So, it’s the end of January. Most readers by now have shed those extra nagging pounds, quit smoking and/or drinking, started an ambitious exercise routine to which they have adhered religiously, finished the novel languishing in their desk drawer, made peace with irascible bosses or found exciting new jobs, cleaned out their closets, basement and garage and redecorated that sad-looking bathroom with the wallpaper that looked fabulous in 1985.
When it comes to goals, most of us have a tendency towards expectations that are, shall we say, a tad unrealistic. We want change, and we want it now. And this is the year we are finally, finally going to—you can fill in the blanks.
Motivational experts tell us that vowing to make wholesale and immediate changes in our lives is merely setting ourselves up for failure, which only serves to spur some of us to tuck our tails between our legs and head right back to the couch and the carton of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia (my personal favorite).
The secret to success lies in small, purposeful increments of change that, added together, offer big results.
Let’s say you have things you really want to change about your home: its organization, its clean factor, its health, its homey and inviting quality, the level of its maintenance, or its beauty. Maybe all of the above, but hold on—let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Slow and steady wins the race, as the hare learned in his challenge against the tortoise.
Try adopting these strategies as you set about making your home the most comfortable, well-cared for, beautiful abode it can be:
- Be specific in your goals, and be realistic. If the clutter in your home has become unmanageable, for example, take it on in small bites that set you up for real progress without unreasonable frustration. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for help.
- Prioritize. What project is bugging you the most? Start there, even if it is some small task like researching the possibilities, or spending 15 minutes a day going through clutter and tossing at least one item.
- Visualize. Cut out magazine photos that embody the look you are going for, and stick them on your refrigerator or tack them to a bulletin board that you pass by often. The images will inspire you to bring that beauty and order into your life.
- Focus on safety and repairs first. It’s frustrating to invest money into areas that aren’t visible to the naked eye, like roofs and insulation and wiring, but these must be priorities in order to protect the safety and long term value of your investment. To compensate, indulge in a manageable improvement that is purely aesthetic—one that gives you immediate effect and pleasure: a fresh coat of paint, a new chair, a print for over the mantel.
- Buy a pretty calendar or notebook just for tracking your progress. Each week, or each month, depending on your available time and energy, focus on a different room, or a different task: sorting through clothes closets one month, cleaning the basement another, reorganizing your office yet another. If you have to, give two months to one big project. If you can, match the task to the weather so, for example, you aren’t chafing against cleaning a musty basement in May while everyone else is at the park.
- Work backwards from a deadline. Let’s say your son is graduating from high school this year, and you want to throw a party for him in June. Suddenly, you’re casting a critical eye on the whole house and landscape, right? Nothing like company to motivate. Before you panic, make a list of priorities that will be most visible for the party: kitchen, common living areas, porch or deck, bathrooms, entryway. Start early and make a list of what needs to be done to put those areas in their best light, whether it’s a coat of paint, or simply a thorough cleaning. Delegate wherever possible. If you can afford to hire out projects, even paying a student (your son?) to weed the garden and trim the hedges a few days before the party, do it. Setting up a preparation schedule that includes invitations, food considerations, and house readiness will keep you on track and help you accomplish things you might not have done otherwise. Most important, remember that the purpose of the party is to celebrate a milestone, not put your home on display. Stay focused on what matters and relax about the rest.
- Set up a small reward system for yourself. If you finally, finally get that basement cleaned out, treat yourself to a new sweater, a day to curl on the couch and read, lunch with a friend, a day trip somewhere interesting. It’s especially gratifying to organize a garage sale and then do something fun with the proceeds. One family financed a good portion of their trip to Disney World with a series of garage sales they held over a year’s time.
- Exchange labor with a friend. Set up an arrangement whereby you help each other tame an unruly garden, go through unwanted clothes, reorganize a pantry, strip wallpaper or paint a room. The time will be more pleasurable, the work will go faster, and you’ll share the memories and gratification of a job well done together. As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.”
- Scale back your expectations if necessary. You might not be able to afford a kitchen makeover this year, but you can paint your cupboards, or the walls, or even just buy new dish towels and throw rugs. The small perks can go a long way to freshening a look, and your outlook.
- Take a tip from the DIY shows. You can give your house a total facelift just by rearranging the things you already own. Walk around your home and try envisioning this chair and that rug, this picture and that vase, in another room. Cost? A little elbow grease. Doing this with a friend is even more fun—they’ll offer you ideas you’d have never come up with on your own.