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'Clutter is never about the stuff' — an organization expert explains why (and what to do about it)

'Clutter is never about the stuff' — an organization expert explains why (and what to do about it)
Peter Walsh, author of "Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight," offers guidance on getting the whole family involved in decluttering. (Lucian Capellaro)

Got clutter? According to Peter Walsh, Los Angeles-based organization expert and author of "Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight," it might be holding you back from achieving your goals — and even making you fat.

"Broadly speaking, clutter is anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living," says Walsh, "that could be the physical stuff … or it can be a past emotion, like anger, or any of those mental or emotional things that cripple you or put a hurdle between you and your goals.... If you focus on the stuff you will never get organized because clutter is never about the stuff."

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If the mess isn't the issue, what is?

It starts with why we own stuff. Normally, when we look at the stuff in our house we think: How much did it cost? Was it a bargain? Did someone give it to us? That's not the place to start. The stuff we own should help us create the life we want. If it doesn't fit the vision of the life we want, why do we own it?

What if our vision is buried beneath clutter? How do we find it?

If I were to come to your house and help you declutter, the first room I would tackle is the master bedroom and the reason for that is that it sets the tone for the house. So, before I went in I would ask you: Give me three or four words that describe what the perfect master bedroom looks or feels like, or the emotion it evokes for you — that's your vision.... If you start applying that [process] to every room in the house, it becomes transformative. Then, it's no longer about the stuff. It's about how the stuff we have, the words we speak, the choices we make help us fulfill the vision we have for the life we want.... If the things in your home don't reflect that vision, you will never be happy in that space. Never.

How do we make that happiness happen?

We start small. That's how we set ourselves up for success because small steps, small victories successfully implemented yield huge results. A great example of a small step is a technique I call the Trash Bag Tango. Here's what you do: Every evening for one week, set a timer on your cellphone and get everyone in the kitchen. Give each person two trash bags and for 10 minutes everyone has to run around the house. In one trash bag put garbage — old magazines, torn clothing, broken toys, takeout containers; in the second bag put things you no longer need or want. At the end of 10 minutes, you're done. Put the first bag in the trash and the second in the trunk of your car for Goodwill. It's amazing.

Motivation isn't hard to come by on Jan. 2. But how can we keep it all year long?

You give time to what you believe is important. If you open the front door of your house and you feel overwhelmed, or exhausted or want to run away from it, then there's something wrong with the one place that should be giving you haven, and relaxation and calm. There is nothing more valuable than creating a space that nurtures your life.

After all the hard work of decluttering and organizing, what's the trick for keeping it that way?

You're going to hate this because it's the simplest thing in the world. One definition of clutter is that clutter is decision delayed. And the one way to make sure it doesn't go back to the way it was is to eliminate the word "later" from your vocabulary, as in, "I'll put this away later, I'll fold this later...." The way to stop clutter from accumulating is to accept the fact that now is the new later. It's about creating a new habit.

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