Refresh Your Space in a Day– An Interview with Lisa Zaslow

Refresh Your Space

This week on the How to Be a Better Person podcast is all about spring cleaning your life. Now is the perfect time of year to wipe away things that aren’t working or weighing you down. Because spring is a natural time of rebirth. And then spring after being cooped up because of a pandemic. Well, yeah, let’s just say there’s all kinds of layers of things that we are ready to refresh your space.

While we’re still not back to our on the go lifestyles, now is the perfect time to refresh your space and make room for who we want to be and how we want to live in whatever phase comes next. The problem is that as energizing as spring cleaning your life can be, it can also be overwhelming. I mean, even just spring cleaning your closet can be overwhelming, forget about your entire home. The trick is to find a way to make a big impact in a small amount of time so that you can get a whiff of detox your stuff. And even if you don’t end up completely decluttering your whole life, you’ll free up some energy and create some space for a better you to emerge

Listen to the Podcast Here

Today, I’m interviewing someone who can help us take this big desire of decluttering and getting organized and make it very practical and doable. Lisa Zaslow is the founder of Gotham Organizers. She’s been a professional organizer in New York city for over 20 years. And her video on organizing a small space has been viewed millions of times. Lisa doesn’t ascribe to traditional organizing advice. She says she’s never figured out how to touch a piece of paper only once. Instead, Lisa takes a more case by case approach. And her advice always makes me ready to roll up my sleeves and think about what’s bogging me down in new ways.

Lisa, I am so happy to have you here. Welcome. Today I’d love to talk to you about how to  refresh your space in a very small amount of time. Because I think one of the hardest things about taking on any kind of cleaning out project, big or small is just getting started. So can you talk a little bit about why that is and how we can outsmart that resistance?

Absolutely. You use the word ‘overwhelm’ in your intro, and that is the word I hear all the time from clients. When they think about getting organized or decluttering, they feel overwhelmed. And there also might be some guilt involved like, “Oh, I should’ve done this.”  You know, the whole year of the pandemic, I had time. Why is it still cluttered? There might be some pessimism, “I’ve tried to do this before and it hasn’t worked.” People might feel some sense of shame that they’re not as organized as they want to be. And when you have any of those kinds of negative emotions, what happens is the thinking part of your brain, the part that plans can create the steps and an organizing project literally shuts down. So it becomes even more impossible. Or It seems even more impossible.

That’s so interesting. Is that our executive function? Is that what’s shutting down?

Exactly the executive functioning parts of your brain. And so that’s why, I mean, I have clients who say to me, “I don’t understand that I can help other people get organized. Why can’t I do this?” That’s the reason, because you’re just not in your thinking mode when you’re in your emotional mode. So the key is to separate those two things and to really think about what you want to do and how you want to approach it. And to do this before you get in there and look at your whole garage filled with stuff and are just like, “Ah, now what?”

Okay, so we need to have a plan. I like that. Let’s say we want to spend a couple hours this weekend refreshing our space. Because I know that if I can just go in and do one thing or clear out one area, all of a sudden that overwhelm starts to fade, right? It’s like it frees up some energy. It gives a pep in my step.
So we’ve got two hours to dedicate to something this weekend. How do we decide where to focus our efforts first?

I would say again, you want to get those positive emotions going. Your excitement, your motivation. So you want to tie your project to a bigger goal. Something that’s really important to you, that will make a difference. Not like, “I should clear out the attic.” But a “Wow, I would love to have a bathroom that feels like a spa.” Or, “It would really give me a boost at work if my office was cleared out.” So think about what you really want, not what you think you should do in terms of determining your project

And another other couple of things that might be helpful to keep in mind–you might want to think about like what’s bothering you the most. Or also think about what’s a project that’s easy. Give yourself a quick win to start.

Oh, I love a quick win. Okay. So once you’ve decided which space you want to refresh first, what do we need to set ourselves up for success?

First of all, you want to block out the time that you are planning to do it. You know, like literally say, I’m going to start at three o’clock in the afternoon. And that again will kind of prep your brain so that you’re all ready to do it. As opposed to if you just say, I’ll do it sometime over the weekend. So having a specific time that we’re going to get started is a huge thing.

Another thing is to get some tools ready so that you can make the process easier. You’re going to want to have some trash bags. You’re going to be clearing out some clutter. You want to have a spot where you can put things to be recycled, or maybe to give away, or even to sell. So just set that up ahead of time.

