Peter Walsh's Surprising Way to Clean Up Clutter
Illustration: Daniel Bejar
Organizational expert Peter Walsh helps tidy up our cluttered thinking.As leader of Oprah's Clean Up Your Messy House Tour on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Peter Walsh is carving order out of chaos in scores of domestic disaster areas. In his latest book, Enough Already! Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You, he makes the link between a disorganized home and the untidy thoughts that can muddle our relationships and well-being.
O: Enough Already! treats clutter not just as the physical stuff in our homes but as a metaphor for our lives.
Walsh: My clients say things like, "I was buried under all that stuff," "I was drowning," "I feel like I'm suffocating." We use those metaphors because clutter robs us of life. It robs us socially, when we're too embarrassed to have people over. It robs us spiritually, because we can't be at peace in a cluttered home. And it robs us psychologically, by stealing our ability to feel motivated in our space.
O: And the term "clutter" is all-encompassing.
Walsh: It means anything that stands between you and the vision you have for your best life. It could be a pile of inherited furniture or a jumble of kids' toys all over the living room. But it could also be the constant self-doubt that creeps into your decision-making, anger about how you're treated at work, shame about your weight or looks, or a tendency to respond defensively and critically when your spouse challenges you. Whatever the case, you have to ask yourself, "Does this item or thought or response move me closer to my vision for my best life?" If it does, great. If it doesn't, what is it doing in your life?
O: So your house could be neat as a pin and you could still be in a badly cluttered relationship.
Walsh: Maybe your partner says something you don't like and your immediate reaction is to attack. But if you insert a question—"Will my response help create the relationship I want or damage it?"—that's a transformational moment. You have to remove the clutter of competing egos and miscommunication, the clutter of assuming your partner might want to hurt you deliberately. A decluttered relationship is one in which you trust that you and your partner want each other to live your best lives.
O: But what is the difference between a vision for your best life and an unattainable fantasy?
Walsh: We have an infinite capacity for self-deception, yes. A lot of clutter is a lack of acceptance that a moment has passed. Maybe someone has kept all her college English papers because she wanted to be a writer, but she never put in the time and energy to make it happen.
O:One of the unnerving things about physical clutter is that it's stealthy. You clean the house, but two days later it's a wreck again, and you don't know how it happened.
Walsh: Ah, that's the cycle problem. If you put a load of clothes in the wash, and halfway through you turn the machine off and leave it for a few days, you will come back to a mound of smelly laundry. You have to finish the cycle. When you have a bowl of cereal, does the box go back in the cupboard? When you bring in the mail, do you immediately open and sort it? At night, do your clothes go in the hamper or on the floor? We have a choice: to be mindful and complete the cycle, or to end up with a stinky load of washing in the metaphorical machine. Inside we're all 8-year-olds expecting someone to pick up after us. Those days are gone.
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Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D