Know Thyself: Setting Realistic Decorating Expectations

updated May 5, 2019
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(Image credit: Bethany Nauert)

One of the biggest mistakes I see in home decorating and decluttering is that people often make purchasing and design decisions based on aspirations (the kind of life you want to lead; the kind of person you aspire to be) — not reality. So, before you spend a ton of money and time decorating, face the facts. Distinguish between who you are — your real life habits, your idiosyncrasies — vs. who you WANT to be. When decluttering and organizing, work with your habits, not in denial of them!

You want to be the kind of person who hangs up your coat on a hanger every day, who files bills carefully the minute they arrive in the mail, who curls up in the reading nook with a book and gazes out at the perfectly-manicured garden. But are you ACTUALLY that person? Will buying Container Store organizational systems and special furniture turn you into a new and improved version of yourself? Probably not. The trick to purchasing for your home is accept your habits and tendencies and limitations and set expectations accordingly. You will save money and time and will end up with a home that works with you, not against you.

Some common mistakes:

1. Fine Dining
Many of us aspire to be the kind of family that sits around the dinner table a la Leave It To Beaver, so we spend a lot of money (and use a lot of space) creating a special dining room. But make sure this is a realistic expectation. Do you even eat at the same time as your kids on a regular basis? Are you more likely to eat around the kitchen island on bar stools? Are you more likely to sit in the living room with food on your laps? Same goes for entertaining. Some people think that if they have a massive dining table they will throw dinner parties more often. But be careful. Is the lack of a large table really the reason you don’t host dinner parties? Or is it because you hate to cook or are stressed out by the idea of big groups for dinner? Maybe you are more of a cocktail party person, after all. Buy a nice sideboard or bar cart instead!

2. Reading Nooks
It is tempting to turn that random, underutilized space in your home into a little reading area, where you will curl up and read a magazine or iPad. But are you really likely to go to that spot? Or are you more likely to just read in bed or on the couch in the family room the way you always do? You may find that that underused space could be better utilized in other ways — perhaps for a storage armoire or a pretty little table and potted plant.

3. Exercise Equipment
This is a common area where wishful thinking translates into an unfortunate waste of money and space. I used to put weights by the TV thinking that I would casually pick them up and lift while watching a show. Never happened. If you are an avid user of the treadmill at the gym and hate running outside, then perhaps a home treadmill is a good investment. But don’t expect that merely having equipment at home will turn you into an avid treadmill user. The habit won’t appear with the purchase.

4. Micro Management
I am guilty of this trap myself. I think: Maybe if I get the elaborate container with multiple tiny compartments I will be more likely to carefully place each thumbtack and hair band in its proper spot after each use. The reality is truly pathetic: if I have to open a lid or fuss with anything fiddly and small I will probably just dump the item in the drawer. I am much more likely to keep a drawer organized if there are only a few more general compartments (a big spot for batteries, a big spot for little thingies like bandaids and paperclips and odd screws).

5. Elaborate Filing Systems
I see this all the time on people’s kitchen counters and in entryways: special filing systems that are designed to stack incoming bills or invitations. What ends up happening is the filing tray or box gets overflowed and looks terrible. Moreover, the things that are at the bottom are obscured, which defeats the purpose of keeping the filing system on the counter in the first place. Your logic may be that if the “to-do” mail and bills are out in the open and in sight you won’t forget them. Not true if the pile is too big and unwieldy. If you aren’t the type of person who typically manages mail and paperwork the day it comes in you will probably never become that person. A better solution is to face that fact and create a drawer that serves as your “inbox”. Every week go through that drawer and sort out trash, paper to file, and bills to pay.

6. High Maintenance Closets
I used to hate walking into the store Benetton in the 1980s because everything was so meticulously folded. I felt the eyes of the employees glaring at me. I felt pressure to replicate the surgical precision of their perfect stacks. But I am a hopeless folder. I always will be. So designing my closet shelving system around the assumption that I will maintain perfect stacks is pure folly. Instead, I hang things on hangers whenever possible. And for underwear and t-shirts, I loosely fold them and shove them in a drawer. As for workout clothes, I never fold them. They get crammed into a dresser drawer out of sight.

7. Fancy Cookware
Do you love to bake and cook elaborate meals? If so, by all means buy that fancy countertop standing mixer. But if you have baked once in the past 6 months, don’t bother. And certainly don’t keep the beast out on your countertop taking up valuable real estate! All non essential kitchen appliances and gadgets should be kept tucked away. Better yet, don’t own them at all. If you have gone this long without the egg poacher or the bread maker you will probably be just fine without. Someone who is a sporadic cook is unlikely to become Martha Stewart just because he or she has the latest kitchen extravagance out for all to see. If you want to start cooking more, do it. And once that new habit is firmly set, you can start spending money and keeping the machines and appliances within arm’s reach.

8. Kids’ Play Areas
With kids’ stuff, all the above tips apply tenfold. I have a friend who has a massive clothes rack in the playroom filled with dressup clothes hanging on hangers. I am sure her 5-year-old is pretty decent at hanging clothes on a hanger by now. Trouble is, this process is pretty time consuming after a big playdate. For me, I know that at the end of a long Saturday with a gaggle of little kids in my basement, I am unlikely to stand there while each princess dress gets placed back on a hanger. At that point I would assign kids faster tasks like picking up crayons. And I would end up hanging all the stuff.

*Re-edited from a post originally published 11.29.12 – AB