How to Strike a Work/Life Balance in a Tiny Apartment, According to Design Experts

How to Strike a Work/Life Balance in a Tiny Apartment, According to Design Experts

By Tiffany Leigh
Feeling cooped up and stressed out? Here are some essential tips from designers and builders of small spaces.

Small spaces and tiny homes present some physical limitations, but they actually make room for imaginative solutions. As many of us continue to work from home during the pandemic, we might need some help to shift our perspectives and find new strategies for a productive work/life balance. We asked designers who specialize in small spaces to share their routines and words of wisdom.

Shift Your "Small Space" Mentality

SHED Architecture’s Prentis Hale shares a capture of his home, where a cutaway by the stairs serves as a storage nook. "Within a small space, everything can be reached, seen, heard, and optimized with minimal effort," he notes.

Prentis Hale, principal at Seattle-based SHED Architecture, encourages people to think of small spaces as sanctuaries: "Rather than perceive them as confining and limiting, think of them as places of refuge. For me, within a small space, everything can be reached, seen, heard, and optimized with minimal effort." Having this new perspective can unlock freedom and creativity. "It’s a place of possibilities where one’s imagination and energy is focused," he says. 

Self-taught designer and tiny house builder Mariah Hoffman, who resides in Long Beach, California, takes a similarly holistic approach to small-space living. "For me, it’s a regular exercise in intentionality," says Hoffman. "I embrace minimalism as an ongoing practice of spatial and material intention, rather than an enforcement of scarcity." 

Bunch Design in Los Angeles, founded by husband-and-wife duo Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki, crafts a narrative around any type of space. For compact projects, the process is akin to filling out a storyboard. "We script scenes and set up a sequence of moments, not unlike how a painter would compose a composition, utilizing one-point perspective to draw the eye, and at other times layering elements and views using fore-, mid-, and background like a photographer," they explain. This approach encompasses both interior and exterior elements: "When you design in this manner, space is expansive, interesting, and throws out moments of alignment that delight the senses."

Create a Morning Routine to Look Forward To

As part of their morning routine, Bunch Design's Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki enjoy sketching and watercoloring.

Paris-based Batiik Studio’s Rebecca Benichou opts to go with the flow. "I don’t set an alarm clock because I don’t have meetings in the A.M. right now," she says. "Sometimes, I’ll take my coffee and chill; other days, I’ll go for a run, or start work right when I wake up." In not setting morning limitations, Benichou enjoys endless possibilities for the remainder of the day.

Hale, meanwhile, suggests a morning walk (while staying mindful of social distancing): "Honestly, it’s the best COVID-19 medicine, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this practice." On his 30-minute stroll toward a large cedar tree, his phone is off because "listening to the birds is better than a podcast these days." Upon his return, he gains clarity of mind: "I’ve thought through projects, daily tasks, and critical issues, and then I’ll pull the phone out and make calls on the walk back." 

To round off a perfect morning, he brews up throat-coat tea. "It’s physically and psychologically soothing as we defend ourselves against ear, nose, and throat pathogen attacks," he says, "so I drink a lot of it!" 

Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama of London-based Studiomama, pictured here in their studio, start their day with morning yoga.

For Hoffman, self-care is what makes each morning special, and her routine includes Ursa Major face wash and By Nieves moisturizer and body spray. Then, she settles in with a steaming cup of coffee, Bialetti being her espresso maker of choice. Between sips, she’ll do free-form journaling: "I call it my ‘morning pages,’ and this unstructured writing allows me to clear my head." Lastly, while cooking breakfast, she’ll organize her day. "My lineup includes getting dressed, prioritizing accessories I love, and then hopping online for work," she says. 

Sundius and Ichiki find Zooming friends and family, drawing, and watercolor painting to be soothing. "It has become a nice routine we do every morning," they say. 

Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama of London-based Studiomama are all about morning movement to enliven the senses and mind. "We always start each morning with yoga exercises," they say, sandwiching their mats between the sofa and dining table for a vinyasa or ashtanga session.

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Break Up the Day to Prevent Post-Lunch Slumps

Rebecca Benichou’s 377-square-foot Paris apartment is cozy and light-filled.

Benichou looks forward to having lunch or a snack under natural lighting. "Due to the self-quarantining, I’ve discovered that my favorite spot is to have a meal under the sun by my window," she says. After that, she’ll lie on the floor and continue to soak up the rays during a power nap: "Napping is so important and therapeutic, and I feel we don’t get enough chances to do it every day." 

To prevent post-lunch fatigue, Tolstrup and Mama advise people to put on some tunes (this is Mama's go-to mix) or otherwise break up the day. "To keep us going," they tell us, "we’ll sometimes go for a stroll after lunch, talk about projects, and share what we’ll focus on for the remainder of the day." These moments of transition and scenery changes allow for sparks of creativity to organically occur. And above all else, they say that if you feel stress and pressure mounting, allow yourself to take a moment and step back from it all.

The upper-level office of Elysian Cottage by Bunch Design, where the materiality of the Douglas Fir ceiling has the most impact, takes on the feeling of a true cabin in the woods.

