Assignment #16: Show Your Living Room a Little Love

At first I was stumped about what to say for this assignment. Cleaning my living room is about as exciting as watching grass grow. I’ve got no helpful tips or funny stories; I simply picked up the things that were out of place and put them away.

Since I was home by myself most of the day and facing down a long list of chores, I pulled up the HGTV Color Splash collection on Netflix. It was only recently added—and I’m so glad, because HGTV is one of the few things I really miss about not having cable—and I figured it might give me some inspiration. Apparently, I’d forgotten how outrageous and, let’s face it, outrageously expensive some of David Bromstad’s designs were. But I still contend that it’s worth watching just to see him create custom artwork for each project.

After watching about 10 episodes, which isn’t as bad as it sounds because each episode is only about 13 minutes long, I looked around and realized how very bare our apartment is. We have one pair of curtains (that I don’t even like very much), no rugs, barely adequate lighting, no artwork, and insufficient furniture. We don’t lack for stuff; we have books, games, electronics, craft supplies, and tools aplenty. But we lack all of things that pull a space together and make it look complete and lived in.

We have more space than we’ve ever had before. In fact, our apartment has about the same square footage as my parents’ single-family starter home. And although it’s probably hard to believe, we picked this place primarily for the location, price, and upgraded appliances, and tend to consider all the space a bonus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very nice to have, especially when we have people come for the weekend. But moving into a large apartment from a considerably smaller one means that the things we do have seems to be floating like lonely satellites in space.

Seeing rooms like ours transformed from bland or under-furnished into dazzling spaces in a mere 15 minutes tends to be really discouraging, no matter how many times you remind yourself that the design and renovation process took a lot more time and money than the show lets on. This is only compounded when the homeowners have already decorated all of their other rooms, and this last one is just the final piece of a nearly completed puzzle.

When you’ve got an apartment where none of the rooms are even close to being finished, it’s hard to even know where to start. Do you start with the smallest space or the space that’s “furthest along” in its decorating journey, so you have a completed project more quickly? Do you start with the space you use most often, or the one that’s most visible?

To keep this sense of discouragement from spiraling out of control, I took a moment to concentrate on three things:

  1. We see the shortcomings in our space, and we’re committed to working on them. I talked just a few days ago about creating a functioning landing strip, and I already know that when I have the right elements I’m going to float the furniture in the living room to create a cozier TV viewing/game playing spot. We’ve thrown around ideas for a better office configuration that accommodates furniture for a guest room. The only thing holding us back from painting is picking colors, and we’ve been talking about that a lot recently. The January Cure was just a warm-up, a way to prime our apartment for the change to come. There’s no point in beating myself up over the ways things are when we’re already on a path toward change.
  2. Adding things to our space slowly allows for flexibility and change. Transforming a room in one fell swoop might be satisfying because I get to see a dramatic change, but it leaves a lot of room for disappointment and frustration. If I were to commit to changing everything at once, then I would be limited to what’s available right now. I may end up compromising on an item’s size, shape, or color in order to complete my project, or compromising my budget to secure the exact thing I want now rather than waiting for a more affordable option down the line. I’d also be committing myself to something I might think I need or love, but don’t. It can be hard enough to stomach a single bad purchase—how much more so if I had a room full of them?
  3. Decorating should be a joy, not an obligation. Decorating takes time and resources, just like any other hobby. It’s certainly not required to live in a space. (Goodness knows we got by just fine for five years without buying a rug or hanging a painting.) If it’s not fun for me, then I don’t need do it. If I’d rather spend money to see a movie than save up for a lamp, I’m the one who has to sit in the dark—and if sitting in the dark doesn’t bother me, then I don’t need to regret choosing the movie over the lamp. Sometimes saving up for things to improve the apartment will be my priority, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes I may not have a choice about it, such as on that inevitable day when our one car needs some kind of expensive maintenance. Personalizing our space should be an experience I look forward to, not a chore I dread or a task to check off.

