NEW YORK — Which came first, the clutter or the fat?
TLC’s Clean Sweep expert Peter Walsh has the answer — but don’t expect him to mince words in the new book, "Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?" ($25, Free Press).
The organizational consultant, satellite radio host and regular on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" asks readers to take a long, hard look at their messy kitchens and emotions to get their homes and lives in order.
In this follow-up to his best-seller, "It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff" ($14, Free Press), Walsh contends that a cluttered home can lead to, essentially, cluttered thighs.
Walsh splits time between Los Angeles and his native Australia, often crisscrossing continents to help people get their homes and lives in order. Recently, he sat down to discuss several topics: the food-clutter connection, a two-month project involving more than 3,000 pairs of shoes, and being in Oprah’s Network of Friends.
Question: Did you expect It’s All Too Much to resonate with so many people?
Answer: When we talk about clutter — and, I think, that’s what people are really struggling with here — we use really specific language. “I went into that room and I felt suffocated.” “I go into that space, I feel buried.” We use those words because part of us understands that’s what clutter does to us. It robs us literally and metaphorically of life. And, I think that’s why the book has struck such a nerve. People really are struggling with what they own and struggling for meaning and clarity.
Q: Why a book on food and clutter?
A: We’ve come through a period of kind of prosperous times. Many, many people have filled their homes with stuff, have acquired stuff and are now looking at the stuff they own and realizing it’s not delivering on the happiness they had expected it would. There’s an interconnectedness that even I don’t fully understand, but here’s what I’ve seen. Once I helped people declutter, people were phoning me, contacting me and saying, “Oh my god, a side effect is that I suddenly find I’m losing weight.”
What happens is that once you physically open someone’s space, it really removes a lot of distractions. When you help them focus on what’s important in their lives ... what flows back into that space is a sense of calm and peace and harmony and focus and motivation. They’re able to focus far more clearly on their relationships, their spiritual lives, their work. And, what I think generally happens is, people are able to make much healthier choices in the very broader sense.
Q: How did you become this expert on decluttering?
A: I worked as a teacher, I worked in health promotion in Australia and drug-abuse prevention, so I’ve done a lot of work in addictive behaviors. I worked many years in interpersonal-skills training and organizational change at the corporate level ... and started helping people with their residential settings. It became very obvious, very early that it’s very seldom about the stuff. If you want to help people declutter, focusing on the stuff will get you nowhere. The message is a simple and a profound one. Unless you have a clear vision for the life you want, you really are lost before you even start.
Q: You’re known for Clean Sweep. What’s the worst project you’ve encountered?
A: 3,000-square-foot house. When we started, there was less than 200 square feet of living space, 75 tons of trash, over 3,000 pairs of shoes, 3,200 handbags, over 400 large trash bags of clothes given to Goodwill. When we finished — the place (was) pristine. It took two months. We managed to declutter that house, get the family back on track and create a space that really enabled them to get back to the life they wanted to be living.
Q: In the new book, you don’t sugarcoat the problems associated with being obese or overweight. And you use the term fat.
A: Sometimes you have to stress a point to make a point. The average American spends three months a year in front of the TV. The average teenager drinks nearly their weight in sugar from soda alone each year. More than 60 percent of the money we spend on the food we eat is spent on food consumed outside the house. Here’s the bottom line: If you do nothing but sit in front of the TV, if you drink a lot of soda and you eat overwhelmingly fast food, you will be fat.
Q: You grew up in a family of seven children. Were you neat or a packrat?
A: My dad ran a gas station in a tiny country town. We lived in a ... it was maybe a 1,400-square-foot house. It was neat and tidy and uncluttered (out) of necessity because we didn’t have a lot. Our life was very much more about the quality of our relationships than the quantity of our stuff. That was the focus.
Q: Are you surprised at the reaction people have once they get rid of the excess?
A: I’m not surprised. I’m always so delighted because overwhelmingly, people say, “I feel so much lighter,” “I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.” You can’t imagine what it’s like, how it will transform your life, if you just let go of the stuff that you’re drowning in. That’s why I do what I do because I really get a buzz out of it.
Q: What’s it like to be one of Oprah’s friends?
A: I’m lucky (laughing). I’m very blessed in what I do. I love what I do. I really think it has a positive effect on people’s lives, and I’m fortunate to have that platform and be part of a group of like-minded people.