“Is there a type of person prone to clutter?” organizational expert Peter Walsh asks, then answers himself: “Yes. Flesh and blood, that’s the type.” We’re riding in the back seat of a limo to a Borders in Long Island, where he’ll be promoting his new book, Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?, less than a week after he unveiled it to the public on Oprah—a show on which he’s appeared several times, dropping in on families and helping them sort through housefuls of accumulated stuff, keeping only what’s most essential to their lives. It’s a format he (along with several co-stars) honed on TLC’s Clean Sweep, and I’ve been explaining to him how I started watching the show looking for straightforward organizational tips, but quickly got sucked into the human dramas grounding each episode. “It’s like The Dog Whisperer,” I say, invoking my other favorite reality program, and he immediately sees where I’m going with this:
“—It’s never about the dog, it’s always about the people,” he says. “Our show was never about the stuff. I told the producers early on that you can only organize so many closets and garages before people lose their minds… We all have stuff. What we had to do was tell people’s stories through their stuff, and see them realizing what their relationship to the stuff had become.”
Walsh got the idea for his new book—the first in a two-book deal with Free Press, after their success last year with his decluttering guide It’s All Too Much—from the experiences of the families he worked with on Clean Sweep. After the cameras left, he says, the production company would hear from people that they had gone on to clear out the rest of their house…and make other major life changes as well. Some people found the inspiration to change their careers or embark on new creative projects; some couples realized that the clutter had been the only thing binding them to each other. But one of the most common developments was that they started to lose weight.
Did you know that anxiety over clutter messes with your brain’s alpha waves? That interferes with your sleep, which will make you more fatigued, which will upset your hormone levels; increased production of cortisol can ultimate lead to weight gain. That’s the scientific explanation, anyway. Walsh frames the problem simply and intuitively: “I don’t think you can make healthy choices in a disorganized home.”
Our conversation repeatedly circles back to a fundamental theme: What is your vision for the life you want to live, and do your life choices reflect that vision? Specifically: Is your home a space for the life you want? After all, where do we expect to go for nourishment if not our own home, our own kitchen? Diets aren’t going to help you drop those extra pounds; inherent in the concept of going on a diet, Walsh observes, is the eventuality that you’ll go off it. “The idea that people will change their lives if you just give them the information about how to eat properly is simply not true,” he says. “If you focus on the food, you will never lose weight.”
While I’ve got him in the car, I ask him about something I’ve been wondering about, and something I’m sure lots of people in publishing must be dealing with: How do we deal with all these books piling up around the office or in front of the bookcases at home? “Let me answer that by answering another question,” he says. “In my experience, there are two kinds of people when it comes to dealing with books. The first type, when they buy a book, they’re buying words on paper that, when read, can really have an impact on their lives.” When you talk to that person about the need to clear their space of excess books, he says, they recognize that it’s the experience and memory of reading that they cherish, and they can let the books go more easily. “But there’s another kind of person who buys the book because, in their mind, they’re buying the knowledge it contains,” he continues. “What they hear you say when you suggest getting rid of some books is that you don’t value the knowledge that they own.”
(This is actually where reading and watching Walsh has had a real impact on my life: I’m getting much better at recognizing that I just don’t have time to read all these books that have accumulated around me, and, after tightening my must-read pile, it’s getting easier to let the others go, knowing that if I’m ever in a place to read them, I can always go out and find them again.)
Walsh describes his television career, and the iconic status that followed, as “an exercise in serendipity,” encompassing the best of everything he’d done in his life up to that point. After obtaining degrees in theology and educational psychology, he went through a series of careers that ranged from elementary school teaching to drug abuse counseling to corporate training. In 2002, he was overseeing the dismantling of an $85 million dotcom when friends with a production company asked if he could help out with a pilot they were shooting for a reality TV show about decluttering people’s homes.
“I auditioned knowing nothing would come of it,” he laughs. “I’m not an actor, and I think that helped, plus the accent didn’t hurt.” Clean Sweep went on to shoot 120 episodes in less than two years. The fast-paced schedule had its frustrations: “We were making a TV show and we were helping a family and those two things were not always aligned,” he explains, because time constraints would require focusing on the surface details rather than the underlying philosophy of organization. Focusing on the stuff made for great visuals, he concedes, “but if you focus on the stuff, you will never get organized.” (Yes, that’s a deliberate echo of his advice on food.)
Clean Sweep led to a book deal, and the book deal led to Oprah, which made the second book deal a lot easier (and there’s a satellite radio show on XM somewhere in that timeline, too). His next book’s supposed to come out around this time next year, with an emphasis on “life clutter” and how it manifests itself throughout, as Walsh puts it, “house, head, heart and hips.” It will be, he promises, just as pragmatic as the two before it.
And that makes sense: I first caught on to Walsh because the business productivity blog 43 Folders featured an interview Walsh did at Unclutterer.com last summer; it’s easy to see why he became a hit with the productivity enthusiasts. After all, “How can I work more effectively and efficiently?” is just another facet of the question driving Walsh’s advice: “How can I live a more authentic life?” Or, as he tells the publicist riding in the front seat when she wonders aloud if her neatness is compulsive rather than conscious, “You’re not organized because you’re anal. You’re organized because it makes your life easier.”