Sunday life: in which Oprah’s declutter dude Peter Walsh visits my apartment

Posted on September 26th, 2010

This week I declutter my “sentimentals” and my “collectibles”


What did we all do before we “decluttered”? We tidied. We picked up our crap, dusted under it, then put it back down again. We also used our crap. In my house we collected toothbrushes, icecream buckets and old singlets, which were used for cleaning our BMXs (the hub ballbearings would soak in kero in the buckets, the toothbrushes and rags were for extracting crud from the chain). And Dad used the old inner-tyre tubes for just about everything – fixing fences, espaliering the tomatoes and occy-strapping things to the ute.

Nowadays we buy more new stuff, and we don’t have time to get creative with re-using the old stuff. So we have more crap. And less room. But more importantly we’ve developed a raging intolerance for this clutter and a need to clear our lives of everything that could be bogging us down, physically, emotionally or spiritually. Decluttering has become a euphemism for the enema we’d like to take to our relationships, our schedules, the floors of our cars. In the US “storage solution” stores are experiencing exponential growth, while hoarding memoirs are emerging as the new “mis lit”. I tell you, decluttering is a dirty big business.

In this column I’ve subjected myself to many declutterings, consulting some of the world’s experts on the subject. I’ve overhauled my book collection, my email inbox; heck, I even did a colonic. But this week I went the next level.  I decluttered my “sentimentals” – photos, heirloomy knick-knacks, my grandmothers’ Jesus statues and the box of school certificates I’ve kept since kindergarten (for “good book work” and “trying hard during health hustle”).

Which is how Peter Walsh ended up in my loungeroom on Tuesday morning. Walsh (originally an Australian) is Oprah’s declutter guy. He’s the Jamie Durie of the clean sweep and gets excited on Oprah’s couch regularly about filing systems and label makers. This week, however, he visited my apartment and made it quite clear: clutter is clutter no matter how long it’s been in the family.


Walsh is brimful of sound-bitey tips. That second drawer down in the kitchen? Empty it into a bucket. Over the next month, as you use an item, return it to the drawer. At the end of a month, anything that’s still unused in the bucket, toss. I also like this gem for dealing with the junk that accumulates from grandparents buying your kids too many toys – set up a university fund and invite them to inject funds there instead (too bad Nan won’t be around to enjoy the fruits).

But to me and my knick-knacks. “When we start talking heirlooms,” Walsh says, “that’s when the excuses come out.” Oh really? But, seriously, my school certificates have sentimental value. Walsh has some distinct takes on this. “What, in your past, are you trying to hang on to?” he asks. Um, well, acknowledgment for my achievements? Is it the memory or the object you can’t let go of? He also questions how important something is to me if it’s stored in a dusty old box that I haven’t opened in four years. Which is the best point made to me all week.

The Jesus statues and iconography, displayed on a kitsch shrine made from a toy ironingboard, get a nod of approval. “If you display your heirlooms in designated zones, and you enjoy looking at them and showing others, it shows you value and honour the memory or the heritage,” he says. The rest is dead energy.

He also likes the way I’ve framed pictures my brother Nick used to paint for me. His tip for kids artwork is snappy: file it in a folder and at the end of each term get your prodigy to pick three favourite masterpieces. Frame them. Then replace each term with the next crop of masterpieces.

But, what if I’m keeping my crap to show the children and grandchildren… which is kind of why I seem to keep all my sentimentals, including my Yr 10 formal dress and poetry journal from when I was 15. Actually, I can answer this one myself: will they really care?  Walsh’s advice is a little gentler. He suggests “remembering without saving”. “Reflect on the memory, be aware of the bit that matters to you. Then proactively honour it.” So, clip some fabric from the dress you wore when you met your husband and turn it into a cushion. Or whatever. “Own the memory,” he says.

Or, as they say in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you”.

Do you have tips that out-organise Pete? Share them! And I’ll get Pete to check them out. 

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  • Great suggestions, especially the one with the drawer. I’ve also had that challenge with childhood awards, some are really just ridiculous and should be recycled.


  • Chantelle

    I have a box full of letters and notes that we passed around in class. I don’t have many close friends these days and they remind me that I used to. Maybe I should throw them away and focus on the furture and making some new friends?


