How to Make a Small Space Work For You

For so many of us, our homes have come to be the space we now work, exercise and sleep in. With so much of our time now spent navigating the same four walls, Jil Carrara sheds some light on how, as a freelancer, she has learnt to make her small space work for all aspects of her life.

As a freelancer I am used to working from home. I am used to seeing the same white walls in front of me and by now have all the tricks down, so that I stay sane even when my office is 10 steps from my bed (literally). And yet, having to stay home now is of course very different – we aren’t just working from home, we are working from home during a global pandemic. 

The first few weeks I revelled in the calmness that came with it all. The sound of birds in the morning not accompanied by loud honks and a calendar free of events and meetings that I’d have to squeeze myself into the sardine box that is the tube to get to. Also, can we quickly acknowledge how uncomfortable jeans are? I never realised until they weren’t considered the most casual thing you could wear to work anymore. I digress. 

Aside from my ground-breaking realisation that jeans aren’t that casual, I also noticed that I was maniacally saving hashtag interior inspo posts to my saved folder on Instagram daily. What did they all have in common? Wide open spaces, no clutter and endless views on nature. 

As the days merged into weeks, my walls started moving in on me. Suddenly my tiny apartment that always felt small-but-just-enough felt like a shoebox overflowing with stuff. One weekend my boyfriend and I used the excuse of having to film a video to rearrange all our furniture only to move it all back as we realised the original version was the most space efficient. 

It was clear, I needed help figuring out how to thrive in a small space, because these are unprecedented times (don’t hate me for using that word, I’m sure you’ve already had ten emails with that opening line today). I caught up with a few people living and thriving in small spaces 24/7 who had a few words of wisdom to share and added a few of my own tips to help us all get through it together in the best possible way. Hopefully when you’re done reading this, you might have a new perspective and appreciation for your space!

You need less stuff

There seems to be a general consensus about needing less stuff. I don’t disagree.For me this lockdown has been the perfect time to really sit with my stuff and consciously decide what I needed and didn’t. Yes, I’m talking about a good old fashioned Marie Kondo declutter – just more sustainably. 

Before starting, Sophie Grant, an ultra runner who has been living in a van with her partner for three years, offered some advice: “keep what you need, and be willing to admit when something is a mistake and leave it at a charity shop.” 

As someone that generally shops quite sustainably I realised that I sometimes struggled to let go of items I don’t use anymore with the thought that I might use it in the future and fear I would have to buy it again. But the truth is that with most items you just know, as with bad relationships, when they aren’t going to work out. “We went from a house full of stuff to a box, so we’ve had to ditch some stuff along the way as we’ve realised that it doesn’t work well enough to keep,” Sophie says. You just know. 

Controlling what goes in and out is also a great way “to be aware of your waste and consumption,” as Toby Burgess, a lecturer in sustainable architecture points out. Think of your space as something sacred that you need to protect and curate at all times. 

(L) Jil at home with her plant collection (R) Poppy Okotcha’s plant-filled house boat

You need plants

When I first moved into my current rental, I remember thinking that it only really felt like home when the plants moved in. Since lockdown I have propagated two plants, was gifted a lemon tree and am desperately trying to regrow some celery à la Max La Manna

Indoor gardening has been my biggest joy (hoovering up the mess after not as much). Being surrounded by plants brought the outdoors inside and made the place feel more lively. Poppy Okotcha, a Permaculture Designer who has been living in a houseboat for five years shed some light on this. “House plants are great dividers. In garden design when we’re faced with a small space we create the illusion of spaciousness by using plants to divide it up into little pockets of space. I do the same with our house plants. They also create a lovely living, airy atmosphere of flowing energy.” See – there is actually a reason for it! 

