Home > executive functioning, surviving school > Pile Containment Devices: an organizational alternative

Pile Containment Devices: an organizational alternative

The two-binder system I described in the previous post is, of course, not for everybody. It works well in situations where there are a lot of routine things going on, stuff happening on a daily or weekly basis in almost every area of study.

However, particularly as we make it into adulthood — and I’m willing to bet that there are some homeschoolers or afterschoolers who would also be in this boat — things are often organized less around routine stuff happening every day or week, and more around discrete projects. For a project, often you’re handling many different pieces or chunks of paper, but the order of them not only doesn’t count, it is often really helpful to be able to move them around, spread them out on the table, mix and match, look at various things at the same time, and so on. Also, sometimes you want to toss a small book or workbook right into the pile (and might be tempted to shove papers into the book in order to corral them. Don’t do it!).

For instance, when I am doing a report on an assessment, I want to be able to grab one or more test protocols, the history, notes I took during the assessment, scoring worksheets and graphs I cooked up, spread them out, leaf through them, and then shove them away easily. For another instance, when I was working on the literature review for my dissertation, there were piles and piles of papers on various topics. And yet another — when my dishwasher had a catastrophic failure and I found myself managing an insurance company and a kitchen remodel while in grad school (I do not recommend this for amusement), there were all sorts of piles of stuff related to that. Moving across country, same thing.

See, some of us have brains that, well, we think best in piles and networks. People who don’t know much about brains like to call this a right-brained processing style, or a visual processing style (sorry, both of those concepts would get me laughed out of the cool neuropsych parties — the current research on the topic is much more complex than any such simple-minded dichotomy would support). The single hardest thing for me to do while writing is to get my thoughts into linear form. So why on earth would I like an organizational system that is linear in structure, like a binder? I literally can’t find anything when I use time as the organizing principle. There are some kinds of situations where I keep track of stuff linearly, sure, but most of the time, nope.

But of course, you linear folks are probably silently freaking out that I’m about to tell your kid that it’s okay to have piles of stuff all over the desk, the floor, the backpack, piling on top of each other, falling over, getting mixed up together, being indistinguishable from each other, oh, man, what a mess. Yes, that’s the potential downfall of living life in the Pile Zone.

Enter the Pile-Containment Devices: letter trays, portable pockets, accordion folders, and the like. Even hanging folders can work as PCDs, when they’re not getting hidden in a file drawer and disappearing from memory. (I long ago gave up filing “that is neat and I might want it someday” stuff in my filing cabinets, because other than the few Really Important Things, I would tend to forget not just what I named the file it got put in, but even that it ever existed at all.)

If you do your work basically at your desk, then try a whole bunch of horizontal letter trays, or a mail sorter (obviously, both of those items can be found in stylish versions, too, but I’m showing cheap-and-ugly options). I like side-loading ones best, because it’s easier to get a glimpse of what’s on the papers. The concept here is that each pile now has a pigeonhole to go into.

If you’re a moveable feast, then you need something portable. When I’m handling one good-sized project with a bunch of different facets to it (e.g., job search), I have a 13-pocket accordion folder, made of durable plastic, like this one. I’ve had the same one for years, because I really cannot manage more than one project of accordion-file magnitude at a time (“knowing your limits” being another important aspect of executive functioning). The printed-out material I’m organizing into the outline for my book (on, perhaps not surprisingly, helping bright-to-gifted folks with executive functioning) is in it right now — each section is a chapter. By the way, I have known some school-age kids to use an accordion file instead of the traveling zip binder, where each section is a class, and there’s one section at the front for hot-folder items. You can do this, and it’s quite an adequate system, if you are really good about keeping dates on pages, and if you are really good about emptying the thing on a very regular basis into the home-based permanent-storage binder, and if you don’t mind that this routine is going to take a little longer because you have to impose order at that point.

But in my life, I’m generally juggling a bunch of different smallish projects at once. If I tried to keep everything in one accordion folder, I’d get sick of carrying it around, and that’s where the danger would happen — I’d take a pile out to take with me somewhere, and it wouldn’t have a Pile Containment Device any more and the uncontrolled piles might escape. Must. not. let. that. happen.

