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.
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.