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Tuesday
May212013

Ask the Expert: Peter Walsh

Peter Walsh "Ask the Expert" interview about ClutterThe “Ask the Expert” interview series connects you with industry thought leaders. So far this year, we’ve spoken with Sheila Delson about letting go, Laura Berman Fortgang about next steps, Judith Kolberg about change, and Sue West about fresh starts. This month I’m excited to share with you someone who is a household name in the professional organizing industry, Peter Walsh, to share his insights and wisdom about clutter.

Peter and I met several years ago at a National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) conference when he had a special session with our veteran organizers group. After the session, I went to the Expo where I stood on a very long line of Peter’s fans to say “hi” and ask him to autograph his book, It’s All Too Much. I was taken with how incredibly charming, generous, and patient he was handling a loud, enthusiastic group of organizers and fans. A few years ago, I featured Peter and his book, Lighten Up for a Giveaway on my blog. My deepest thanks goes to Peter for taking the time to join us. Before we begin, here’s more about him.

Peter Walsh, is an expert in organizational design, television and radio personality, and author of numerous New York Times best sellers. Peter’s aim is to help people live richer, happier lives with a little more organization. Born and raised in Australia, he moved to Los Angeles in 1994 with the idea of launching a company to help organizations improve employees’ job satisfaction and effectiveness. He has helped thousands of homeowners and corporations organize their living and work spaces for optimal efficiency. Peter was a regular guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, was star of Clean Sweep and had his own series, Extreme Clutter on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). He’s appeared on hundreds of national television programs including The Nate Berkus Show, The Talk, and Good Morning America. You can connect with Peter on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or his website.

 

Linda Samuels:  You’re an expert on helping people better understand their emotional and physical clutter. How do you begin this process?

Peter Walsh:  I am one of seven kids.  Growing up we didn’t have a ton of stuff and what we had we learned early on we had to take care of. I think from this I’ve always had respect for looking after what I own and taking care of the things that are mine. Being organized, however, is a skill just like any other and can definitely be learned. It takes a little practice but the dividends are definitely worth it! 

I had worked a lot here in the US in the area of organizational change in businesses, and friends started asking for some help in getting their homes – and sometimes their lives – in order. I realized early on that the problems people had with clutter and disorganization were usually about their fear of letting things go, or lack of skills in scheduling things, or sometimes even some trauma they’d experienced in their lives.  Once these underlying issues were dealt with, usually dealing with ‘the stuff’ became so much easier. My work in this area came to the attention of a television network here and they asked me to work on an organization show. A few years ago, I started working with the Oprah Winfrey Show as their decluttering and organization expert and from there hosted Enough Already! with Peter Walsh and Extreme Clutter on The Oprah Winfrey Network.  More recently, I’m the ‘get your life organized’ guy on The Rachael Ray Show.

 

Linda:  Why is letting go of clutter so challenging for some of us?

Peter:  Generally people accumulate clutter of two types - and you may recognize yourself here. The first is what I call 'memory clutter' - this is the stuff that reminds you of an important person, or event or achievement in the past - things like those old university papers from 20 years ago, or your adult children's baby clothes or that soccer trophy you won in kindergarten. The other kind of clutter is 'I might need it one day clutter' - this is the stuff you hold onto in preparation for all those possible futures that could eventuate. Neither of these is a bad thing. The problem only arises when the stuff you own interferes with the life you could be living.

I work differently to many organizers in that I have come to see that if you focus on 'the stuff' when trying to declutter and get organized, you will never succeed. Ever! The first and most important step in decluttering is to ask yourself, "What is my vision for the life I'd like to live?” "What does that life look like?", "What does my home look like in that life?" When you can clearly answer these questions you are in a position to start decluttering by looking at your stuff and asking, "Does this item move me closer to the life I want to be living?" If it does, keep it. If not, what's it doing in your home? It’s as simple and as complex as that. Start with the life you want, not the stuff you have!

 

Linda:  You’ve helped many people transform their lives. What are some of the positive outcomes they’ve experienced from releasing their clutter?