When something outgrows an accordion folder, it’s not really going to be particularly portable anyhow. A small portable hanging-file box (here’s an open one, and here’s a somewhat bigger one with a lid and a handle) is a reasonable alternative (you can at least move it from place to place in the home). My aforementioned dissertation literature review took up a full-sized hanging-file box (actually overflowed it by the end). As I wrote each section, the folder with that pile of papers got sent to the back of the box, providing an encouraging visual of my progress. Somehow, even though open file boxes aren’t all that different from hanging files in a file drawer, the kind normal human beings seem to be able to manage, I don’t lose track of stuff as easily when it’s in open filing like that.

Occasionally, if it’s really only a few pieces of paper and the project is really short term, I do grab one of those awful two-pocket paper folders (see, I despise them so much I’m not even making a link) that seem to spawn in my closet (they are refugees, I think, from Little Bird’s elementary school’s silly ideas about how to teach kids to organize themselves). But most of the time, I use a file pocket. I cannot find a link to the ones I use — I happened to spot these in a dollar store a few years ago, bought a couple, realized how excellent they were, went back and bought some more, and haven’t seen them in any store since. I have about eight of these. They’re thicker plastic than most, and they have elastic on the corners so they close and open easily, none of that mucking about with noisy Velcro or time-consuming string. Here is the closest match I was able to find online. I don’t like flimsy clear-poly pockets — they feel like they’re not going to hold up, and they aren’t stiff enough to protect the papers well. I also don’t like ones that have a rigid gusset — they’re just asking to get crushed, and they take up too much space when they’re not full. Good carry-around pockets are good for about an inch or two of paper, which handles quite a wide variety of projects. They are my go-to PCDs.

If you really only have a few things you need to deal with at any given time, and, again, you’re good about offloading things into long-term storage, think about something like a contractor’s clipboard. I had one just like this one for years while in grad school the first time — I used letter trays on my desk and just used this lovely portable thing to take notes and hold important pieces of paper (hot-folder items) in the storage box (which also can hold a pencil). Look for one that has a cover (like the one I linked) to protect the pad from getting trashed. Sure, you could use a pretty portfolio, and that’s what I use now for walking-around notetaking-with-clients, but there’s some nice urban chic happening with the aluminum thing.

Important Troubleshooting Tip: The biggest potential downfall of the PCD system is that they need to be labeled. Otherwise, you will just have a whole pile of undifferentiated piles, and you will eventually start shoving things in randomly because you aren’t sure what goes where, and you will waste time trying to find the pile you were looking for, so you’re back to piles of piles of messy piles. If you change your pile labels frequently, try taping a pad of small post-it notes to your letter trays so you can write and rewrite. If you don’t change them frequently, stickers or labels will work. Accordion files, of course, have those little divider tabs. If you’re using portable pockets, you might be able to get away with color-coding (I do — I usually have some mnemonic association between the color and the project, and that’s enough for me). But don’t try it if you don’t have to — look for pockets that have someplace to slip a paper label into them.

Another potential pitfall: if your system has portable elements, they can get lost and then you have to waste time tearing up the house and screaming about the missing PCD. At least until some other unfinished project catches your eye and you start doing that instead, procrastinating the crisis (is that a transitive verb?) until some later date, probably long after its deadline. PCDs need homes to live in. If you can get yourself to commit to a consistent location (say, a desk or other workspace, which I’ll have hints for in another post), then the discipline becomes that the PCDs always get returned to that location, not just dropped wherever they happen to be when your brain moves on to another task.

And a third potential pitfall:  when you switch away from that project to another task (as us low-working-memory high-idea-generation types do so often), the pile needs to get swept back into the PCD. That simple behavior is one of those things that organized people think, “How difficult can this be?”  However, if that’s a problem area, then it needs to get explicitly cued and practiced specifically until it becomes part of the PCD-use routine.

Last thing (at least until I think of another one): you need to have a system for offloading the content of the PCD as the project shifts focus.  That is, you need to get rid of obsolete stuff so it doesn’t make the current stuff harder to find in the pile — if the pile has more than about a dozen items, two dozen at the outside, you’re going to waste too much time searching it.  Same thing with what you will do when a project is completed.  Frequently, you can get rid of a lot of the intermediate materials, and then you need some sort of long-term storage for the stuff you want to keep.  I’ve already mentioned the school-year binder, and Jeff mentioned rough-sort systems, but I’ll have more to say about those things later on.

