Gretchen Rubin is the bestselling author of several books, such as Outer Order, Inner Calm and The Happiness Project, about how to be happier, healthier, and more productive, and she hosts the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. For OprahMag.com, Gretchen is weighing in on how we can all find a little bit of calm, even during a pandemic. This week, she answers a reader question.
"I’m doing my best during the pandemic to enjoy the great outdoors while the weather is still nice, but so many reports are making it sound like many of us will still be working remotely and social distancing through the fall and maybe even winter thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. What can I do now to make my home feel more like an oasis for when I’m really stuck inside?" —Lindsay from Maryland
As we look ahead to the fall, many of us know we’ll continue to spend a lot of time at home. It’s a great idea to start looking for ways now to make your home feel more comfortable and spacious once you’re spending more time indoors.
Where to start? Give yourself more elbow room, and make your space more livable.
For more elbow room, first, look for obvious collections of unused items. Do you have boxes that you brought from your old job that you’ve never opened, or cooking appliances that you never take down from the shelves? Do you have sports equipment, exercise gear, or hobby-related supplies that you no longer need? Try to toss, recycle, or donate things that contribute to crowding but never get used, so you open up space.
Pay special attention to clothing. Do you have clothes that your children have outgrown, formal business suits that you don’t wear anymore, sports or exercise outfits that you no longer use, maternity clothes? Be honest about items that no longer fit.
Also, look for messy areas that create visual noise. You’ll feel such relief when you clear them out! Areas that often become awash in stuff include the bottoms of closets, bedrooms chairs or side-tables, kitchen counters, any mudroom or entrance hall, and utility closets. Also, if you have bulky, little-used appliances sitting out on counters, consider putting them away in a cabinet to free up precious space.
As you clear, you also want to shape your space to be better suited to the unusually heavy use it’s going to get.
First, consider how you might re-purpose certain spaces for new uses. A reimagining might require moving some furniture around, adding or subtracting different pieces, or doing work to clear or upgrade a space.
Before the pandemic, my husband rarely did Zoom calls, and if he did, he took them from the desk in our bedroom. But once he was working from home every day, he found that sitting in a bedroom didn’t feel like a proper work environment. We’ve cleared off a small table in another part of our apartment so he can work in more congenial surroundings.
Similarly, a friend’s two children each had a bedroom. She moved both beds into one room and turned the other bedroom into a playroom. This change gave her children a place to build elaborate cities out of Legos, while keeping other areas of the apartment more free from toys.
By reimagining spaces, we create more room for ourselves—and it’s also satisfying to turn an eyesore of a junk room into a pleasant, useful space. Another friend had a low-ceilinged basement room that she and her family used as a dumping ground. She cleaned it out, tossed or donated almost everything she found, and now uses the room for yoga and meditation. “The low ceiling has turned out to be a feature, not a bug,” she told me. “It gives the room a quiet, enclosed atmosphere. And no one else ever comes into the basement.”
Another friend worked a similar transformation to an attic. He rented a dumpster, donated or gave away almost everything his family had saved over the years, replace rotted window sashes, painted, cleaned—and now he has a new home office.
You don’t need a whole room to work with. If you’re finding it hard to participate in a Zoom call without a family member wandering through, try turning a closet into a privacy phone booth. Tip: If you want to use a fairly small space—like a pantry or walk-in closet—an ironing board can become a narrow standing desk or a ledge for equipment, books, or a lamp.
And while you’re subtracting things from your house, you may also find it helpful to add or upgrade a few items. Maybe you need another desk now that so many people are working on laptops at home. Maybe you could use a basket by the front door, so that people’s shoes don’t spread across the entire floor. (I find that everything always looks better in a basket or on a tray.) A set of sturdy shelves could also help you get organized and open some useful space.
Some people like to work in a sprint, and some people like to tackle big projects by doing a little work each day. If you prefer to work gradually, or you don’t have enough free time to do a big sprint, start your projects now so that you’ll be in great shape for the fall—whatever it may look like.
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