Q & A With Professional Organizer, Peter Walsh

How did you become the go-to organization guy? Were you just born this way?
Peter: One of my favorite sayings in the whole world is that, "Life is lived forward and understood backwards." The short answer is I have no idea how I got where I am today. My background was initially in education. Then in health promotion, drug abuse prevention, and then in corporate training. I've always had a great love and interest in design, and in the corporate training there was a lot of work around organizational change. After that it's total serendipity and an L.A. story. I went to lunch with friends in L.A. who had a production company and they were talking about doing a pilot for TLC of an organizing show and one of them said, you would be great at this with your experience. Plus I've got a Masters in Education Psychology, so on a whim I auditioned and got the job as the organizer on TLC's show 'Clean Sweep.' That's 10 years ago.

You focus more on mental than physical clutter. What do you consider one of your biggest success stories?
Peter: My work now is this weird combination of counselor, school teacher, addictive behaviors, health promoting behaviors, design, my Ed. Psych. stuff. Very quickly my interest was around the psychology of why people were holding onto stuff. The best illustration of this is the very first show that I did with TLC. It was a couple who had teenage boys. The mum still had every single piece of their baby clothing in boxes in the master bedroom with their bassinet and their cribs... The producers were looking at what's the best way to store all these baby clothes. And I said to them, this is insane! This is not obviously about the stuff.

I said to this mum, "Let me ask you a question. Do you think your best moments with yours sons are in front of you or behind you?" And she started sobbing and said, "I think they're behind me." It turned out she had wanted more kids, her husband didn't... and she saw her most value as a mum and wife in nurturing those babies. Now that they were teenagers she felt that her main purpose in life had passed her by. She had never really resolved with her husband that he didn't want to have kids.

We found a family in the neighborhood who were adopting a Chinese baby. She gave all of that stuff to this new mum to be, and was so excited to pass it on. Suddenly the whole reason for her holding on to this stuff so desperately disappeared because she was able to talk it out with her husband. She changed her whole perspective to looking forward to the boys' future... and was able to let go of this misplaced belief that all of her value was raising babies.

So it's generally more about our emotions than the stuff?
Peter: It's not generally true, it's exclusively true. It's never about the stuff. If there is a problem with clutter or stuff in general, there is always an underlying issue. And it's generally about fear, or pain, or separation, or anxiety, or stress or trauma or abuse, or loss. When I say this to people they kind of shake their heads initially.

When you are looking to declutter and get organized, when you focus on the stuff, you will never be successful -- ever. If you focus on the stuff you will never get organized. The parallel is with diets. If someone has a problem with weight, it's never about food. It's exactly the same with your stuff.
Why do we hang on to all this junk?
Peter: The two main types of clutter are what I call:

Memory clutter. The stuff that reminds you of an important person, achievement or event in the past. And the fear is if you let go of the object you'll lose the memory.

I might need it one day clutter. And that's the stuff you hold onto in anticipation of a whole lot of imagined futures. And usually that's about fear, small "f" fear. That somehow you need to be prepared for these futures.

Remembering the past or preparing for the future, neither of those is a bad thing unless the collecting of that stuff ends up keeping you out of the present. If the stuff you own holds you in the past or keeps you worried about the future, then you're just not able to live the only thing you have -- which is your life in the present.
So how do we stop the madness?
Peter: The very first question you have to ask yourself is, "What is the vision I have for my home?" We always ask ourselves, "What do I need for my home?" Oh, I need a comfortable couch, I need these cushions, this color paint. It's the wrong question to ask. The first question to ask is, "What do I want from my house?"

Let me ask you that question. When you step into your home, what emotion do you want to feel?
Hmm... Calm. Relief. Beauty.
Peter: Great. Then, every single thing that you have in your home, when you look at it, ask, "Does this give me what I want from my home? Does this thing give me beauty, does it give me calm, does it give me relief?" If the answer is yes, then it should be in your home. If not, it should not be there.
Is there one room you think is the most important to perfect?
Peter: I always start with the master bedroom. Because it's the most important room in the home. It's the room that sets the tone. Before I even went into the master bedroom I'd sit you and your husband down and say, "Give me three words that describe for you the perfect master bedroom, the mood you want, the feeling, anything that you want from the perfect master."

The problem is, we're taught to believe that if we just buy the right stuff we can acquire the life we want. It's total horse****. And if you go down that route you will never get to where you want to be. But if you do it the way I'm illustrating with you, I guarantee you will create a home that is perfect for you and your partner and family.
What if you and your partner disagree on the vision?
Peter: Together, pick six [vision words] that you agree on. You would be able to do that with the person you love in a pretty easy way. Now, let's step into the master. The first thing we see is a desk with a computer on it. Your husband sees me looking at that and says well, I have a very busy job and it's important for me to check email every night before I go to bed. Stop. That's not the question. The question is, does a desk and computer in your bedroom give you calm, relaxing, romantic, sanctuary, haven? The answer is pretty obvious: No.