For now, try it… embrace the piles… see how it works for you…

  1. Allan
    August 15, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Hi, Aimee. I really liked your previous post, and I’m going to use some of your ideas with the kids I teach. The papers falling everywhere or instantaneous tossing of all paper are definitely two problems I see with most of my kids.

    As per this post, there is a new type of kid emerging–generally only the top ones and only some of them–who live electronically. Their laptop is almost everything important. It struck me that either of your models could be applied to this sort of digital native kid. However, most of the so-called digital natives have had nobody to teach them simple things like organizing their folders by date created (we’re both Mac folk–so I’m speaking Mac here; the Linux kids are already good at all this stuff and the PC users are hopeless). Judicious choice of titles for nested folders, use of tabbed display of their hard drive–it would take half an hour to show such a kid all of this, and they’d get it. You’d think that kids would get the feel for stuff and just “get-it”, like we think we did, but in our generation, there was generally someone around to bounce stuff off of. The kids I teach are poor–we’re lucky if the parents know how to check their email. Moreover, I became digitally literate in grad school, for you it was undergrad, I’m talking about high school students.

    The other issue is permanence of piles. I was a pile-organized guy in part as a professor. But nobody touched my desk. Despite a surface appearance of severe clutter (you may recall I was the only grad student at Stanford whose bench was considered a safety hazard by the state merely because it was messy).

    No kid has that option. Tragically, I had an ESE kid last year whose mother would periodically clean his room and throw everything out, including homework. As a consequence, he failed all his classes. Despite intense intervention by a very good ESE specialist. This kid would likely have been borderline gifted if testable. I’m not sure this is a good strategy to recommend to kids who aren’t wealthy enough to have adequate space for spreading out. I don’t think this would work with most poor or middle class kids or any kid with siblings who mess with things.

    Chronological organization beats no organization. As such, even in the situation you described, the organization system of your previous post may be superior to this one.

    • August 16, 2010 at 7:28 am

      Well, yes, I tend to recommend the previous system (zip binder at school, offloaded to regular binder at home) for most kids who are in departmentalized classrooms. Frankly, it’s easier to establish and maintain — the offload sorting from the PCD system can be quite challenging, if a project isn’t really done once it’s done. An entire semester’s worth of course stuff typically is much too much stuff and much too complicated stuff than a single PCD should contain.

      I will point out that piles that are clearly contained in PCDs tend not to get messed with as much by toddlers or overzealous cleaners-up — random piles all over the desk look like trash, while piles that are neatly in letter trays or an accordion file or closed folders don’t look like trash.

      Your ideas about teaching kids to organize stuff on their computers are also really valid, and one I could certainly talk about more later. Thanks!

  2. August 15, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    I must admit I’m a pile and network kind of thinker. There are many points where my system breaks down or is interfered with by members of the household who are unaware of any system. To their untrained minds they see chaos. Pshaw! A lot of tweaks are necessary, but this gives me a good place to start in my quest for workable PCDs.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just swept everything up into one giant pile and crammed it all into a grocery bag or kitchen drawer so company would think I’m neat and organized. I have an office, but never use it. The whole house tends to be my office. This is in stark contrast to my grumpy husband who thrives on my original filing cabinet system, whereby every scrap of paper belongs in a neatly labeled hanging folder and all hot items are in a portfolio or laptop case. Information can suffocate and die that way!

    I’m looking forward to breathable letter trays up to the ceiling. 🙂

    • August 16, 2010 at 10:41 am

      Kim, I have the same experience of needing to rapidly hide things — the big danger is that those last-minute sweeps sometimes result in my losing something or creating a Big Intimidating Box of Stuff to Sort.. I do use my office, but I also move around from place to place in the house to work, depending upon the sunlight and my mood.

  3. bj
    August 17, 2010 at 3:28 am

    “(sorry, both of those concepts would get me laughed out of the cool neuropsych parties — the current research on the topic is much more complex than any such simple-minded dichotomy would support)”

    Yup. I have trained myself to stop from rolling my eyes when people talk about “right-brained.” Visual thinker isn’t so bad, except from (the too many) people who think that it’s an alternative and a dichotomy.

