Messy Organization Isn’t an Oxymoron

Kelly McMenamin
4 min readMar 11, 2021

There’s been a lot written about organization advice in the past few years. Advice like “Save only things that spark joy,” or “Rainbow color-coordinate your cabinets” can be very useful. But it also gives the impression that there’s only one way things should look. Organization has a lot more to do with your brain and how it works than how flawless a cabinet looks.

Life isn’t always easy (Exhibit A: The year that was 2020!) but organizing it should be. How you organize is hardwired in your brain. It’s part of who you are. The trick to getting and staying organized isn’t about making it look perfect.

Some people are messy, some are neat, and neither has anything to do with organization. Organization is about retrieval. You can be organized regardless of where you fall on that messy/neat continuum. Figure out your organizing style and then build systems that work with your natural tendencies rather than fight them. Working with who you are just makes life easier.

The Great Organizational Divide: Pilers vs. Filers

You can break humanity into two groups: pilers and filers. It’s essentially just messy versus neat. I’m a filer. I’m tidy. Whenever I see a bunch of piles of paper, my inclination is to dismiss it outright as a mess. It’s how my brain is hardwired. Half of the population would make the same assessment as me. Disheveled piles of anything look disorganized to us.

Only after 10-plus years in the organizing trenches, plus publishing a book on the subject, do I fight my knee-jerk assessment. The reason? The other half of the population doesn’t see piles as a mess like neatniks do. I learned that there’s usually a rhyme and a reason to any mess or pile. Often a slew of piles masks a simple organizing strategy: a rudimentary piling system. The key to creating the right system for you lies in asking the right questions.

How to Create a Piling System

Never attack a mess without first understanding how it became that way or you’ll repeat the same failure. My first questions to clients are, “How did this pile come about?”, “What’s in this pile?”, and “Does this pile always tend to live here?” Their answers tell me what their organizing strategy is and what is preventing a system from working for them. Sometimes filers appear to be pilers simply because they don’t have enough filing cabinet space.

For filers, I create more filing cabinet space. Problem solved. But for pilers, I build a piling system that replicates the essence of their natural piling strategy while creating more visual order and efficiency than was there beforehand. I figure out how many piles or categories tend to occur and buy clear, open bins for each and label them.

Always buy a couple of extra bins for new categories-change is the one thing you can count on in life. Commandeer a console or a bookshelf to house these bins near wherever piles tend to happen naturally. They’ll continue to do so. Changing habits is harder than accommodating reality and creating proper homes for things where they occur.

Why Piling Systems Work

The reason piling systems work is that pilers-the messy part of humanity-are big picture thinkers with visual memories. When something is out of sight, frequently it’s out of mind. The more they squirrel away into tiny file categories, the more difficult it becomes to locate things. In fact, a few of them forget these things exist all together.

To many pilers, modern filing cabinets are like mausoleums. It’s where things are laid to rest, never to see the light of day again. For these folks, filing cabinets are not a great organizational solution no matter how tidy they make things! Guess how humanity organized papers before the filing cabinet was invented in the late 19th century? Yep, they used piling systems with bins and drawers.

Often when I finish creating a piling system, the results do not look Instagram ready. Piles are not perfect. But, more important than whether it’s Instagrammable is that clients can find things. There is no point to me creating an entire new system for a client that looks pristine with everything tucked away inside of a filing cabinet if it’s not going to actually work for them.

What I mean by “work for them” is that they will be able to easily put things in their home and retrieve things when they need them without resorting to texting me to ask where I put something. Likewise, there is no point in you creating a new organizational system that isn’t going to work for you. Messy organization isn’t an oxymoron if you can find things.

Originally published at



Kelly McMenamin

Kelly McMenamin is an author, organizing coach and speaker and co-founder of PixiesDidIt!, a company that helps people organize according to personality.