"
Amanda Prahl / LifeSavvy

Start with the most obvious pile for most people: the stuff you definitely don’t want. The goal of organizing isn’t to get rid of everything, but to whittle down those piles of “stuff” that have accumulated without being truly useful in some way.

If you’re feeling stuck, ask yourself these three questions about the item you’re not sure about:

  1. Do I currently use this?
  2. Does this currently make me happy?

If the answer to both of these questions is “no,” then it’s probably best to put the item into the pile to get rid of. A third question, “Do I already have enough of these?” can help to further narrow things down among specific categories.

Although it can be tempting to just throw everything into the same bag and be done with it, you can actually do a bit of good if you take the time to sort things.

Keep a few do’s and don’ts in mind when you’re getting ready to get rid of your items:

  • Don’t donate items that are in poor condition. A little wear and tear is fine, but major damage isn’t. For large things, like furniture, you can always check with your intended recipient organization to find out if they accept damaged pieces to repair, but unless you’re sure they do, avoid sending seriously damaged items to donate.
  • Do check with the organization you plan on donating to and make sure they’re currently accepting the types of items you want to donate.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to sort perfectly. It’s not the end of the world if something donate-able or recyclable ends up in the “wrong” pile.
  • Do consider donating to a local organization, instead of (or in addition to) nationwide, big-name charities.

The Pile to Keep

A clear storage tub, marked "Keep"
Amanda Prahl / LifeSavvy

When you’re organizing and sorting, the end goal is to be able to truly use and enjoy the things that you’ve kept and that you love. That means that there will be some—maybe even many—items that you put in your “keep” pile.

As with the “get rid of” pile, start with the items that have an obvious answer: the ones that you definitely use all the time, or that you definitely have a strong attachment to. The “useful and/or joyful” metric is as helpful for deciding on “yeses” as it is for deciding on “nos.”

Once you have the pile of items you’re definitely keeping, it’s time to consider how you’re going to store them. Consider packing away more sentimental or seasonal items in a matching set of sturdy storage tubs for easier stacking, or under-the-bed tubs for less visual intrusion and better use of space.

Rubbermaid Roughneck️ 18 Gallon Storage Totes

Stackable, heavy-duty tubs keep out dust and moisture.

Sterilite 56 Qt./53 L Wheeled Latching Box

Slide under the bed for extra, invisible storage.

Depending on what kinds of items you’re sorting, it might also be time for a closet or dresser reorganization. You also might find yourself looking into decorative items, like storage cubes or storage baskets, that can store items while still being aesthetically pleasing.

The key is to find a system that works for you, so that the items you love and use are accessible and, well, usable. Organizing is about ensuring that your items are there for you, whatever that means in your everyday life.

The Maybe Pile

A clear storage tub, marked "Maybe"
Amanda Prahl / LifeSavvy

This is it: the magic pile, the pile that makes this method so much more helpful and so much less stressful.

Think about it: what’s the worst part of sorting through your things? It’s those items that don’t instinctively fall into either the “keep” or “ditch” pile—the things you might use, the things you kind of care about keeping.

When we run into these items in the course of our organizing, they can cause the whole process to screech to a halt. We often find ourselves dithering and worrying about regretting our choices, no matter which pile we put them in.

We can’t convince ourselves to get rid of it altogether, so we sigh and resign ourselves to putting it in the “keep” pile. It’s psychological and emotional more than rational: we know we probably won’t suddenly start loving these pieces that we’re on the verge of throwing out, but our brains just won’t always get with the program.

mee'life Storage Bins with Lids

A maybe pile can live in chic totes in your closet while you decide the items' fates.

That’s where the “maybe” pile comes in. Instead of throwing all those “almost” items back in the keep pile because you can’t quite get rid of them, put them in a temporary home instead.

Here’s how to make the most of this part of the process:

  1. As you sort through your items, set aside the “maybe” pieces that don’t immediately land in the “keep” or “get rid of” piles.
  2. When you’re done, take the maybe pile and store the items in a box or tub.
  3. Put the boxes somewhere easy to find but not in direct sight.
  4. Keep them there for six to eight weeks.
  5. If you find yourself thinking about or actually looking for any of the items during that time, feel free to pull them out and reconsider.
  6. Anything left undisturbed and un-remembered after the weeks have elapsed goes into the donate pile.

If you’re struggling to declutter, don’t get stressed! Trick your brain into really focusing on what needs to go with this helpful three pile method, then take a look at other organizational methods so that you can keep up with new (and old) items instead of letting them build up.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to LifeSavvy. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Her articles have appeared on HowlRound, Slate, Bustle, BroadwayWorld, and ThoughtCo, among others. Read Full Bio »
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