The “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?”