That sounds awesome. Okay. So we’ve got the time planned. Really good advice to have a specific time, because then you don’t have to feel bad that you’re not working on it if it’s not that time. And then a couple of supplies. So we’ve got our stuff. It’s that time. What do we do first? How do we go about it?

Sure. So the process that I use with all of my clients, I call it my ‘less mess, less stress process.’ My five step system that you can use to organize anything. So I’m just going to go over this pretty quickly with you. But the idea is that really there is a process that you follow. And that will lead you to your organizing goals.

So the first is committing to a goal, and that also will help with that overwhelm. So you want to be really clear about what it is that you’re doing and why you’re doing. Then the first thing that you do, so many people are like, “Oh, I want to get organized, let me run out and buy containers.” No. The first thing that you do is clear out clutter. The stuff that you don’t need, that’s just plain old trash that you don’t want. Because I always say it doesn’t pay to organize what you don’t need to keep.

So you do some decluttering. Then the kind of the real meat of organizing is categorizing, where you put similar things together. Put like with like, so if you think of like a messy junk drawer, once you start putting similar things together. All of the pens, all of the note pads, all of the rubber bands, that’s the categorizing step. That’s when you’re really creating new organizing systems. Then step four is contain. That’s when you can get your containers so that you keep your different categories separate. You can label things in the contain step.

And then the last thing, this is what so many people forget is the step, continue. So organizing isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s not like painting your house. You have to continually keep your systems up to date. And also throughout this process, you might go back like you’ve done some categorizing and you might then find, “Oh my God, I have 45 pens in this drawer.” Maybe some of them are clutter. So it’s an iterative process, where you go through these steps repeatedly.

And don’t think that you need to get everything right on the first pass. It’s absolutely okay to just get started and do a little bit and come back to it. You don’t have to take everything off of your bookshelves and throw it on the floor like some organizers recommend. You can do this a little bit at a time and celebrate your wins as you do each step. And that will again give you the motivation to keep on going.

I love that you have a very organized approach to organizing! Do you have an example of a small project you’ve done with a client that’s had a really big effect on their daily life and their energy afterwards? Sometimes we need to hear these examples to really get us going.

Sure. I think it’s great to really focus on small things when refreshing your space. Because so often people again, when you’re feeling that overwhelm, you feel like you need to do everything. And it feels like if I just do one small project, what difference will it make? But I promise you, even the tiniest little project will make a difference.

And one small project, this is one that I recommend with almost all of my clients is something related to work, specifically clearing off your desk. So I have one client, she was a lawyer, and her desk was piled like maybe a foot high with stuff. And when there’s so much stuff in front of you, again, your brain is smart, but it can sometimes be kind of dumb. Like it sees all these piles and thinks I need to do something with all of those things.

So she felt like her work was insurmountable. So what we did was we literally just moved the things off her desk to start. Again,  some organizers might say, no, you have to deal with every piece of paper. But just moving them off of her prime work space to start, clearing off her desk she said, I’ve never been so happy to Pledge my desk. The wood was showing. And just seeing that clean surface, she was like, wow, I can work.

Then we went through and obviously did organize all the papers. But just sometimes creating a cleaner surface and then what I call a clutter-free zone, can make a huge difference. And then, you know, your next step, you go and deal with the papers or you deal with all of the things that were on your kitchen counter. But just starting with that clean slate can increase your motivation and excitement to continue.

I love me a clutter-free surface. So Lisa, thank you so much for sharing all this for the folks who are listening, where can they connect with you to get more of your great advice?

If people go to, my website, there’s tons of articles there. And also you can sign up to get my, what I call my ‘super easy free tips.’ And I don’t know if it’s maybe 20 or 30 things that you can do some things in seconds to make a really big difference with a small amount of time.

Daily Tiny Assignment

I love hearing from an organizer who advocates starting small when you want to refresh your space. Following Lisa’s advice, your job is to think about where can I declutter? What’s some small little spot that I could refresh, that’s going to carry over into the rest of my space?

I liked her example of her client who was a lawyer who cleared off her desk. It sounds like that really made a whole shift in her office and work-life experience. So, where is that space for you? And then what exact time can you devote an hour or maybe two hours at most to working on that place? And what supplies are you going to need? It sounds like really all you might need is a couple of trash bags or maybe a box to put stuff in that you want to carry to another part of your house or to give away. I hope that hearing Lisa talk will get you jazzed about spring cleaning some part of your home. Come back tomorrow, when I am going to be talking about figuring out where the energy is festering in your life so that you can target that spot.


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