Home Clutter: It’s All in Your Mind
Peter Walsh believes America’s clutter problem isn’t in our basements or our garages or our overstuffed closets.
It’s in our heads.
Walsh, an organizing authority who makes TV appearances and writes books and articles on the topic, is intrigued by the emotional component of disorganization. In fact, he says clutter isn’t really about stuff at all. Rather, it’s about our relationship to stuff.
In a recent phone interview from his home base of Los Angeles, Walsh explained that clutter becomes a problem when people look for meaning, support and affirmation from their belongings, instead of from other people.
“Ninety percent of what I do is common sense,” he said. “All that I do is hold a mirror to people.”
Walsh rose to prominence as the voice of reason on the TLC series Clean Sweep. Landing the job as the organizing expert on the crew of the home makeover show was a bit of a fluke, but it’s one his life prepared him for, he said.
Walsh’s organizational skills were rooted in his childhood, growing up as one of seven children. He was influenced by his parents’ values — respecting what you own, realizing more isn’t necessarily better and recognizing that experiences are more important than things.
Before Clean Sweep, though, the bulk of his professional experience wasn’t in organizing, but in education. He taught elementary and high school in his native Australia and later worked in jobs that involved educating people on preventing drug abuse and heart disease. In 1994 he came to the United States, where he and a business partner made video training programs on interpersonal business skills.
Then, in 2003, some friends with a TV production company asked him to audition for a series pilot they were making.
Walsh said he thought the idea of his being on TV was “absolutely ludicrous,” but obviously the makers of Clean Sweep disagreed. He was the show’s resident organizer from 2003 to 2005, prying into the psyches of homeowners overwhelmed by their stuff and cajoling them into mending their slovenly ways.
He later became a regular on The Oprah Winfrey Show and then got his own show, Enough Already! With Peter Walsh, on Winfrey’s OWN network. He’s still a regular contributor to her O magazine and a regular guest on the Rachael Ray show.
Walsh said he realizes now that his professional experiences — particularly his work on helping businesses deal with organizational change — honed his organizational skills and prepared him for his current role. So did his education: He has a master’s degree in education with a specialty in psychology.
Indeed, it’s the mind-clutter connection that draws him to his work. “That’s the only reason I do this,” he said, and it’s the only area where real change can happen.
Walsh said clutter is a distinctly Western problem, largely because our culture instills the belief that more is better. Add to that the relative affordability of goods and our easy access to credit, and you set the stage for possessions ballooning out of control.
But organizing has to focus on the person, not the stuff, he said. He believes any organizing strategy that focuses on things will fail.
Walsh’s approach to getting clutter under control is, at its heart, quite simple. He starts by asking his clients, “What’s your vision for the life you want and the home you want?”
He might narrow that question to a specific space — say, a master bedroom. Often the client will envision a room where he or she can relax, be intimate with a spouse and get away from the demands of work or kids.
Then, once the client has articulated that vision, the work of culling through possessions can begin.
Walsh helps his clients go through those possessions one by one, each time asking a simple question: “Does this item move you closer to or farther away from your vision?”
If the answer is “farther away,” the item has to go.
So the computer desk where the client checks email each night before bed needs to be moved to another room. The kids’ toys need to be cleaned out. The dirty clothes need to be picked up.
The approach helps prevent the addition of new clutter, too. When you see something you like in a store, don’t ask yourself whether you love it, he said. Ask yourself whether it will help you get what you want from your home and your life.
The approach can even make people healthier, Walsh said.
He’s found that when people eliminate clutter, they become less depressed and more energetic. And when their kitchens are welcoming and organized, they’re more motivated to plan meals and make healthful food choices.
But getting organized brings with it the need to maintain those good habits. Walsh calls it “completing the cycle.” If you don’t finish the organizing cycle — say, you leave the mail piled on the kitchen table or the dirty dishes in the sink — you end up with a mess.
To stay organized, “you may never use the word ‘later’ again,” he said.
“The moment you’ve used the word ‘later,’ you’ve given in.”