I also remind myself that we aren’t likely to live here forever. Ideally, we’d like to buy a house in a couple of years. But we could end up moving before that, if a compelling opportunity presented itself. There are always events outside of our control. Things happen. In any case, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever “finish” this space. That’s not reason not to make it nice while we’re here, but I’d be dooming myself to failure if I made “fully decorate our apartment” a goal of mine.

I won’t lie and say that that those reminders completely alleviated my feelings about the apartment being bare and style-less, but they did take the edge off. Planning a couple of projects post-Cure helped, too. I’m looking forward to February.

What do you do when your home starts to get you down? Any quick pick-me-ups to help get you past its perceived faults? It’s totally okay if your answer is “window-shop like crazy” or “dream of buying a new house.” I’ve got nothing against a little fantasy.

Assignment #15: Clear a Closet

As a kid, my mom cycled my clothes seasonally, packing away out-of-season items twice a year. When I moved out on my own, I didn’t bother keeping up the habit for the first couple of years, because I was fortunate to have a large enough dresser and closet to accommodate everything at once, and because I often wear my summer shirts with cardigans in the winter and sport the same work trousers year round.

Last winter, I realized that just because I could cram all of my summer and winter gear into the closet at once didn’t mean I should. The time I saved by not sorting, folding, and packing things up slowly trickled away throughout the season as I was constantly pushing past things I wasn’t going to wear, even layered against the cold.

This past Christmas, I was the lucky recipient of some lovely new long-sleeved shirts, which made me realize that this time around I ought to not only pack away my summer clothes, but start taking a serious look at my wardrobe and weeding out things I wasn’t wearing anymore so that I could start building up a wardrobe that I’m really excited about.

I find this difficult for three interconnected reasons:

  1. I reached my full height in middle school, and while some of my proportions have changed, my weight has remained pretty stable. I stopped having to buy clothes because I outgrew them or wore them out long before my peers, and I got accustomed to keeping the same things for a long time because they didn’t need to be replaced.
  2. I haven’t always had money for new clothing when I would have liked it, and even when I did have money, shopping and fashion have never been hobbies of mine, so I find myself reluctant to spend any disposable income on clothes. I would rather spend it on entertainment or hobbies.
  3. I don’t have a strong sense of personal style. I know that I’m most comfortable in stretch jeans and anything made with knits; I’m not self-conscious about form-fitting clothes. I also know that I don’t like to wear anything around my natural waist, which means that vintage/retro styles hold zero appeal for me. Beyond that, I find my preferences vary wildly depending on the occasion and my mood.

Basically, I find it difficult to part with the clothes that I have, even when they’re not my favorites, because I dislike the idea of getting rid of something that’s not completely worn out, and I’m afraid that if I get rid of things that I don’t like much I’ll end up without any options at all because I won’t know what to replace them with or I won’t be willing to spend the time trying to find the perfect replacement.

It will come as a surprise to no one that this does not produce fashion satisfaction.

This year, I’m committing to improving my wardrobe, even if it’s just in small ways. I started by having an honest look at my closet, which (absurdly) still had summer clothes in it in mid-January. I know there’s tons of advice for this sort of thing, but I find I have a slightly different take on this than the “Purge Everything! Do It Now!” I often hear.

Have an idea of where your clothing will go, and sort accordingly. Of my unwanted clothing, some of it is quite worn (permanently bagged knees, threadbare elbows). I don’t like using thrift shops as a dumping ground for my more ragged clothes—if I wouldn’t want to buy the item in its current condition, why would anyone else?—but I also don’t like just trashing old stuff. As a result, clothes tend to wear out their welcome in my closet because I didn’t know how to dispose of them responsibly.

The solution, I discovered, is textile recycling. (I first learned about it on the blog So, Zo…What Do You Know? in an article where Zoe talked about working for the UK charity TRAID). Although options for textile recycling can be hard to come by in some areas, Justin and I have had success with The North Face’s program Clothes the Loop. We didn’t end up accepting the store credit or purchasing anything from them; we were just happy to have a reputable place to drop off unwanted clothes that couldn’t be thrifted.