Peter:  Your home is a reflection of your life. It’s impossible to make your best choices for your most authentic life in a cluttered, messy, disorganized space – it just doesn’t happen! When we talk about clutter we talk about how it makes us feel ‘suffocated’ or ‘unable to breath’ in a space. Clutter robs us of life – physically, psychologically, socially, emotionally and usually financially. When a home is overrun with clutter it robs us emotionally, making us feel stressed out; it robs us financially, the stuff costs a lot of money to acquire; it robs us socially, we are too embarrassed to have people over to our homes; it robs us of peace and calm, we can’t relax in our own homes. Decluttering opens your space, allows you to focus and feel motivated. By surrounding yourself only with those things that are beautiful and useful, you are able to truly create a space that reflects your best life.


Linda:  Do you have a clutter philosophy?

Peter:  The single biggest problem with organization is that people think it’s all about ‘the stuff’ when, in fact, it’s almost never about ‘the stuff.” If you focus on the stuff you will never get organized – weird but true! The very first step in getting organized is to ask yourself, “What is the life I want to be living?” And from this question there are others, “What does that life look like?” “What do I want from my home – what mood, what experience?” It’s only after you have answered these questions that you can start looking at your stuff and get organized by asking (of each item), “Does this thing move me closer or farther away from the life I want?” That’s the criteria for what stays and what goes.

Other factors are that people simply buy too much.  Recreational shopping is a killer!

 

Linda:  What has been your biggest personal challenge around clutter?

Peter:  While I am known as the ‘organization’ guy, I’m not crazy when it comes to organization! For me, organization is not so much about coloured photo boxes or orderly files as it is about living your life in a way that is stress-free and fulfilling. If your life is more about the quantity of stuff you can acquire than it is about the quality of relationships that you have, then there’s a problem. My own home and what I own reflects the kind of life I want – open, relaxed, welcoming, calm, stress-free and inviting.  It’s all about creating a home that reflects the life you want. I think I’ve been pretty successful in achieving that.

 

Thank you, Peter for sharing your thoughts about clutter. Your message that clutter is not about the “stuff,” but instead about creating the life you want is the thread that clearly weaves through all of your responses. In the twenty plus years I’ve been helping others get organized, I also recognize this to be true. We get called about the “stuff,” but know that is simply the beginning of the conversation.

I invite all of you to join Peter and me as we continue talking. We’d love to hear your ideas about clutter. What clutter challenges or successes have you experienced recently? What are your thoughts about “the stuff?”

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Reader Comments (36)

My issue is memory clutter. I purchased a large Rubbermaid tote to contain all that stuff a few years ago and my rule was when the box is full, something has to go. Then my mom passed away and I brought home a ton of HER memory clutter - too much to make room for, so I put all the paper memorabilia in a cardboard box and the rest of it in the tote. It's probably still too much but they're neatly tucked away in closets so they don't interfere with anything.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Barclay

I love that Peter is such a voice of kindness for our profession. I've been in business 15 years and sometimes I think we may be perceived as (broad brush alert!) "fussy", "uptight", "rigid" and other words that belie who we really are as individuals and how we work with our clients.

Peter and I have pretty much exactly the same approach, as I know many other colleagues do, which is to first have a conversation around the higher level issues which *manifest* at the lower levels in clutter and disorganization. I always teach my clients individually and in my group training that disorganization is a pie made of several slices and each person has a different configuration of slices. It's our job to help identify the slices and assist our clients in improving in those areas.

What a terrific article Linda thank you for sharing! I really enjoy your "Ask The Expert" posts!

