We're so thrilled to introduce you to Erin Boyle, our Guest Home and Living Editor for April, just in time for spring cleaning season. Erin is the writer and photographer behind Reading My Tea Leaves, the author of Simple Matters, and a self-described minimalist who has mastered the art of living well in a small space, family and all. Below, she shares her tips and wisdom on a more mindful approach to grocery shopping, simplified daily routines, and parenting sans piles of baby gear -- showing us that sometimes, less really is more.
When I moved into a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, I started a series on my blog that I called Life in a Tiny Apartment. It was framed as a numbered list of survival tips for navigating life in a small space. The response to the column was pretty remarkable. So many people came out of the woodwork to say that they were thinking about, or struggling with, or feeling triumphant in their own small spaces. But I also started to receive a lot of questions. In so many different ways, people were asking the same thing, which was: How can I live more simply? Some were seeking simplicity because of the restrictions of a limited square footage, while others were wrestling with clutter in their much larger spaces. Nearly everyone was overwhelmed by the sheer number of available options for any single home-related question. In the end, the book couldn’t possibly have all the answers, but it does have a healthy dose of encouragement. It’s a little manifesto to root people on in their own quest for a simpler way of doing things.
Simple Matters covers everything from purging "Redundancies" and "Unnecessaries" to meal planning. Can you share five of your favorite suggestions for those interested in paring down, quieting the noise and creating more time and space in their lives?
The specifics here will be really different for different people, but on a holistic level, I think that a lot of simplifying can be helped by adopting a few simple ideas:
1. Stop shopping. Not forever. Just for awhile. Give yourself time to think about what you already have before adding anything new to the pile.
2. Enjoy what you have: It sounds so obvious, but there’s such an abundance of choice—and we’re so constantly bombarded with new options—it can be a challenge to sit back and be grateful for what we have. When I first began my blog in 2009, I started a series designed to do this very thing. My Week in Objects was a way for me to take account of what I had, what I was grateful for, and why.
3. Time travel: We’ve made a lot of advances in the past hundred years or so, and there are a lot of reasons to be thankful for the moment that we live in. But when it comes to our consumer choices and general accumulation of stuff, the explosion of options can be overwhelming. It doesn’t work perfectly in every scenario, but I like to look toward the past for a bit of simplicity inspiration. Overwhelmed by the ingredients lists on food in the grocery store? Time travel. Pick up tomatoes, onion, cheese, pasta, and basil and turn that into a meal. Can’t choose between blinking coffee machines? Go old-school with a pour-over or French press.
4. Adopt a new habit: I’m forever saying this, but it’s really true. Sometimes you have to add something to your routine in order to simplify it. Maybe it’s setting out breakfast supplies the night before; or taking a quiet walk in the morning before work; or committing to reading from a book for ten minutes before going to sleep each night. Whatever it is, these little steps go such a long way toward feeling in control of your life and allowing yourself the time to enjoy it.
5. Opt for experiences: We’re told over and over again that experiences are more fulfilling than things, but it can be hard to remember. Lately I’ve been comparing the cost of a potential new purchase to the relative cost of a plane ticket. “That dress? It costs half the amount it would take to get me to California!” “That cocktail? 1/10 of a night in an amazing Airbnb.” It helps me to prioritize my spending and save up for something fun.
By many standards your space is small at 500 sq ft, and yet you comfortably house a family of three. What are common misconceptions about having a small apartment?
I think there are major advantages to living in a small space with kids. Everything is necessarily concentrated in one space. There’s no climbing up and down stairs, chasing down little guys on a mission. We never needed baby monitors or playpens or baby gates. Sometimes you feel cramped, for sure, but generally I think small spaces with kids are fun and, even, handy!
We love your advice on mess, and how you remind us that we are all in "control of [our] space". When did you realize this was true in your own life, and how has it empowered the acquisition process in your own home?
I think I really started to be careful about my space when I went to college and had a room of my own. I had a room of my own for much of my childhood, but I’d also had a whole house to roam around in. In college, my world expanded at the same time that it shrunk. For the first time I felt like I had a space that I could make my own, but it was also a tiny space with cinderblock. A dorm room is a bedroom, office, kitchen, and living room all wrapped into one. I started paying careful attention to what I brought inside, how I kept my space, and what worked best where. My room became like a little sanctuary for me. (Yes: I’m a Cancer.)
Your thoughts on babies (from the care to what you need) are refreshing and, honestly, music to our ears. Most of the mothers we know embrace a more minimal approach with their second babes, but only after learning what is really needed the first time around. Was the decision to limit toys and gear dictated by your space, your philosophy or both?
For me this was definitely a question of philosophy (though the small space was a super convenient way of explaining my hope (and need!) for a pared down “nursery”). The truth is, I think that a lot of parents get overwhelmed by the influx of baby gear regardless of the size of their home. I wanted to be mindful about the impact that having a child would have on our home, but also on the environment. We live on a crowded planet with limited resources and I think it’s nice for new parents to adopt a philosophy of less is more.
To go a step further, I think that having less baby gear can actually make new parents feel more empowered. Without too much stuff clamoring for your attention you have the space to acknowledge your own skills and to watch your baby learn and grow. I think it’s easy to lose some of that joy when we’re bombarded with stuff that’s meant to fix things. We forget how much we already know and how much we have to offer these tiny people in our care, regardless of whether we also have the latest bit of gear.
What few children's books rotate through Faye's bookshelf?
Books are something that we actually have quite a few of for Faye. We only keep favorites in the house for long—but we have two big crates worth of favorites right now. This Is Sadie, The Moon is Going to Addy’s House, and Madeline are huge hits at bedtime these days.
We’re big fans of having a few cherished words and phrases to get us through our days. Do you have a mantra you live by?
I love the line from Mary Oliver: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” It’s so often quoted that it’s become a bit of a cliché, but I’m okay with that. It sums up so much of what I try to do with my life and with my work. She just gets it.
This is a space where we celebrate women who live for big successes, simple pleasures and everything in between. Tell us: who are the everyday icons in your life?
These days I’m inspired by any woman who is unapologetic about her career.
p.s. If Erin leaves you inspired to brighten up your home, this DIY hanging plant is a perfect way to add a breath of fresh air to small quarters.