I see costume jewelry all over the top of the dresser. And you look at me and say, well I've got a very busy life, I can't decide what to put on, I rush out every morning. Stop. That's not the question. The question is, does jewelry all over the top of the dresser, or Oprah magazines stacked beside the bed, or clothes on the back of the dresser give you what you want from your master bedroom? No.

If you start asking yourself, "What do I need for my space?" that's an external question. There are a million answers to that. And that is all determined by what you see is the latest, how much money you have, what's the latest fad color. But if what you ask is, "What do I want from my home?", that is determined by your soul. That comes from within you. And if that's your starting point: What do I want from my kitchen, my living room, my master bedroom... then the question is, does this piece of furniture, paint color, object, move me closer to that vision, or father away from it? If it moves you closer to it, bring it into the space. If it doesn't give you what you want from the room, what the hell is it doing in your house?

It's as simple and complex as that. Tonight, sit in your master bedroom and do this exercise. What do we want from our master bedroom? It is fascinating what comes from it.
This is more like rearranging your life than your furniture.
Peter: It's a wonderfully simple process and without exception, when I help people reframe their thinking about this stuff, they say to me, "This has transformed my life." If you start this with your home, it then flows into, "What do I want from my relationship?" Well I want someone who loves me, supports me, laughs at my jokes, someone who doesn't judge me. And you start then being conscious of OK, will this word, sentence, action, move me closer to that relationship or farther away from it?

And then suddenly it flows into your parenting style. What do I want from my family? Will this experience, expenditure, holiday, activity move us closer as a family to what I want from my family or farther away from it?

You start asking it about your job. What do I want from my career? And suddenly... you start being far more mindful about what you bring into your room or your home or your life. And it totally transforms the way you live. That's why for me -- I don't particularly give a rat's ass about colored photo boxes, or whether you color code your shirts. But I do care, are you creating the life you want? Does the stuff you own help you create the life you want? If it does, fantastic. If it doesn't, why do you own it?
My husband would ask: How do we apply this to shopping?
Peter: Normally when you're going to buy something, the process is: I see, I like, I buy. But now what happens is, I see, I like, PAUSE... Will this item move me closer to the life I want or further away? And in that moment closer means, will that move me closer to the financial life I want -- can I afford it? Will it move me closer to the vision I have for this space? Will it help me create the mood I want in my home? Will it move me closer to the relationship I want? If the answer is yes to all those questions, buy it. If it's not, you walk away. Suddenly everything you say or do or buy, or where you go, you become more mindful of that... more present in your life every day. It really does transform the way you live.
This all makes sense when you've got Peter Walsh by your side. What advice do you have for people doing this on their own?
Peter: There's a process. The high-level pieces are:

Vision. Let's say office. I want a place that helps me be efficient, where I can easily and quickly find things... to store important files.
Function. I have to work, store files, have a library of books, have a place where I can store my craft supplies, whatever. Identify what those functions are.
Zones. Then you ID zones for those functions. So this is the book zone, this book case. This is the file zone: three drawers of a filing cabinet. A research area. These are 15 magazine boxes that have all my research in them.
Limits. The bookcase will hold 100 books. When you get to 101 books, before you can add one, you have to get rid of one. A file cabinet: As soon as the three drawers are full, before you can add a file you have to get a rid of a file...
What if you have a small house with no storage?
Peter: If you don't honor and respect the physical limitations of your home, your home will turn on you like a bad lover. And you will never be comfortable in your home -- ever.
You need to accept it for who it is.
Peter: YES! That's a great way to put it. Everybody says to me I don't have enough space. Horse****. You only have the space you have. Space is finite. But stuff fluctuates. So when someone says to me, "I don't have enough space", my retort is, "You have too much stuff."
Say I'm going to start tomorrow. What are some simple tips for living like this every day?

Reverse Hanger Trick: You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time. Go into your closet and turn every single thing in your closet back to front. Turn all the hangers around, so the hangers face the other way. For the next six months, every time you wear an article of clothing, wear and launder and put it back, hang it up the correct way. At the end of six months you will be mortified at how many hangers are still hanging back to front. Simple.

Cardboard Box Trick: Take every single gizmo in your kitchen drawer, put it in a cardboard box on the kitchen counter. For the next month, every time you use one of those spatulas, ladles or knives and wash it, put it back in your kitchen drawer. At the end of a month, whatever is still in the box with the exception of the turkey baster, you've got to ask yourself: If I haven't used it in a month, will I ever use it? Consider getting rid of it.

Recipe Books: Get a pack of Post-It notes. For the next six months, every time you use a recipe in a book, put a sticky note in where that recipe is. At the end of six months or a year, any books that don't have a sticky note in them, gotta ask yourself: Am I ever going to use them?