Hugs,
Monica

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Ricci

Thank you for such a wonderful interview, Linda. I'm a big Peter Walsh fan and have taken many strategies from reading his books. I really like the idea of asking someone challenged by clutter what their vision for the space is. That helps me move them forward in the decluttering process because nothing stays if it doesn't fit their vision.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Quintana

Peter is spot on that clutter "pushing life out." It's physical accumulation undoubtedly affects the emotional space too. Therefore, ignoring it only exaberates a permanent state of what I call "stagnation." There can't possibly be room to breathe new air, or for it to circulate. Addressing the clutter by creating specific zones will help set limits, make room for new light to shine in and invite new opportunities.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Borg

Great interview, Linda! I always love what Peter says about deciding how you want to live your life. Like you said, the stuff is usually just the beginning of the conversation.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Simon

Thanks again Linda for a wonderful post. Peter hit the nail on the head. It's never about the stuff but the vision we have for the life we want and how the stuff fits (or not) into it. Although he only hinted at it, I am thrilled he mentioned the recreational shopping issue. SO important in this discussion as well. What a wonderful post. I am also in agreement with Monica. I try to present a more softer side to our profession, letting he client lead the way.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie Josel

Wonderful "hearing" all of your voices! I'm grateful for your thoughtful additions to the conversation and positive feedback.

@Janet- You've identified a key concept about clutter, which is the "don't interfere with anything" factor. Clutter can take up both physical and emotional space, but if it isn't doing either, than you've figured out the balance that works for you.

@Monica- It's great that you've highlighted the "kindness" component, which is an essential quality to have, especially in our industry. I love your description of the pie slices and helping others to identify their sections and proportions.

@Diane- Isn't it great how much we learn from each other? It sounds like Peter's strategy of helping clients identify their "vision for the space" has worked well for you with your clients.

@Nancy- Clutter, "stagnation," and no room to breathe...they often accompany each other. Love your visual of clearing the clutter, creating zones, and allowing space for "new light to shine." Beautiful and freeing.

@Janice- Allowing the conversation to start and deciding "how we want to live our life," that's when movement forward happens.

@Leslie- The "stuff" is just the conversation starter. The sooner we can help shift that to "vision" thinking, the clearer the path becomes. You're also right that "recreational shopping" is a major clutter generator. Is there more you'd like to add about that?

May 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

I agree on so many of these issues, particularly about it not being about the stuff, but our relationship with the stuff. But I'd add a third type of clutter, in addition to "memory clutter" and "potential value" (i.e., "I might need it some day") clutter and that's "assigned value" clutter.

If we own something for which we paid $X, even if it has no emotional hold on us and for which we anticipate no future use, we often feel that we will be "taking a loss" and somehow diminished if we part from this kind of object. Even if we never paid for it in the first place -- for example, if it were a gift -- the fact that we possess something of arbitrary value often makes us unwilling to give it up, even if it brings no actual value to our lives.

Linda, thank you so much for sharing your interview with Peter.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Bestry

Great point, Julie! I'm a bit guilty of that one too, I guess. I have a pair of shoes in my closet which I will never wear. I bought them for my son's wedding in 2011 after searching all over for something that would be both comfortable and suitably dressy, only to find they hurt my feet after only a few hours - and I wasn't even dancing! I just know there's a young girl out there who would love to have them for her prom, yet I haven't taken the necessary steps to get them to her.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Barclay

I love this interview and what it brings to the table about organizing. It is about looking forward, defining the life we want to live! As we help our clients, it is also about helping them be courageous, let go of fear, and choose to live their best lives.

Peter shares a respectful, empowering, client focused philosophy in his work. Thank you for encouraging our clients and potential clients to look past their fears and look forward to live the lives they can imagine.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Delap

Linda, I truly enjoyed your interview with Peter Walsh. I happen to have all of Peter's books and his DVD. I have always enjoyed watching him on television. I think most people feel more calm and peaceful when their everyday environment is free of clutter.

I also think having good organizing systems in place at home may help many people save valuable space, time, energy, and possibly money. It seems like clutter often accumulates from delayed decisions.

You explained it so well in your post about how important it is for people to have a desired "vision" for their home environment, which has a huge impact on their life in general.

I have found that most people are more focused and productive with their work when their environment is organized and free of clutter. A wonderful bonus from being routinely organized is having more available time to do the things you truly enjoy in life and not feel guilty about it. For example, there may be more time available for writing, exercising, or any hobbies in general.