    I have found that the pile-based system is both necessary for some projects and a failure for me. It fails for me when 1) things belong within multiple projects — electronically, I’ve fallen into making repeated copies of things. Aliases are supposed to be for this purpose but they don’t work when you copy things (well, at least, they don’t work simply enough). 2) over time. Over time, I find my project based systems need to be documented and cleaned up or things can’t be linked to their sources/meaning.

    Many people ask me about organizing photos (I have gazillions) and for these I’ve found time to be a critical first step organizing tool (even while it doesn’t provide nearly enough). It’s easy to make sure your photographs are organized — and named by time. That won’t help you find the perfect picture of your kid with the cow that you took, but if you wait to organize it that way, you’ll have no organization at all. So, I have the time based organization and then add a project based organization that is poorly implemented. This works for digital photos (since duplicates can be used).

    But, it doesn’t work for physical copies, and I can see that’s a frequent place where our attempts at binder organization based on time fail. Your initial description of your binder organization is great, but one of its failure points in our house is when something gets taken out to be worked on (i.e. a worksheet, and especially one that gets taken somewhere). Putting organization (putting it back) as one of the required project tasks is difficult to do and to enforce (especially when you’re starting out).

    I’m really enjoying these posts, and I hope they’ll help me help my kids stay organized once school starts.

  4. August 17, 2010 at 10:52 am

    BJ, yes, I have the same problem — hierarchical file structures are not very helpful. Notions of “tagging” I think would be more useful. I tend to have to look for something by thinking, “Okay, what class was I taking when I was thinking about this topic?” I think there are software solutions for some of this (check into Papers, for instance), but I’m not as up on the latest software technogeekery as one might think. The “search” function on the Mac does quite a good job for my purposes.

    I also organize my photos by time — folder by year, folders within it named by month and a few words describing what’s in it (e.g., “2010 / 06 MSPP graduation”) That’s enough granularity for me to keep track of things. However, it does not work well for the “art” photos I have taken, which tend to be more driven around content than around events. That’s something I have very much fallen behind on while in grad school.

    The fact that you’ve identified the failure point (object gets taken out of the binder to be worked on and is forgotten or misplaced before returning to the binder) is a very good first step. I would question why it needs to be out of the binder at all, if that’s a failure point. If the person involved is left-handed, punch papers on the other side and go ahead and use the binder backwards, I promise not to tell. If you, like me, like to write sideways up the page (it is actually much easier to write if the vertical edge of the paper is parallel to your forearm, which usually means the corner of the paper points at your belly), you might need to clear a larger space to work on the desk. Now, to be fair, I usually work on things outside the binder, too, but the rule is that they go back into the rings or into the hot-folder as part of the routine of “I’m done, check that it’s done properly, put it away.” You’re right that if that isn’t happening routinely, then it’s a target for intervention.

  5. Grinity
    September 14, 2010 at 3:14 am

    I like to keep about 5 empty clipboards handy for really small projects. Trips less than a week long and grocery/errand lists, for example. Clipboards seem to be the idea ‘container’ for Internet printouts and other ‘interesting but not really important’ types of things. I like that they can withstand a car ride.


  6. September 15, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    The iPhoto application on macs is pretty useful in the way it can import events by date, and then shows you a tile that is the first picture in the event, and you can mouse right to quickly scan the contents of the event. I generally download pictures pretty often, and certainly after big events like a game or party. I have trained my brain to think of certain things together – for instance, pictures of the garden that I took in late August just before the first baseball game are stored in the event that has the first baseball game. I date the event (I don’t usually further tag the event because I use a rigid foldering system 2010>09_2010>09_14_10>photos using the numerical auto-number they are given from the camera. I let iPhoto manage the photos on the main computer, but this foldering system is how I store my backups and how i used to operate before I went Mac 2 years ago.)

    And Aimee – can you talk about handwriting in more detail at some point? The writing sideways is so true for me – I often turn the paper so that it is perpendicular to the orientation of the flat surface I’m writing on (instead of the bottom of the page being nearest my belly, it’s off to the right) and always thought I was weird! Would love more ideas about that as well as ways to help the low-muscle-tone-and-sometimes-disorganized-9-yr-old with his writing, just to get him up to “legible notes in the assignment notebook” level. Mercifully, his teachers permit typed assignments for the most part.

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