Peter Walsh answers questions for Unclutterer.com

Peter Walsh is an organizational giant. His books It’s All Too Much! and How to Organize Just About Everything, his television show Clean Sweep on TLC, and his radio show every Friday on XM Satellite Radio (XM156) inspire people to live uncluttered lives. Walsh is an essential resource for anyone looking to bring more order and less chaos into their world, and he is a bit of a hero in these parts.

Peter Walsh recently took time out of his busy schedule to participate in an interview with Unclutterer.com. His answers are informative and motivational, and we hope that you find them as wonderfully inspiring as we do.

Unclutterer: In your book It’s All Too Much!, you indicate that you have walked away from projects when people value their possessions over their relationships. Isn’t this type of unhealthy prioritization at the root of most people’s clutter problems?

Peter Walsh: Clutter comes in many forms and the reasons why people hold onto it is similarly complex. There are two main types of clutter: Memory Clutter – which reminds one of an important person, or achievement or event from the past – and I-Might-Need-It-One-Day Clutter – this is the stuff held onto in preparation for all possible futures that one might encounter. Keeping things from the past or sensible planning for the future are great things – it’s when the objects take over that there’s a problem. With many of the people I encounter, their primary relationship is with their stuff. Instead of owning their stuff, their stuff owns them. This clearly is not only unhealthy but also a real stumbling block to happiness and a fulfilling life. If your stuff is causing problems in your life or relationships it’s time to do something about it!


Unclutterer: Do you have any difficulties conveying the visual impact of clutter on your XM radio show?

Peter Walsh: When dealing with clutter it’s almost never about ‘the stuff’. The clutter represents something else going on in people’s lives – trauma, fear, disappointment, lost dreams, unfulfilled expectations, anger, poor communication …. the list goes on and one. For this reason, if you focus on the clutter you will never declutter or get organized. Although it’s a little counterintuitive, the XM radio show is the perfect place to talk about and explore the issues that lead to and perpetuate clutter. The visual aspect of the clutter may be compelling but it’s the telling of the story of the clutter that helps change people – radio is perfect for that.

Unclutterer: Do you ever worry that viewers of your television show (Clean Sweep) might feel they can justify their clutter problems because they aren’t as dramatic as the show’s participants?

Peter Walsh: I think there’s a little part in all of us that likes to watch reality shows and know that someone is more cluttered, or more confused, or more in debt or more whatever than we are. We can then tell ourselves that we aren’t really as bad as we might think. The huge success of the shows I have done about clutter stem from the fact, I believe, that clutter is a much larger problem in this country than anyone realizes or admits. We can all see ourselves in them. It’s my belief that more than 65% of American homes have clutter problems. It’s for this reason that I don’t think there is too much justification taking place with my viewers – just a sense that we’re all in the same boat and need to do something about it!

Unclutterer: Have you ever walked into a home where children are present and thought things were so bad you should probably just call social services?

Peter Walsh: The reason I am invited into homes is because the family has reached a point where they feel overwhelmed and hopeless. They have decided that they need to take action and make changes to overcome the clutter problems they have and address the impact that it’s having on their family. I am there to help, not judge. That said, I’ve seen some serious clutter problems that have involved children. However, in every case, the family has made huge strides in addressing the issues that have created the clutter and really transformed their living spaces. By the time we’ve finished, every home I have worked in has been a much better place to live for the whole family. By providing assistance, some tough love and a little basic training the need to call in the authorities has been averted.

Unclutterer: What steps do you take to insure that your clients won’t revert to their old clutter-hoarding ways after you’ve worked with them? Any tips to help people stay on track?

Peter Walsh: As odd as it sounds, I don’t focus on the clutter when I help families declutter. The stuff is a distraction to potential success. The first step in addressing clutter in a home is to help the family define the vision they have for the life they want – what do they want their lives, their home, their rooms and living spaces to look like, to feel like and to function. This is the starting point in the process. If you work from this point, the chances of permanent change are significant and almost guaranteed. It’s not about the stuff; it’s about what you want from your life and how you will make that dream a reality. Long-lasting change is possible – I see it every day. That said, the single most important maintenance tip is to respect the limits that your physical space places on you and, once those limits are reached, you must remove an item from your home before you can add a similar item – one in, one out. It’s simple and it works.

Unclutterer: Do particular hobbies encourage clutter? Are we at war with scrapbooking? Rollerblading?