There's a thing that I call "product and promise." When we buy stuff, we buy the product, but we invest in the promise. For example, a recipe book. We buy the latest, most beautiful recipe book. Sure we're buying the book, but what we're really doing is, "Hmm... if I just buy this... and cook all these things I'll be a much better cook." Bottom line is, it just doesn't work that way.
Paperwork: a universal problem. How do we manage it?
Peter: Great question. You have to have a place where the mail lives. So when you come in, you deal with the junk mail straight away. I just rip it up and throw it into two different trash cans. Then I have a tray that is "To Do." One tray for bills that I know will be paid on the 15th and 30th of the month. And the the other is a tray for coupons I get or invitations I have to respond to. So I simply have two trays on my desk. If it's stuff that needs to be filed away I have a 12-month expanding file. Receipts or paid bills drop into that month. When I come around to that month in 12 months' time, if I haven't had a need to look at what was in April from last year, I just throw it out.
But we're committing to doing this every day?
Peter: Of course, you have to. Because here's the thing, and again, welcome to being an adult: The bottom line is, if you don't create the home and life you want, who will? It's like a fit of adolescence or a mental illness to be blunt. You have to go to the bathroom every day. Who cuts up your meals for you? No one else is going to do anything about it but you. You have a responsibility for what's in your home because you or someone in your family brought it into your home. So step up!
What if every room is a mess and you're just overwhelmed?
Peter: I have great sympathy for people who are in that situation. Here's the very first thing you have to do. You have to start small:

1. Commit to a moratorium on bringing things into the home. The only things we as a family are going to buy or bring into the home for the next 6 months are essentials. That's it

2. Get rid of the surface clutter. Start with the "trash bag tango." Set 10 minutes aside every day. [Do this] for the next week, or however many days it takes to get rid of the surface clutter. Set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Take two trash bags each. Fill one with trash. The other with stuff you neither use, need or want. The stuff you no longer need use or want goes in the trunk of your car for Goodwill. Keep doing it every day. When you get to the point where... you seem to have gotten rid of the surface stuff, then start on the vision: What do we want to do in this room? How much space are we going to assign to it? What limits are we going to set? And just start one room at a time.

Bedroom scenario: Oh my god we've got so many clothes. OK, what shelf will be for T-shirts? How many T-shirts will it fit? 50. How many T-shirts do I have? 200. This is going to be a tough exercise. Go through one pass. We sill have 50 more than will fit on the shelf. Go through another pass. I don't think I can do this. Yes you can. Keep at it 'til you get down to the 15-20 T-shirts that will fit on the shelf.

Suddenly it's incredibly liberating. Because what you have fits within the physical limits of your home. You're no longer stressed about finding stuff. You don't buy anything you can't afford. You never have to rush to clean up when someone's coming over. The stuff you have is the stuff you use. And it all fits beautifully within the assigned space within your home.
Once you've organized, how do you maintain?
Peter: The maintenance is all about when you get to the limit. I always say 10% back from the limit -- spaces have to breathe. Before you can add one you have to get rid of one. It's like magazines in our house. We can only keep two back issues of a magazine. Because the bottom line is, if you didn't read it two months ago, you're never going to read it. If it's important, give time to it and read it! Magazines are about "I'm well informed. I know what the latest cooking trend is, what's happening in the world of entertainment, I'm on top of world affairs." No, you simply have a stack of magazines.
Some people will say, "I don't have the time do all this cleaning!"
Peter: You give time to what is important. There's nothing in my home that doesn't reflect the life I want. When you open the front door of your house, instead of feeling stressed and overwhelmed and guilty about not cleaning and putting stuff way, instead it's the same feeling you get when you're on holiday and step into a beautiful hotel room. Relaxation, calm, openness, excitement, simplicity. You can create those in your home. If your home isn't giving you... calm, relaxation, focus, motivation, nurturing, where are you getting them from? Chances are the answer is nowhere.

So for me that's what makes organizing so exciting. It's about helping people create the life they want. It's a very different approach than what people expect. Does the stuff you own move you closer to or further away from the life you want? That's the only question you should ask.
Level with me, Peter. Do you ever cheat?
Peter: Of course! I'm not the crazy organizing guy. People are constantly disappointed that my shirts are not color coordinated... Being present in my life is a very important thing to me. Sure occasionally I cheat. But at the end of the day it's kind of the way I live my life. I'm very conscious of doing and saying and acquiring things that move me closer to the kind of life I want. That has given me great freedom, liberty and joy. Do I sometimes get tired and throw my stuff on the floor before I go to bed? Of course. I'm no different than most people. But it's just as easy as thinking I'll get to it later -- I'll put it in the hamper, which is two steps to the left rather than the one step to the right.
Finally, if you could give us just one tip to be more organized, what would it be?
Peter: Stop using the word later.

Peter Walsh is the bestselling author of 'It's All Too Much,' and the organizational expert featured in 'Enough Already!' and 'Extreme Clutter' on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. He talks across the country and internationally about the importance of decluttering and organization as key to living a simpler, happier and less-stressed life.

Download Peter's new 'It's All too Much' apps for iPhone and iPad on his website. Or, pick up one of his books at your local bookstore. You can also find Peter on Twitter @PeterWalsh.

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