If You Want to Live Bigger, Learn to Live Smaller

How scaling down my living space opened up my life

In the past seven years, I’ve gone from a four-bedroom house to a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment to a studio (intentionally; I have a good job).

I first became interested in the smaller-living movement in 1997, when architect Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House. At the time, I was working as an interior designer in then-booming Denver, Colorado, and I was seeking an antidote to the toxic sprouting of McMansions everywhere even as natural space was rapidly disappearing. At that point, the fascination remained academic, as I wasn’t in a position to radically change my living conditions.

My curiosity was further piqued when Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, started popping up everywhere from YouTube to NBC. Living small became kind of a reverse-fantasy for me; rather than dreaming of having more, I kept dreaming of having less. The fantasy continued to be just that for the next several years.

My divorce in 2011 necessitated the first reduction, from a spacious four-bedroom to a modestly-sized three-bedroom house, but the next two moves were intentional.

All told, I reduced my living space by roughly 80 percent, and I could not be happier about it. Here’s why:

  1. The time I used to spend cleaning, mowing, and maintaining or repairing things, I now spend more purposefully and productively. The amount of writing I’ve been able to produce and publish has skyrocketed compared to what I was able to do before going small. And the writing is far more satisfying and sustaining than any house-related chore: When you mow your lawn, what do you get? You get shorter grass for a few days and then you need to mow it again. Essentially, you get nothing. The writing I’ve published, on the other hand, is here forever, and I don’t even need to lift a finger to maintain that; instead, I just move on to my next project.
  2. I have way more fun on the weekends, because I’m not a slave to my house. Instead of trying to convince myself that mopping floors and raking leaves is legitimate aerobic exercise (sorry, it’s not), I’m now training for a marathon and really enjoying riding my bike. Rather than opting out of plans because my basement needs cleaned, I’m going out with friends.
  3. I’ve curated my belongings down to such a degree that I can honestly say I love every single item I own. When you only have one of most things, you have to choose carefully, and carefully choosing what you surround yourself with creates an environment that rewards you over and over again. For items that I must own in multiple — dishes, mugs — I’ve built collections in which I love each and every piece. So I never just have a cup of coffee in “a mug”; I have a cup of coffee in the mug my son painted for me when he was in preschool or the painted pottery my mother brought me from Sedona. Living small renders each little mundane activity of your life an experience full of meaning and intention. It makes you happier.
  4. It feels safer, at least to me. When I was a girl my family was robbed while we were sleeping upstairs. No one was hurt, but it was unnerving to come downstairs in the morning and realize that someone had violated your space and taken your belongings; it highlighted our vulnerability. In every house I’ve lived in since I have been uneasy — every creak in the night would wake me and leave me shaking and rattled. Now that I live in one room, if I hear a noise I can’t identify, all I need to do is glance around to assure myself that I’m still safely alone.
  5. I enjoy the intellectual and aesthetic challenge of making everything fit and making sure it looks good. There’s nothing difficult about designing your space to be attractive if that space is unlimited, so it never felt like much of an accomplishment to me when I lived in a house. When my family and friends come over now and are astonished by how spacious and calming an orderly, smartly-designed tiny home can be, I get a true feeling of satisfaction.

I don’t think I could ever go as extreme as the houses-on-wheels featured on the HGTV tiny home shows, and I know that for many people my age and at my stage in life living in a studio apartment probably sounds extreme enough. I do think that reducing incrementally, as I did, probably helps; once you get used to surrendering “stuff,” it gets easier and easier. And after you have reduced to the minimalist lifestyle, it’s not difficult to maintain. For example, I have a “one in one out” policy with my closet — if I purchase one new item, then I donate an item I already own.

There are obvious economic and environmental advantages to going small, but I think sometimes people assume that those advantages are gained through the sacrifice of quality of life. For me, at least, the opposite has been true. Focusing my space and my possessions has also focused my life; as the physical scope surrounding me has narrowed, it’s brought sharper focus to what’s in the center, and to what I want to be in my center.

There are things I want in my life, but more space is not one of them. And now that I’m no longer expending all my time, energy, and resources tending to space, I’m able to pursue more of what really matters.

Written by

English professor and humor writer based in Green Bay. McSweeney’s, Points in Case, HuffPost, Slackjaw, Little Old Lady Comedy, Human Parts, others.

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