  • The draw tip is great and I will do this one. I have done the same with saucepans & frying pans and now have downsized to 2 of each. Perfect. We did a clean out last weekend & I breathed a sigh of relief when my children, voluntarily let things go & appreciated their uncluttered bedroom floors. My daughter is a huge fan of box collage, so I had her & her Dad get togther and video those she liked best & explain what she had created before recycling.


  • Kristy

    I loved your article on decluttering. We have recently been doing a huge declutter of the house. And it is amazing the levels of excuses you can come up with – sentimentals are definitely the hardest to let go. But it’s true – its the memories not the actual items that are the most important!


  • Clutter is sneaky. Most of the time you don’t notice it building up, till one day you turn around and trip over a pile of paperwork a metre high. I think one of the most important things to remember with clutter is that it didn’t appear overnight, so it’s going to take a reasonable amount of time to get rid of it. Most of us don’t have a spare week to declutter the entire house, so break it up into small bite sized chunks. Pick an area such as the kitchen junk drawer (you know the one with the batteries and takeaway menus), set the timer for 15 minutes and go for it. Or clear out your intray while you are on hold with one of the telco’s. There are chunks of time in every day that can be used to get your clutter under control. Take the plunge! If you can’t trust yourself to throw things out, get someone to help you who has no emotional attachment to your “stuff”. It takes time, but the end result is well worth it.


  • Check out Lissanne Oliver at
    she’s prettier and has a much better vibe than Peter Walsh..

    also the onion has a hillarious take on the hoarding issue!,16909/


  • Emilia

    The best decluttering book I have ever read is called ‘Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui’ by Karen Kingston – yes the title is naff as all get out but this is a really informative and super practical book. I have been a compulsive declutter ever since. Through this book I was introduced to the Perato principle which is basically 80/20 which she applied specifically to clothing in so far as a wardrobe is made up of 20% of clothing worn 80% of the time which helped me to get ruthless and totally helped to refine and define my style and to get past that terrible I have nothing to wear while staring at a wardrobe full of clothing feeling which would more often than not result in me either convinced I had to have something new immediately or lose my confidence to put together anything I felt really good in at all.


  • ha ha. i have a copy of Peter’s “It’s All Too Much” sitting in a pile of clutter on my coffee table right now!
    He’d have a field day at my place – but I’m trying to be better, really I am.
    The sentimentals are the things that get me every time. I mean, we are who we are because of these things right ? But I get his philosophy and it’s spot on.
    I’m currently using the excuse of “not enough time” – oh wait, I’ve just spent 5 minutes reading and replying to this – I could have spent those 5 minutes de-cluttering…..
    See, I’m a lost cause – SAVE YOURSELVES!


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  • Mia

    I love that quote from Fight Club. Also reminds me of the scene in American Beauty where Lester Burnham starts throwing cushions and screaming, “It’s just a couch!” to his wife and pointing out all to useless stuff in their house. “It’s become more important to you than living.” Ah, wonderful films.

    I love that my grandmother loads me up with fresh produce grown in her own organic garden than any heirlooms! I try to keep my house as basic as possible as I find it makes life easier in many ways you wouldn’t normally think of.


  • Don’t know if anyone has mentioned this yet, but a great way to save old letters, cards and notes, is to scan them onto your computer. You’ll still have a nice color copy that you can access any time without it taking up physical space.


  • Angela

    I use my nutcracker a few times a year, but when I need to crack nuts, I want a nutcracker1

    Sometimes, this de-cluttering advice is nuts.


  • I agree with Angela. Yes, we want to de-clutter but, just because something is not used frequently it does not mean it is not necessary.


  • Hmmmm yes decluttering….! I find this something I constantly struggle with… I fantasize about having a clear, organised, “less-stuff” space so often… The thing is, as the above 2 comments pointed out, sometimes those random things u don’t use so much really do come in handy at times..I am still traumatized over these gorgeous green pointy toe shoes (which I scored for $15 from Big W) that I chucked out in a moment of “I really do have to get rid of stuff”! I was stressed, pressured and reactionary…I truly loved them and still mourn their loss!! Hahaha

    So…. My advise… Do it only when u r peaceful, confident and in a space of non-emotional clarity… Deciding what to toss then is so easy &internally guided… 🙂

    We really are geniuses and declutter experts when we allow ourselves to be:)

    Cheers!! Xxx


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  • Wow what a great post here. awesome.


  • Niki Hughes

    I keep that book in my overflowing junk drawer LOL