You need to go outside

When I first went freelance, my multi-hyphen friend Claire Mueller gave me one piece of advice that I still hold dear – go outside every single day. Yes, you need to go out to thrive in your space. When we were allowed to only go out for one hour a day during the first phase of lockdown in the UK, I noticed how important it was both for my body and mind. Even when I was just going to the shop I soaked in everything around me, so my biggest advice is to leave your phone at home or turn it onto airplane mode, smell some flowers and hold your face into the sun. 

Give your future self a gift and tidy the space before going out so you can come back to a clear house with a clear mind. Brace yourself for the magic that happens next. 

Image: Poppy and her partner in their houseboat

You need boundaries

The phrase (or excuse) “I’ve gotta go” doesn’t hold up anymore, but that doesn’t mean you have to be available 24/7. Just because you are home and everyone knows you are at home doesn’t mean you have nothing to do or you are meant to work during times you’d normally commute. 

Just as it’s important to separate your work from living space it’s also important to set boundaries with people, employers and general work so it doesn’t just merge into one big anxiety-inducing blob of a day. Keeping a routine is important and setting different times for different activities is essential. 

A while ago I noticed that I was starting work with my breakfast and not stopping until it was dinner, but it is super important to plan in ‘separators.’ I usually plan a workout, a facetime with friends, a grocery run, a shower or a DIY activity for 6pm, which clearly marks the end of my working day and the beginning of evening ‘me time.’ I still notice that on days when I don’t do this I go to bed completely frazzled, thinking about work and anxious about where the day went. This also means no home chores like doing the laundry five minutes before a conference call (!). 

You don’t need to rearrange your furniture

But it’s alright if you do need to. Even if you move them back after. However, if that doesn’t scratch the itch and you really, really feel the need to change up your space then there are a couple of things you can do that don’t break the bank such as decluttering, or adding plants and mirrors: “they create the illusion of continued space and bounce the light around,” Toby shares. 

I’ve also started painting a bit more with the few tools I have available and although I’m no Matisse, it’s an easy way to brighten up a space in a cost-effective manner that also doubles as a meditation. Just saying… The most important thing here is that you don’t panic place an online order for 20 new interior things so you can revamp the space, but instead change it up over time. “That way you slowly collect pieces that are joyful and genuinely useful” Poppy suggests. You could even do some Instagram sales and only replace items with the money you’ve earned, operating a one in, one out policy.

You need to communicate

If you are living in a small space with a partner you are probably most likely living through two scenarios (or a weird mix of both) by now. A) you are living parallel lives where you each have your virtual calendar filled with zoom meetings, online quizzes with friends, family calls and playstation sessions, and B) you are doing everything together and can anticipate the other person’s exact next words and moves. 

Either way, here’s a few tips if it all gets too much and you feel tension is running high. Give each other space – go into another room, even if it’s the bathroom, and take an hour for yourself. As an experiment I’ve tried going half a day in different rooms and it really gives you a chance to miss the other person (until you find their socks on the floor again). My favourite trick is to blame an imaginary intern called Pam for not cleaning the mugs in the sink ‘can’t trust her with anything, I’ll just do it myself.’

Sophie also suggests doing ”something nice together to break out of the bad mood.” You’re in this together and reminding yourself how you can help the other person get through it with small acts of kindness is so important. Take a cue from Sophie’s husband who, when she used to ‘wake up on the wrong side of the bed’ made her get back in and get out on the other side! In my case, it was a flower my boyfriend brought back from a walk and that guaranteed a smile on my face. It’s the little things. 

Fail proof and instant feel good recipe for small space anxiety

Start by opening all windows and doing a spring clean with accompanied by good music. Add fresh sheets and fresh flowers (fairtrade are best). Take a long shower while you cool down and when ready serve with a side of gratitude.

Read how Team Eco-Age are staying positive while working from home: from limiting screen time to changing out of our loungewear.

Begin the day with Max La Manna’s low-waste breakfasts for a little morning motivation.

Inspired to rework your space? Hattie Bottom shares her favourite online spots to source vintage furniture.