I do have a few things that are like new. Since I’ve yet to meet anyone my size, let alone interested in a clothing swap, I’m going to look into consignment for the first time. Anything that can’t be consigned will go to the thrift store as normal.

Having a plan made it a lot easier to pull things out of my closet, because I was confident that I wouldn’t end up shuffling them around for a week or two and then just putting them back for lack of a concrete destination. I could also feel more confident that I wasn’t being needlessly wasteful.

Feel free to take short breaks. I find that sorting my clothes can be emotionally exhausting. It’s easy for me to hit a roadblock, get frustrated, and then give up in the middle of things. I found it really helpful to take short breaks every time I finished a category (dresses, blouses, t-shirts) to avoid feeling stressed about the process. (And trust me, I completely understand if spreading all of your clothes out and simultaneously realizing how much you have and how little you like is stressful. That’s where I’m at.) Obviously don’t wander off and get involved in something else while clothes are spread all over your closet/bed/floor. But give yourself permission to get a drink, switch a load of laundry, or read a blog post. Chaining yourself to this chore is more likely to push you to quit than finish.

Don’t feel guilty about using seasonal storage as a kind of outbox. Lots of people will tell you not to waste time storing things you don’t love. But sometimes you’re on the fence. You have a thing that fits and is in good shape, but you’re not sure how much you really like it. You think your style might be moving away from that thing; then again, you might come back around in six months when the weather changes and you’re looking to wear it again. If the purpose of an outbox is to give you emotional distance from a thing so that you can make a final decision about it, then storage can be a pretty effective outbox. Rather than trying to force yourself to make a decision now, give yourself permission to decide later rather than stressing about it. If, when you take the item back out, you’re not excited to see it—if you forgot it was even in the box—then it can go straight out to consignment/swap/donation/recycling without guilt or attachment. And if you’re pleasantly surprised, great! It’s like a free gift to yourself. I don’t think it’s terrible to postpone the decision. (Just, don’t postpone it indefinitely.)

Of course, you’ll probably want to disregard this piece of advice if you’re planning to move before the items would come back out of seasonal storage. I think it’s fine to store things you may or may not want, but nobody wants to move things they’re not sure about.

Now, I’ve probably ruined my chances of becoming a professional organizer with my wishy-washy approach, but I think that cutting yourself a little slack goes a long way toward getting what you want without compromising your happiness or sanity. What do you think? Do you do your closet clear outs slow and steady, or do you take a quicker, more decisive approach?

Assignment #14: Create a Clutter Filter

The idea of a landing strip—the first place you touch down when arriving home, the place where you drop your keys and coat—is one that appeals to me on a fundamental level. I like the idea of everything having a home, even if it’s just a temporary stay between my coming home from work in the evening and leaving for work the next morning. It makes it easier to clean, because then everything can be returned to its proper spot instead of being moved from one horizontal surface to another. (I used to be a master at relocating my messes. It goes hand-in-hand with my love of making piles, which is my way of pretending to be organized when I’m too lazy to actually put things away.)

We’re lucky enough to have an entryway with a closet, and we’re finally getting into the routine of hanging up coats (although we still have a bad habit of leaving shoes lying around throughout the apartment). Beyond that, though, the entryway is completely bare. There’s a dish on one of our nearby end tables for Justin’s wallet and keys, and another basket to stash non-urgent mail. They work, but they crowd the table top and don’t leave any room for a drink or a book. It also always look a little messy.

One of the things I’d like to add is a bench. It would encourage us both to take off our shoes at the door, and if it had cubbies in it I could use them to store my purses when I’m not using them. I currently store them in the bedroom slipped between my nightstand and the wall; when I swap them out, I usually do it on the couch, which means I tend to leave the now-empty bag sitting in the living room instead of the spot I’ve designated. With a storage bench, I’d have no excuse for leaving purses scattered about.