My experience as a nurse and my knowledge as a professional organizer make me aware of the fact that people usually respond well to good routines and balance in their lives. I think an organized home environment is a positive factor towards living a very healthy lifestyle.

Thank you so much, Linda, for your excellent interview with Peter Walsh. I always enjoy all of your posts!

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeb Sawran

I met Peter in Melbourne a few years back and also found him to be very warm and open.
All his points are spot on. I have a few big 'culls' a year and find asking myself 'Does this item make me feel positive or negative,' works well.
Claire McFee
Organize Your Life Household filing system

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaire McFee

Thanks for the great interview Linda. I never grow tired of hearing Peter's thoughts on clutter.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAby Garvey

Another great interview. Memory clutter vs. stuff clutter is a key distinction. There's such emotion behind our clutter and realizing that is, in and of itself, incredibly free-ing. Thank you for sharing.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Vulakh

Wonderful interview! I love Peter's take on not focusing on the stuff but looking at life and envisioning what you want out of it to see what you need to do to get there. That theory can be applied to many things in life and works wonders!

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

First of all, fabulous interview with such engaging and relevant questions. Peter Walsh explains the clutter issues with such clarity. I so agree with the 'memory clutter and the I might need it one day' reasons. I also think people collect clutter for the status by owning lots of things. Interestingly, I grew up in a home that was full of clutter. My mother grew up in Europe during World War II and lived without so many things for so many years. She kept everything from my old winter coats to bags of sugar and bottles of alcohol (even though she did not drink) with the thinking that these things might be useful on the black market in case there was ever another war. When talking about clutter, it goes much deeper and it isn't just about the tangible things but all of the emotions that go with the things. ~Thea

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTime With Thea

Peter + Linda,

I love these statements and completely agree with his philosophy: "My own home and what I own reflects the kind of life I want – open, relaxed, welcoming, calm, stress-free and inviting. It’s all about creating a home that reflects the life you want."

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeralin Thomas

Linda,

What a fabulous interview! Great questions and answers. I enjoyed this read a lot.
I really got a great perspective on Peter's philosophy.
It's great to have access to inside tips from veterans - at just a click away. Very cool ...

Rachel Seavey

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Seavey

Hi Linda and Peter,

What a great post!

I loved how you said that "your home is a reflection of your life", Peter, and I totally agree! I have expressed that in terms of the home being a "visual representation" to clients and getting the home organized and decluttered is, indeed, a task all of its own! Letting go of emotional clutter is one of the hardest tasks to do, and it does help to ask people the right questions to make them aware of why they are holding onto it so they can figure out what they really want for themselves.

Thank you, Linda, for a great interview - you always have the best ones! ;-)

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElisa Macomber

Great stuff. I especially appreciate the idea that organizing is about more than the client's stuff and shifting that stuff. I believe what I do provides an opportunity for the client to create his or her own shift with my support.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Sharb

Amen.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Hale

Joy and thanks for all of your incredible additions to this conversation. How wonderful to hear what resonates with each of you.

@Julie- Favorite new term..."assigned value" clutter. Awesome!

@Janet- Thanks for giving life to Julie's term by sharing your "wedding shoes" story.

@Ellen- "Courageous" is the word...helping our clients live their best lives. Love that.

@Deb- Am sure Peter appreciates that you're such a devoted fan. Sounds like you're combining your skills in nursing & organizing to do wonderful work.

@Claire- "Big culls." Great phrase. And your question about if item makes you feel positive or negative...Brilliant!

@Aby- :) Like you, I also enjoy Peter's clarity around clutter.

@Stacey- You're absolutely right that emotion and clutter go hand in hand. That's why clarifying vision and enlisting support can be so effective.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

You've each have added so much to the richness of our conversation about clutter. How wonderful it is to have you here with us! I also appreciate for your positive, warm words about the interview and blog.

@Suzanne- Great point that "vision" thinking can be used in all areas of our life.