Sundius and Ichiki say that setting priorities and exercising healthy boundaries is what can keep your energy and spirits up: "We don't need to work such long hours and have so many meetings." If you decide to turn off your phone and be unavailable, they say, "Go for it...the whole cracking-the-whip, frantic work life needs to be replaced with something more balanced and sustainable that centers around family." 

Hale says that when you feel like you need to press the pause button, do it without hesitation: "All the remote conferencing and screen sharing is draining. At midday, I make a point of unplugging, stepping outside, sitting down, and simply not saying anything for five to 10 minutes." In this time, he draws or makes a collage in a sketchbook his brother-in-law designed for him. "Attempting to make something beautiful every day should be a palliative habit," he says.

Define Working Spaces, but Leave Room for Flexibility

The built-in dining table in Marah Hoffman’s tiny home, Micro Modula, can be adapted for work.

For Benichou, finding space to work means rearranging her surroundings. "Simply put, there are no limits," she says. "I push my furniture aside and enjoy my space. Then, I clean my desk and surroundings after a day’s work so the house looks and feels like a house again—not an office space!" 

Hoffman also takes time to reset in her 156-square-foot tiny home. "My tables and surfaces serve multiple functions," she says, "but I try not to use them at the same time." For instance, her dining table is her designated office nook until the day is done, when it transforms again for meal times. To take this strategy a step further, she sets what she describes as "behavioral boundaries," using phone alarms to start and end the work day, and to remind her to go do bed. Although her line of work requires that she be available outside typical 9-to-5 hours, her alarms are gentle reminders to maintain healthy boundaries: "They care for my well-being, and allow me moments to exercise self-care and gratitude."

Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama pose with their two children, Otto and Lula.

Compartmentalization strategies also work for Tolstrup and Mama, who have two children. "We separate our family life and our studio, and our kids respect that when we are in the studio working," they say. The kids are allowed to visit and stay in the studio, but they know to keep busy with drawing or homework. "Doing this makes them feel welcome and part of our studio work environment," they say.

For Sundius and Ichiki, their dining table has become a multifaceted workhorse: "It’s a school desk for six hours of the day, then a virtual playdate space; every evening, it’s a dinner table, other times a crafting area—and so much more." This is all possible as long as there’s an intention set beforehand, and everyone cleans up after themselves. "It's been a big savior," they say. "Everyone is doing their part to respect these boundaries."

"Telephone calls and Zoom meetings in a shared, small space are distracting and loud," concedes Hale. As a solution, he says to carve out temporary defined zones. "If you can, designate a room for calls," he says, "and even take it a step further—move some clothes to transform a closet into a telephone booth." He encourages people to perceive so-called limitations as an opportunity to turn your "team" (aka family members) into a well-oiled machine that can handle any curve balls thrown their way.

Keep a Sense of Humor

Prentis Hale has a setup in his daughter’s room. Her motivational poster is tacked on the wall.

For Hale’s temporary work-from-home space, he "rented out" his daughter’s 11 foot-by-11 foot bedroom. "My laptop and iPad sit on her plywood desk, white pegboard to my right," he describes, "and there’s a wall of light gray/blue to look into when I’m not staring at a screen." But perhaps the highlight is his spirited cheerleader—a motivational cartoon poster crafted by his daughter that says "Thank the ground for catching you." In these unpredictable times, a little laughter goes a long way to keep the peace and the sanity within a small space.

Sundius and Ichiki endorse having a schedule but keeping an open mind when things go inevitably awry. "It's hard for everyone right now," they say. "Although we’ve always worked from home, we have maintained the thought that this is strange for everyone, and have tried to tend to everyone’s needs as they come up." For instance, they encourage their children to come up to them and express their issues instead of shouting: "We’re often on a call, and their screams and pleadings are now broadcasted across the nation." Overall, the duo say to be polite and patient. When in doubt, laugh, and seek out the positives. "Yep, productivity is down, but on the bright side, my cooking and drawing skills have gotten better," jokes Sundius.

Keep Your Home Tidy for the Feeling of More Space 

Something as simple as making your bed can make a small dwelling feel instantly larger and more spacious.

Hoffman says that making your bed is a small, simple act—yet an incredibly effective way in making spaces feel larger. She uses Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of tidying up because it allows her focus on elements that matter the most to her, "and reminds me to let go of everything else that’s not currently serving my well-being." 

Hale also subscribes to a spring-cleaning state of mind. "If you feel your small space is getting you down, do something about it!" he says. "This hard time could be an opportunity for the greatest spring cleaning in U.S. history, and to change the way we use and value space. Let’s not miss it."

Tolstrup and Mama say to rid yourself of things you do not need, as small spaces should be filled with joy and happiness. "Only keep quality things you love and care about," they say. "Get rid of everything else that’s not in regular use." For example, digitize your files and paperwork with a program like Adobe Scan or Genius Scan. Overall, these types of exercises are what makes living in small spaces so enriching: "It ultimately forces you to evaluate the things that are truly meaningful to you."

Related Reading:

We Asked 13 Designers to Share Their Work-From-Home Setups and Tips

Here’s How to Survive Working From Home With a Partner or Roommates

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