1 – Everett Espresso Cubbie Bench // 2 – NORNÄS // 3 – Altra Storage Bench with Cushion // 4 – Crosley Brennan Entryway Storage Bench

We were just trying to get a feel for what’s out there and what we like, so all of the options we picked out above were chosen for looks and not necessarily for size or price. We like #1 and #3 for for the clean lines, although I think I would make my own cushion to attach to #1. For #2, I’m not sure if we would paint the wood or leave it as-is, but I think we’d definitely paint the backs and/or insides of the cubbies for contrast. Justin is a little concerned about it being able to hold his weight, so we’ll have to check it out once it hits stores (it isn’t available yet in the U.S., but was featured in a recent Apartment Therapy article about new collections coming to IKEA this February, which is just around the corner). The more traditional #4 is a bit of an outlier, but I think the chunkier molding would ground the space, Justin felt that it looked a little sturdier than the other options.

With a closet in the entryway, we don’t need any extra hooks or pegs, so we’re free to hang something decorative about the bench. Either a mirror or a piece of artwork would be lovely, but I think a mirror would be especially practical since I wear scarves at least six months out of the year and usually have to run back to the bathroom to get them just so. Now hang on to your seat, because we liked a lot of mirrors.



1 – Miranda Capiz Round Mirror // 2- Parsons Round Mirror – Bone Inlay // 3 – Wooden Circle Wall Mirror // 4 – Burst Circular Wall Mirror // 5 – Quoizel Reflections Gwyneth Large Mirror // 6 – Sunburst Reflections 38″ High Wall Mirror // 7 – Fairplex Bronze 39″ Wide Webbed Iron Wall Mirror // 8 – Metal Silver Petal 37 1/2” Round Wall Mirror // 9 – Safavieh Galaxy Wall Warm Amber Mirror // 10 – Bianca Quatrefoil Mirror (no longer available) // 11 – Safavieh Braided Chain Decorative Wall Mirror Gold // 12 – Safavieh Wired Wall Natural Mirror

I know, I know. That’s hardly a shortlist of favorites. We seemed to be drawn to a couple of different types:

Row 1: Round mirrors with a textured frame. I like that these are neutral and versatile, but not plain.

Row 2: Sunburst mirrors. They’re a dynamic shape, but not completely bonkers. Also, apparently we like mirrors surrounded by more mirrors. Who knew?

Row 3: Spirographic mirrors. They may be called “petal” or “galaxy” shaped in the details, but all I can think of are the awesome patterns created by the spirograph kit from my childhood.

Row 4: Other fun mirrors. These don’t really share common elements with the previous entries or each other, but we liked each in their own way because they felt different and visually interesting.

Can I just take a moment to point out how ridiculously expensive decorative mirrors are? This is unfathomable to me, because you would not believe the number of $100+ mirrors whose frames were made out of polyurethane, plastic, or polystyrene (AKA styrofoam). They weren’t even especially large or ornate designs, so I have no idea how they justify such hefty price tags.

Finally, we picked a few extras to round everything out.


1 – FÖRHÖJA // 2 – Large Honeycomb Book Shelf // 3 – Latte Parker Letter Sorter // 4 – Chestnut Marten Letter Sorter // 5 – TRAMPA

By adding a wall cubby or two near the door, we can move Justin’s dish closer to the door. For an easy option we could stick with #1; for a splurge, Justin loves the idea of honeycomb shelves like #2 (he seriously digs hexagons). Top that off with a mail sorter like #3 or #4 and we’ve got organization under control. A plain mat like #5 is ripe for a DIY stenciling project.

Those are our ideas for a landing strip. Things will probably evolve before we’ve saved up for all of the pieces we’d like to add. What’s your take on the landing strip—nice to have, absolutely essential, or just another place for clutter to collect?

Assignment #13: Cross Off the Cabinet Clearout

The vanity cabinet is my nemesis.