Peter Walsh: Clutter is created when we stop honoring and respecting ourselves, our families, what we own and where we live. There is a myth that with things comes happiness and so, logically, we think that with more things comes more happiness. It’s just not true. We somehow forget that if you continue to bring things into your home, and never remove things, no matter how large a house you have, it will eventually be overflowing with stuff. Set limits and establish routines for disposing of or purging what you own and don’t use. Any hobby can get out of control and, while scrapbooking can be a huge clutter culprit, it’s paperwork, clothing and kids’ toys that are more often the problems.

Unclutterer: Your book It’s All Too Much! is peppered with the sentences that begin with the words: “In this country…” Is clutter a larger problem in the United States than in the rest of the world?

Peter Walsh: We live in a very affluent country. Things are relatively cheap and credit is easy to get. We are all caught into what I call an orgy of consumption. If one is good, two is better. Let’s supersize that! This out of-control consumption is evident everywhere from the size of our homes and our cars to the obesity of our population. We are also caught into the ‘promise’ that comes with what we buy – buy these jeans, your butt will look smaller or buy this cookwear, you’ll make better dinners or buy this car, you’ll look more successful. The promise is alluring and we fall for it time and time again. Clutter is a problem in the western world particular but we Americans have really made an artform of it.

Unclutterer: How can a person promote a clutter-free lifestyle to his or her family and friends without coming off as some kind of sanctimonious neatfreak?

Peter Walsh: It’s not about the stuff – it’s about the life you wish to live. Sanctimonious neatfreaks are unbearable and are usually caught up in their own self-importance. It’s important to remember that what you own and where and how you live is a reflection of the person you are. A clutter-free, organized life is about living in a way that helps create your best possible life – happy, stress-free, creative, motivated and enriching. Happiness can’t be found in the quantity of stuff we own, it’s in the quality of relationships that we form. What we own should foster that life, not be a hurdle to it.

14 Comments for “Peter Walsh answers questions for Unclutterer.com”

  1. posted by cmpalmer on

    I loved Walsh’s book and it really inspired me to clean out our house. So far I’ve hauled five or six pickup truck loads of stuff to charity donations and thrown away about half as much. For the first time in over 15 years, I have a garage that I can both park cars in and have space for a workbench. Here are some pictures and description of my experience: http://cmpalmer.blogspot.com/2.....efore.html

    I’ve also found that a great companion to Walsh’s book is Getting Things Done, by David Allen, particularly for ideas of how to keep things organized and stay on track after the massive de-clutter and reorganization sessions.

  2. posted by Jude on

    In my life, the clutter does *not* represent “trauma, fear, disappointment, lost dreams, unfulfilled expectations, anger, poor communication” or anything else beyond the fact that I have a lot of stuff left to go through from people who died and didn’t take it with them. So to me, this man spouts nonsense.

  3. posted by cmpalmer on

    I firmly believe, now, that “stuff”, whether it is carefully packed away, cluttering your house, organized and labeled to do later, or piled in heaps in your closets, garage, attic, basement, or dining room floor is poisonous to your mental health. Even if you think that it isn’t bothering you and you aren’t tripping over it, I think anyone would be amazed at how clear your head is after getting rid of some (or all) of it (as Walsh describes) and getting all of your projects, ideas, and tasks out of your head and managed in a trusted external system (as David Allen describes). It takes a lot of work up front, but I swear you will feel better afterwards.

  4. posted by George K. on

    @Jude,

    Just because you don’t hold onto clutter for the reasons other people do is not proof that he spouts nonsense; it’s just proof his clients have different problems than you.

    Moreover, if you have a lot of stuff from people who died, one might ask why you have chosen to clutter up your home with it. Just because they didn’t take it doesn’t mean you need to hold it. You might reconsider whether or not you have some kind of emotional need to “go through” their belongings rather than just dumping the whole shebang at a goodwill.

  5. posted by Lisa S. on

    There is something to be said for the thoughtful appraisal and assessment of people’s estates. I’d rather take the time to sift through things and make sure they end up with the relatives and friends who appreciate them. In fact, I do have the emotional need to, as I have an emotional need for peaceful and happy relationships with said relatives and friends, and a sweeping declutter mission could easily — perhaps correctly — be interpreted as acting without regard for anyone else’s feelings.

    Just as clutter can get in the way of honoring and respecting your loved ones’ feelings, so to can decluttering by fiat.

  6. posted by John Trosko on

    It’s uncomfortable for me to hear something like:

    “Sanctimonious neatfreaks are unbearable and are usually caught up in their own self-importance.”

    It just feels really judgemental. But I do appreciate hearing Walsh’s thoughts on the subject.

