I was surprised that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent proposal to create affordable micro-apartments (only 275 to 300 square feet each) in a city famed for its enormous price per square foot made national news.
Newscasters across America covered the story with a disdaining "as if" tone -- one brassy anchor went so far as to claim that such a space wouldn't even be big enough to store all her shoes. But ask anyone who lives in a really small space and she will tell you that it is not so terrible. In fact, if done well, it can be quite rewarding.
Small-space living is what I affectionately call "Rubik's Cube living." Just like the iconic puzzle, small spaces force you to constantly rearrange and rethink your stuff. You have to be organized and disciplined. You have to be aware of every move, and you have to maximize every corner and every inch.
I have had a lot of experience in the small-space department. For 30 years, I have lived in either dorm rooms or apartments that have ranged in size from 180 sq. ft. to 2,000 sq. ft. Although my current apartment is on the larger end of the spectrum (about 1,900 sq. ft.), it is smaller than North America's average home size (about 2,300 sq. ft.).
Unlike many of my suburban friends, I have no basement, no attic and no extra storage. I do not rotate my clothing seasonally because I have nowhere to rotate to. I do not hold on to the clothing that my kids have outgrown, and I do not keep the smaller-size dresses that I hope to fit into again one day.
When I buy something, I get rid of something. I do not buy in bulk.
I maximize both horizontal and vertical space -- my kitchen cabinets go all the way up to the ceiling, as do my closets and bookshelves. I use under-the-bed and over-the-door storage. I have boxes, bins and baskets -- all labelled so I can find what I need when I need it.
I don't let paper accumulate: My husband scans and stores important papers on Evernote, a digital archival system. We have converted to almost all electronic billing. I shred paper regularly, and when it comes to mail, I try my best to remember OHIO, which stands for "Only Handle It Once."
I hold on to the best of my kids' artwork and use it as wrapping paper or greeting cards. I do not keep magazines or catalogues -- at this point I can find whatever I need on the Internet. I do not save birthday or holiday cards unless they include a special personal message. To sum up, I constantly edit.
Sound exhausting? Well, I can tell you that small-space living is a challenge and that some days I am more disciplined than others. But if you think of it as a game, just like the Rubik's Cube, you just might find that the challenge is fun, and gratifying. Small-space living teaches you to live with less space, but also less stuff -- something that many of us could benefit from.
Elizabeth Mayhew, a Today show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of Flip! for Decorating.