Okay, nemesis might be a little strong. It’s not as though it’s the most packed piece of storage in our apartment; that dubious honor remains with the office closet (whose days are numbered). But it does feel like it’s actively waging war on my attempts at organization. Every time I clean the bathroom, I dutifully straighten everything on the counter and put things like hairbrushes and nail clippers back under the sink out of sight. The minute I turn my back, though, things start creeping out again, and three days later you’d never know that I’d tidied at all. The way that some people feel about dishes or laundry, those chores that are never really done because as fast as you wash things they’re dirty again? That’s how I feel about keeping my vanity neat.

I think the reason I find it so annoying is that I don’t even feel like I have that much stuff. I don’t wear makeup every day but do like to wear it on weekends and for special occasions, so while I do own a little bit of everything, it’s just that: a little bit. I have a few bottles of hair product, but you’d definitely never mistake our bathroom for a salon. I don’t collect hotel toiletries; I never have. I keep the first aid kit and general necessities like cotton balls and swabs under the sink, but we’re pretty good about not buying more until we’re nearly out. It’s not like we’re hoarding enough toilet paper to last through the apocalypse or anything.

Here, let me show you. Before I pulled everything out, the cabinet looked like this:


Not too bad, right? Could be worse, right?

Once I got everything out, I grouped things into categories:

2_Vanity_Items_CollageClockwise from the top left, you’ll see my cosmetics (nail polishes are in the pink train case, makeup is in the green Orla Kiely tote), hair tools and products, first aid and personal care items, and miscellaneous stuff. In case you’re curious, the thing in the box is a massager for the tension knots I get in my back and neck, and the charger is for Justin’s electric razor. No, I have no idea where the razor is. If I wanted to find it, the bathroom is the last place I’d look, because for some reason it always ends up in some strange place, like the office.

These are all items that I use regularly and intend to keep. There would have been more fluff and clutter here, except that I purged a bunch of unwanted items a couple of months ago, including cologne samples that Justin never worse and a few travel products that I didn’t actually like all that much. Despite that clean-out, I still found things to get rid of:


You’ll notice that the train case and its contents went from being a keeper to a reject. As I was sitting on the floor preparing to tuck it all back into the cabinet, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I wore nail polish, let alone which color I used. All of my polishes are more than a year old, and all of them had separated. I realized that if I suddenly got the craving to paint my nails, I’d want something fun and fresh to match my mood, not some goopy old color that I’d bought to match an outfit I probably don’t even own anymore.

So, I’m bagging up all of those bottles for disposal. Apparently nail polish is considered household hazardous waste, so it’s not fit for the garbage or recycling, and definitely not the drain. I’ve been to the disposal facility in my county before, but if you’re not sure of where yours is or if they’ll take your particular kind of waste, check out the search feature at Earth911.

Other items getting the boot are old eye shadows and a lip gloss sampler freebie from I’d-prefer-not-to-talk-about-how-long-ago, some nail care paraphernalia, the two cosmetic bags, and two bamboo containers that used to hold a ceramic toothbrush holder and a soap dispenser that were dumped when I realized they were impossible to clean. Also, that retainer case? How is that even still here? I got my braces off in 9th grade. I’m now 27 and have moved 5 times since then. Time to say goodbye.

While the transformation isn’t dramatic, it’s nice to know that I’ve further streamlined my bathroom kit:


The next step in the process will be to get better organization solutions because, let’s face it, that BB&B gift box has seen better days, and I need more clearly defined areas for things, otherwise they end up dumped all over each other. Then they multiply. And hatch plots to take over the bathroom. My bathroom doesn’t need to be a “spa-like sanctuary,” but I’d definitely appreciate it if it didn’t feel like an enemy camp.



Assignment #12: The Media Fast

Or, why I won’t be doing one.

According to the assignment summary, I should “take a break from television, computer, tablet and cell or smart phone.” The purpose of this break is to have “the experience of spending time in our homes in different ways” and to take “a rare break from the energy of the outside world finding its way into your private space.” I think these are admirable goals to have, and I certainly don’t fault anyone for pursuing them. If observing a media fast helps a person achieve those things, then I think doing one is both logical and beneficial thing.