    – John

  7. posted by Monica Ricci on

    Sanctimonious people *in general* are unbearable and caught up in their own self-importance, regardless of whether they are neatfreaks or total slobs. So Walsh’s comment may be a broad brush approach. Many neatfreaks are perfectly lovely people, of course, but I do get what Walsh is saying.

    I think clutter comes from many sources, including some deeper reasons such as early life trauma, abuse, anger, poor communication, lack of boundaries, etc. And then some causes are situational like Jude’s, which can start out being temporary but end up being the beginning of a negative cycle if not addressed quickly.

    Regardless, I don’t think anyone would deny that decluttering creates peace, harmony, and the ability to have a clear mind and create the life you want.

    ~Monica

  8. posted by BigNerd on

    Hey,

    In case you missed it, your interview garnered some buzz at 43folders.

    http://www.43folders.com/2007/.....p-clutter/

    Nice job!

    I was helping my wife clean out my mother-in-law’s attic today. We made quick work of the lot. 4 x-mas tree stands, 10 stereo/computer boxes (empty), Picture frames, an army foot locker, 4 lawn chairs, parts and pieces of an old hammock, kitchen cabinets… the list goes on. After we had things placed in the trash and at the curb, she came out saying, “I thought you were going to let me look to see what I wanted to keep…”
    She hadn’t been in that crawl space in YEARS, and didn’t even know what was there. NOW she’s interested. “I might want to move someday and might need some of this…” To which I replied: “Go to Walmart and buy new.” I don’t have much patience for this kind of thing. ;)

    I was thinking all along, ‘this is a text book case.’

    Nice job on the interview. Thanks for keeping us all focused – and for the right reasons.

  9. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    Good interview!

    I’ve described letting go of most of my treasured family heirlooms as my “pre-estate sale!” I was the one who got to make the decisions about how I wanted to part with the stuff rather than leaving it behind and creating a difficult situation like Jude faces.

    For some reason, when it comes to our stuff, we either believe we’re immortal so we’ll never have to let it go, or we think that our family and friends will be delighted to inherit all of it, including our kitchen drawer full of extra plastic lids for missing containers and our tattered instruction manuals for things we no longer own.

    Of course, I kept some things that I value highly and use, at least on occasion, and a few things that I haven’t “processed” to the point that I can part with them. I know that letting go can be very liberating, so I’m always working on releasing all the stuff I can and trying my best to avoid accumulating more.

    But, as Peter said in his book and as Monica said in her comment, there are many reasons that people surround themselves with clutter. Everyone has to work through the problem at their own pace; sometimes professional help can speed things up.

  10. posted by naomi on

    I think there is a third type of clutter that is environmentally based – can’t throw this out because even though I don’t need it it works fine and I should find someone who could use it…..

    However, finding that person is actually more work so you just leave it in the garage.

  11. posted by ClutterQueen on

    I don’t know about you guys… but I think Peter’s kinda hot.

  12. posted by ChrisW on

    Enviromental Clutter can be done away with at http:\\www.freecycle.org
    Don’t leave it in your garage– get it into someone else’s garage. It’s amazing how fast stuff disappears when it’s free! This works great in my community, but I have to resist the urge to drag stuff home

  13. posted by cmpalmer on

    Freecyle.org isn’t particularly active in my area (although I suppose it is up to me to change that), but always remember that there are many thrift stores (Goodwill, of course, but also church, humane society, and other NPOs have thrift stores) that will accept usable items and you can write them off on your taxes. If you keep good records (lists and photos), you can use services like TurboTax that have lists of how much you can claim for deductions and the values are surprisingly high. Of course there isn’t a 1:1 relationship between dollars for donations and tax savings, but, for example, a man’s shirt that you might get $1 for at a yard sale is worth $3-$5 in charitable contributions. Best of all, if you have a lot of stuff or big items, most of these organizations will come to your house to pick it up.

    Remember, if it works in your uncluttering schedule, to put everything you are trashing or donating into one big pile so you can contemplate the immensity of how much you are getting rid of. It’s depressing (when you realize how much money is sitting there), but it is also liberating when you realize how much money you could be saving and spending on other things if you stop buying more crap that you don’t need.

    I had a lot of items that I was going to sell on eBay “someday”, when I got around to photographing them, researching prices, writing up appealing descriptions, posting them, monitoring the auctions, then packing up an mailing the items. Most of these things went to charity when I realized that my time and peace of mind was more valuable than the few bucks of profit I would (or might) make on eBay selling.

  14. posted by The 3 Boxes of Decluttering - 21 Dragons on

    [...] Walsh, author of It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, from an interview with Unclutterer; It’s not about the stuff – it’s about the life you wish to live…It’s important to [...]

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