Peter Walsh's Declutter for a Cause Challenge
Photo: Alison Gootee
Peter Walsh knows a thing or two about houseguests. One of seven children, he hails from Australia, the land of enthusiastic world travelers. "If one of my brother's friend's sons is coming to Los Angeles, he's probably staying with me," says Walsh with a laugh. "Around the holidays, my partner, Ken, and I host so many friends and relatives, and cousins of friends of relatives, that we're thinking of installing a revolving door."

Walsh being Walsh, he does not allow a few extra bodies to turn his thoughtfully minimalist living room into a riot of overflowing suitcases. Over the years, he's perfected a few tips to make sure the house stays neat, he stays sane and everyone has a great time. The key: Start early. "Spacing your preparation over 12 days feels less overwhelming," says Walsh, "and the small daily victories create a snowball effect, pardon the pun. You don't just get into the holiday spirit; you start to believe more ambitious projects are possible in your home."

Day 1: Tackle the Table

The kitchen or dining room table "is a magnet for mail, bills, kids' homework and I'll-just-put-it-here-for-a-moment kind of stuff," says Walsh. To prepare it for actual dining, he suggests spending 30 "brutal and fast" minutes sorting paperwork into like piles (Mail Needing Attention, Documents to File, Recycling, etc.). "Stand, don't sit," he cautions, "so you won't be tempted to study the disclaimers on those credit card offers." When everything is sorted, resolve to deal with a pile a day, or put them all away until January. Then set the table with a tablecloth, flower arrangement and your nicest dishes, to discourage people—in other words, you—from using it as a dumping ground for groceries and unpaid electric bills.

Day 2: Make Room in the Bedroom

Clear out a top drawer or half a closet in one of your bedrooms so guests won't have to live out of suitcases, says Walsh. Place the contents of the drawer in a bin under the bed (if you have time, toss out or designate for Goodwill anything you haven't used or worn in the past 12 months). "Making space for your guests is not only considerate and welcoming," says Walsh, "it sends the message, 'I respect my space and I'd like you to respect it, too.'" "Translation," says Walsh's partner, Ken Greenblatt: "Even though we're generous hosts, it drives Peter mad when our guest bedroom looks like a bomb went off!"

Day 3: Tame Your Toiletries

Rifle through bathroom drawers to purge any products that are expired or that you haven't used in six months. Then consolidate what's left in order to offer one shelf or drawer to guests. This will prevent their toiletries from spreading across the counters—and help everyone keep track of his or her toothbrush.

Day 4: Get Soapy

"I'm always receiving nice soaps, lotions and candles as gifts," says Walsh. "And I love to put them out at the holidays to be enjoyed by my guests." Doing so spruces up the bathrooms—and helps clear space for the new round of thoughtful presents inevitably pouring in during the holidays.

Next: One strategy for a clutter-free bathroom
Photo: Alison Gootee
Clearing space in the drawer for guests keeps the bathroom in order, while decorative soaps accumulated through the year add a festive touch.

Day 5: Don't Throw in the Towel—Hang It Up!

If your guests will be sharing bathrooms, provide a thick wood hanger for each person's towel. Because hangers can live on doorknobs or in closets, you'll be less likely to find towels piled on the floor or tossed over shower curtain rods. "And unlike hooks," says Walsh, "which leave everything damp and smelly, hangers actually allow towels to dry." If guests aren't getting the message, feel free to make it explicit. "I have been known to take a towel from the floor, place it on a hanger and point it out to my relative or houseguest," says Walsh, "in the most warm and welcoming way possible. Happy holidays!"

Day 6: Prepare for Traffic

Lay extra mats in your entryway to accommodate your guests' cold-weather accoutrements. Though Walsh lives amid palm trees—and has yet to welcome a visitor with snowy boots—even he adds a holiday-themed mat, if only for a welcome pop of color.

Day 7: Bag It

Despite Walsh's warm-weather provenance, a career spent wading through a vast cross section of American clutter has familiarized him with the hazards of the winter mudroom, so often subsumed by piles of mismatched mittens smelling of a gym locker. His canny solution: Hang canvas totes from pegs on the wall to provide each person with a receptacle for gloves and scarves (or sun hats and Wayfarers, as is more often the case with Walsh's guests). If you have time, decorate the bags with names or holiday stencils. And if the forecast calls for snow, use a small portable heater to keep everything dry.

Day 8: Manage Your Mail

Invest in a flat tray for your kitchen counter to corral all incoming mail. Then commit to using any spare five minutes to quickly sort each day's mail, discarding junk, recycling catalogs, setting aside bills for payment and displaying holiday cards. "A mail system," says Walsh, "will help keep track of important documents during this hectic time of year and ensure that you don't find New Year's Eve party invitations under your couch cushion in late February."

Next: Setting up a charging station
Photo: Alison Gootee
A mail tray clears the counter, a charging station staves off dead iPhone panic and a list of local must-dos keeps guests entertained.

Day 9: Power Share

Set up a charging station so that guests can easily charge their electronics—and will always know where to find them. Alternatively, leave an extra power strip in each bedroom, as one of Walsh's friends recently did when Walsh and Greenblatt visited. "Between us, Ken and I have two phones and two iPads," says Walsh, "so the extra plugs were very helpful."

Day 10: Create Space in Your Kitchen

During the holidays, you'll want to have key items—for example, your go-to skillet, your roasting pans and your biggest coffee mugs—at the ready. To make these things easier to find, says Walsh, spend 30 minutes combing through your cabinets for pans, glassware and serving platters that are mismatched or chipped, or that have not been used in the past 12 months. Place this clutter in a box in the garage to be taken to Goodwill.

Day 11: Get Snacky

Walsh likes to arrange a basket of snacks on his kitchen counter so guests can easily grab something to eat between meals or when heading out for the day. Some of his favorites: KIND bars, cashews, apples and bottles of water. (Walsh labels his youngest guests' water bottles with a Sharpie so they can be reused.)

Day 12: Turn Your Guests into Tourists

Whether you're hosting your sister for the umpteenth time or rolling out the red carpet for new in-laws, Walsh advises compiling a list of local restaurants, parks and historical sites. Make two copies: one for the coffee table or kitchen and one for the car. "That way, your guests can go off and have an adventure," says Walsh, whose folder of L.A. must-dos includes information on the Griffith Observatory and his favorite roadside seafood dive in Malibu. "It's wonderful to have houseguests," he explains. "It's also wonderful to not have them in the house 100 percent of the time."

More Ways to Organize for the Holidays


Next Story