But there are three main assumptions in the assignment that I want to tackle, because I find they crop up in a lot of the essays and exhortations about “unplugging,” and I find they bother me more than a little bit.

First, there’s the assumption that “media” only includes, or is wholly synonymous with, electronic media. When I first saw the assignment title, I wondered what I was expected to be doing all evening, since “media” in my mind includes not just television shows, movies, music, and video games, but also magazines, books, and board games. The assignment explanation clarifies that only digital entertainment is off-limits, which to me exposes a certain prejudice for non-electronic media over electronic media, as though literature delivered via printed page is inherently more valuable than that delivered via screen. Or more likely, it reveals an underlying belief that electronic media is consumed quickly and passively, whereas non-electronic media is engaged with slowly and thoughtfully. That may be true of some number of people some amount of the time, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily true, which is to say that I don’t believe electronic media can’t be engaged with slowly and thoughtfully.

Everyone has a choice about how they relate to different kinds of media. Justin and I choose to think critically whether we’re watching a movie or reading a book. Trading one for the other, when we treat both the same, seems like an arbitrary choice with no real benefit for us. So instead of recommending a media fast, I would challenge you to pause and consider why you enjoy your favorite book/show/movie game. What makes it good? What are its flaws? How would you convince someone like me to pick it up?

Second, there’s the assumption that regularly engaging with media largely precludes you from doing any other activities, or it keeps you glued to one spot in the house. Again, I’d say that may be true of some number of people some amount of the time, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily true. Most nights of the week, we watch (and discuss) some kind of show, I catch up on craft blogs via Feedly, and Justin browses his favorite gaming forums. I also usually knit while we’re doing all of those things—I like to keep my hands and my mind busy, even if they’re not working on the same things. Sometimes we’re on the couch, sometimes we’re at our desks in the office, and occasionally we take our phones to bed. We keep ourselves from getting into a rut by playing board games at the dining room table or doing crafts on the living room floor.

So instead of insisting on a new or different activity in order to use a different space, I’d suggest doing something you already enjoy but trying it out in a new spot. Chances are the space is only neglected because you found one spot that worked and had no reason to vary your, and all it takes to change things up is moving the same activity to a new location. This is a challenge I need to take on myself, because we have an armchair in our living room that is pretty much only used by guests. It’s just as comfy as our couch, but I just don’t think about sitting in it. If it turns out that the reason I don’t sit in it is because it’s missing something, like lighting or a place for a drink, then I can fix those things.

Finally, there’s the assumption that the energy of the outside world coming into your space is somehow a bad or disruptive thing. It certainly can be, but I choose to think that I have control over what comes in and what doesn’t, and I can filter things so that as much good and as little bad enters as possible.

As an introvert, it’s easy for me to shut myself in for days at a time without talking to anyone besides Justin, and I’m hardly bothered, because I find being out among people tiring at best and completely draining at worst. But if I also close off all of my online connections, I no longer have access to many of the things that inspire and motivate me. Since I’m already much more likely to avoid people than to spend too much time connected, I prefer not to block out what outside energy I am letting in. So instead of promoting a temporary retreat to your private space and hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign, I’d encourage you to consider what you’re already letting in and see if there’s anything that ought not to get through in the first place. Whether that’s junk mail and endless email coupons or a “friend” that’s bringing you down is up to you.

For those reasons, I chose not to observe media fast tonight, nor do I expect I’ll be doing one any time in the future. I’m going to concentrate on improving the quality of my interaction with various media instead of fretting about the quantity.

Two pieces I enjoyed related to this topic are the New Yorker’s article The Pointlessness of Unplugging and PBS Idea Channel’s video There’s No Such Thing As Offline.

Of course, your mileage may vary, and I’m interested to hear what others think about the idea of a media fast.