Organizing Expert Peter Walsh on Living a Happier, Clearer, and Clutter-Free Life
Peter Walsh changes lives. The professional organizer is one of the few people who can convincingly be said to have transformed the way we look at stuff. With the publication of eight wildly successful books, including his most recent best-seller, Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life, Walsh has freed countless people from the suffocating grip of accumulation.
What is fascinating about Walsh’s work is that it impacts every aspect of life. “We all think of clutter as the physical stuff, but we need to think beyond that,” he tells us. “Clutter is anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living.”
As the world reflects on one heck of a hard year and looks ahead to 2021, Walsh offers these 10 pillars of wisdom to help you clear out your space, open up, and move forward—so you can live your life “with the optimism of a new day.”
1. Clear out and break free.
“We are constantly bombarded by messages that ‘more is better,’” says Walsh. “If we just fill our spaces with the ‘right’ things we’ll be happier and our lives will be fuller, we’ll have more friends, we’ll look better, we’ll be more popular, we’ll even be loved more. But the truth is that when we have a space full of things, it’s often not joy that we feel! We feel overwhelmed and, even worse, we feel ‘suffocated’ or ‘buried’ in our possessions. Those are powerful words which we rarely use except in the context of clutter. Things that have little meaning don’t actually give us happiness but instead fill us with a sense of dread and even paralysis.”
“There are so many benefits to decluttering. We feel more focused, more motivated, and study after study shows that being in (or even looking at) a clean, organized space reduces cortisol (stress) levels in our bodies. Being organized saves you time, saves you money (because you don’t buy things you already own but can’t find), and reduces an entire family’s stress level with fewer fights. The great thing about decluttering is that it has huge health effects but can be done far more quickly than other health regimes. (Cleaning out your closet takes a lot less time than losing five pounds does!)
2. Conquer the two types of clutter.
“The number one thing that trips people up is that we don’t realize that our things aren’t just a mass of clutter—they are things that have power,” says Walsh. “Strong power. To help us understand this, I’ve broken down the two main types of clutter we all have: ‘Memory Clutter’ and ‘I Might Need It One Day Clutter.’”
“Memory Clutter is anything that reminds us of past events, of past achievements, of past relationships. The fear is that if we let go of a piece of Memory Clutter, we will lose that memory forever. On the other hand, ‘I Might Need It One Day Clutter’ are those things that we hold onto for an entire world of future possibilities. These may be the stored furniture in the basement, the old coffee maker that you replaced, the fondue pot that is gathering dust on the top shelf in your kitchen, even the odd off-cuts of timber that are filling up the garage.”
3. Make space for TODAY.
“There’s nothing wrong with holding onto things that remind us of times past or being prepared for the future—the problem is only when those items start overwhelming the life we’re living today,” says Walsh. “Memories are in the past. Constantly looking to tomorrow and beyond is future-gazing. We need to make sure that we have enough space to live TODAY. That we are present and alive in the only thing that we truly have, which is the here and now. If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that we really can’t take any day, any time, or any moment for granted. We must live to our fullest today.”
4. Seek out the treasures.
According to Walsh, getting rid of items can strike fear. But instead of letting fear rule, lean into your power and find the positives. “In my book, Let It Go, I talk about how to deal with this fear by first finding the treasures,” says Walsh. “These are the items that are most significant to you, the things in the space that have the most meaning for you. If you find the best of the best and secure those items and treat them with the respect they deserve, you’ll be able to deal with the rest of the items much more easily. Decluttering is not diminishing; it’s empowering.”
5. Take stock of your home.
If you’re unsure whether or not you need to declutter, Walsh suggests asking yourself the following:
- What does your home do for you? “This may seem a strange question but does your home provide the kind of feeling or mood that you want when you walk in the door?” asks Walsh.
- Does your home provide you with a sense of calm and relaxation? Is it a haven and a sanctuary? Is it a place that motivates you? Do you enjoy being there? “Oprah Winfrey used to regularly say ‘your home should rise up to meet you’ and I wholeheartedly agree,” he says. “If your home is not doing these things then it needs some serious and immediate attention.
- Think back to the day that you (or you and your partner or family) first moved into your space. What dreams did you have about that place? How did you hope to live in that space? Are you doing that now? “If you’ve lost that, then go outside and stand across the street and look at your home and think hard about what you originally dreamt of and start making that work for you today,” says Walsh. “If you do not create the home you dream of and want, I guarantee you that no one else will.”
6. Embrace fear—and take photos!
It’s a valid question: What if you let go of something that you should have held onto? To combat this fear, Walsh says to grab your smartphone camera. “Take pictures of things so that you can always have a virtual memory of it. Then, start with hunting for the treasures. Find the best memories of your life, your achievements, your family, your work life, your travel, etc. But only the best of the best. If you hold onto these items first, you’ll feel more comfortable letting other things go.”
7. Do the “Trash Bag Tango.”
If you’re having real trouble starting, try this exercise: “Grab two trash bags and set a timer for 10 minutes—only 10 minutes,” says Walsh. “Start small. Run around your home and fill one bag with items that are things you’re happy to donate (things that no longer fit your life today) and fill the other bag with trash. Do that for just 10 minutes and you’ll make a motivating start. Do that exercise every day for a week and you’ll have collected so much stuff that you’re removing from your home you’ll be amazed.”
But what if everything is important? Then “what you’re really saying is everything has equal value—which to me translates as: nothing is more important than anything else,” says Walsh. “That’s not true. Find the very best, separate those treasures and let that represent what is most important and significant in your life.”
8. Give mindfully this holiday season.
Walsh says it’s important to recognize all the holidays traditions that signify bringing gifts into the home. “But if this is truly the ‘season of giving,’ then what better time to start an annual tradition of collecting those items that you’re no longer using and donating them to someone who could really benefit from them?” Start by corralling gently worn clothing, useless toys, books, furniture in good shape, and so many other household items to give to those less fortunate than you.
“Giving feels good,” says Walsh. “Encourage the declutter and the donation in not just yourself but in your family and even in your wider circle of friends. This year people need help more than ever. Do them a favor with your stuff—but do yourself an even bigger favor by getting rid of the clutter. This is a wonderful opportunity to declutter for good!”
9. Create memories.
What people often remember most are not the things in their lives but the experiences that they’ve had, says Walsh, who suggests gifting experiences this holiday season. “Your kids probably don’t need more toys from their grandparents. What they do need is to share some time with them and learn from them. Encourage your parents to think about a baking day, or maybe teach them a new skill. Consider working at a charity with your family.” By offering these experiences when safe and possible (understanding that many are still under quarantine restrictions), Walsh says it’s a way to spread love while saving the world’s resources and not contributing to landfills.
10. Cherish your relationships.
“We all think of clutter as the physical stuff, but we need to think beyond that,” says Walsh. “Clutter is anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living. 2020 was filled with struggle. We need to acknowledge that but not dwell on it. The best way for us to live our richest, happiest lives today is to maintain and strengthen our relationships with our friends and family.”
“I am already planning my post-COVID life. When we feel like the vaccines have done their magic and we have returned to a more normal life, I have a collection of items that I will box up and immediately get out of my house: extra masks, jigsaw puzzles, old sweatpants. I will probably replace the cushions on my much-overused couch. I think it’s important to recognize that just as some things have good power, other things have some pretty negative power. Get rid of anything that’s holding you in a bad place. You don’t need that reminder. Go into 2021 with the optimism of a new day. We all need that now. Plan for better times—they aren’t far off!”
This article was featured in the December 13, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.