@Thea- You've added deeper meaning to the "might need it someday" piece and how our life experiences can greatly influence our saving or releasing habits.

@Geralin- Yes! Having clarity around what we want our lives to "feel" and look like IS the key to not just clutter issues, but everything else too. It begins with creating that vision.

@Rachel- I enjoyed YOUR interview with Peter Walsh too. Very refreshing. For those that missed it, here's the link: http://www.collectorcare.blogspot.com/2013/04/collector-care-interviews-organizing.html

@Elisa- It's all in the questions, isn't it? Effective questions can help our clients create the "life they want."

@Andrea- With your skills as Organizer Coach, the shifts you help your clients make are with perspective, knowing, and ownership. Paired with accountability, it is a powerful combination you offer.

@Susan- Absolutely!

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

Thanks for a great interview Linda - it was a huge pleasure chatting with you. Thanks also for all the very kind comments. It's a great joy to work in the professional organizing industry with so many skilled and talented people!

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Walsh

You're most welcome, Peter. Thank YOU for sharing with us and for being so gracious. As you can see, you have a ton of fans here and your ideas have created a rich conversation about clutter, letting go, visioning life, and more. "Joy" is the perfect adjective to describe the work and the people in the organizing industry.

My heartfelt thanks to you for spending time with us.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

As always, Peter's words remind me why I am an organizer. There are discouraging days when a client is stuck and it tests my patience. Then there are also delightful days when a client becomes "aware" that they are in charge of the decisions in their lives. It is such an emotional profession and can really drain me at times. I love helping people and creating peaceful homes brings harmony to their whole life.
One day at a time, works wonders in those stuck energy days.
Thank YOU so much Peter and Linda, for keeping me grounded when the going gets tough.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Hipkin

Thank you, Linda, for this wonderful interview with Peter. I heard him speak at my first NAPO conference, and of course I had to buy his book "It's All Too Much!" I, too, teach the "less is more" philosophy. He is such an inspiration to me as a Professional Organizer. His approach is so sensible and down-to-earth.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Lowenheim

@Kelly- You touch on important points...patience and self-care. Our clients are often frustrated and overwhelmed when we arrive, so the patience piece is key. Sometimes we want to move faster than they are ready or willing to go, so we need to slow ourselves down and honor the progress that's being made. They could be baby steps, but important steps nonetheless. The work we do stirs up emotions in our clients, which we can feel too. Daniel Goleman said, "Emotions are contagious." Self care is essential. Thinking about your schedule, mix of clients, and ways to decompress are important so that you can be your best self for your clients.

@Sharon- The "less is more" philosophy resonates with so many of us. I didn't know that your first NAPO conference was the one when Peter spoke. That was when I first met him too and bought the same book as you. Do you remember the mob to meet him and have his book signed at the Expo? It was worth the wait. He was so gracious.

May 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

I moved 11 years ago, I still have totes in the garage of the things I brought with me. I might need it some day. Yet, I cannot tell you what I have in each tote. To tell you the truth it worries me to death. I know I would feel so much better if the shelves were empty or at least less of it. What to do? Peter makes it all seem so easy and I do believe I need to just let the "stuff" go. I even have the "better stuff" in the house in a closet. Some of the "stuff" I have saved for my daughter, who is not interested in keeping it. Why? Because she now has her own "stuff". It is just passed down from generation -to- generation, so it seems. I love watching Peter and everything he says makes sense. Maybe it would be better if I had someone to help when tackling a project like this.

May 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterM Baisden

M- You're doing such important thinking and processing about your "stuff." You're asking all the right questions, pushing yourself to find your answers, and something that might work for you. Your idea of having someone (friend, family, or professional) with you to tackle this sounds great. You'll be able to let go of not just the "stuff" that is no longer relevant, but also the worry that it's causing you. I wrote a post last month about letting go that might be helpful. Here's the link: http://theothersideoforganized.com/blog/2013/4/2/exercise-your-letting-go-muscles.html

May 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

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