8 Tips and Ideas for Living and Being Productive in Small Spaces

I've always strived to organise my living space in a practical manner, so that I can both live comfortably there, and be as productive as the place allowed for. Here are some ideas from my own experience of making this work.

8 Tips and Ideas for Living and Being Productive in Small Spaces

It's far from unusual in this urbanised day and age to have people living in small spaces. It is although undesirable. And when you're involved in hobbies or work, that require you to have tools and a work space, the prospect can become daunting. What I hope I can convey, is that even if it isn't a trivial task, it shouldn't scare you to continue eveloping in your activities even if you feel like you should put them on halt while you're in the situation of fitting your life inside of a 10 sqm space.

For the majority of my life, I've lived in small spaces. Not only that, but I also was trying to be productive in those circumstances. Lots of my hobbies involve hardware and physical tools and materials, and as such require some sort of a working space as well. When you add to that, that I'd usually have flat-mates, the possibility of an uncomfortable life arises.

Now, I'm no interior designer by a long stretch, but I've always strived to organise my living space in a practical manner, so that I can both live comfortably there, and be as productive as the place allowed for. So here are some ideas from my own experience of making this work.

Fitting your stuff in the space available

1. Use the vertical space

Have you sat down recently on your chair and looked up? There's quite a bit of space between your head and the ceiling, isn't there. Arguably it's there so you have enough volume of air to breathe, but it can also be utilised for other stuff!

In the places I've lived, the ceiling was usually somewhere around 2.7 and 3m high. So usually you would have around 1m of vertical space above your head. Why would you not make use of that?

My favourite utilisation of that idea is a flat I lived in for a few years, in which my room was basically a long corridor, not wide enough to fit a desk and a bed next to each-other along the shorter wall. My solution was to get some timber, and make a crude bunk bed with a huge desk under it, so I could have light when sitting at the desk, and still be near the window when sleeping.

DIY bunk bed with a large desk under it

2. Use the geometry

In some cases your space will not perfectly cuboid. You might have weird angles, nooks and cranies, subspaces (like an open space with a small square "room" without a door in one corner). Make use of those! For example, I had this weird non-square geometry in one of my rooms, where right behind the door there was a small triangular nook. I would never go in there, because it's behind the door, and it's too small to go into anyway. So I made a storage space out of it, and as an extra, utilised the vertical aspect of the wall again.

Utilise any nooks and cranies, abnormalities in the geometry of your space

3. Use the wall space

Most kitchens, as well as work spaces I've seen in my life already do that. You would have free floor space in the middle of the room - or along one of the walls if it's too narrow, and all storage is layered along the walls - in usually at least 2 levels: ground and above-head. The level of the eyes is usually kept empty. This gives the illusion of more free space, and allows the mind to rest and not feel overwhelmed.

In fact a good way to increase the effect of this illusion, is the use of mirrors!

If you have mirrors along the walls at eye-level, you will feel like there's much more space around you. It might not be the best thing in a bedroom for example, but that's up to personal taste.

And I suggest you use the walls everywhere you find it useful. And not just one wall! If your space allows it, use more walls for storage. For example in one place I lived in, we had 4 people sharing the same kitchen. So we hung cupboards along the 2 larger walls, split one of the walls into 4 quadrants, and kept the other one shared. And so, everybody had their own little space for their stuff while still having access to a shared set of cupbards.

But depending on the use-case you might have storage along the whole height of the wall. If you need the shelves to be shallow and open, easily accessible, it's much easier to have them top to bottom. Think bookshelves or spice racks.

When it comes to wall space, one of the often overlooked places where that matters is the desk-area. If you need a large desk, and it's next to a wall, what's with all the space above the desk? I've done a few things with that, for example back in the day I had a little server and a computer screen hanging on the wall. For me, it was important that this space would be used, but also visually please me a bit when I looked up. That obviously is up to personal taste again.

Using the wall space above the desk. Additionally, I had the screen hanging from an adjustable cord, so I could pull it higher and watch a film while relaxing.

Another use-case of that is making the desk into more of a workbench, with shelves or other storage space right above your head, where you can easily access small tools or appliances that you need.

Using your stuff

4. Divide your space into activity-based spaces

This is extremely important when you're using one physical space for more than one purpose. In my opinion it's extremely important to have your space split into areas for different activities. For example if you like watching videos on the computer on your desk, and you also use your desk for work, you are much more likely to procrastinate the heck out of your day! So have barriers!

If you have walls between your spaces, that's perfect. In case you don't though, there are some tricks.

One classic way is to have a physical barrier between areas for different activities - for example have a small paper paravan, or simply organise your furniture into areas based on whatever you want to do there. But I've found that I deal with procrastination better in a slightly different way, namely - organise your space in a way that you need to make a small yet significant adjustment when you switch modes. Something that you can do as a ritual.

5. Have things move around

Let's say you have a hobby of doing electronics. You have a small cupbard under your desk with your soldering iron and whatnot, and you usually do it on your desk. You also have a small table next to one of your walls, that you usually just put random junk on, or eat lunch on.

But because your desk is also where you read blogs and watch videos, and maybe even work, you don't feel like distracting yourself with your hobby. Switching to soldering seems like too much work. Now you feel bad for procrastinating, but just can't stop yourself from it. All you really need is to get out of that environment for a second!

So if you had your little table and your cupbard be on wheels, now you can move them both to the middle of the room, quite drastically changing the layout of your room, and taking a small easy step towards not sitting on the desk and procrastinating. All of a sudden you feel committed to actually doing some soldering, because you've already moved stuff around!

That's the power of having modular furniture in your small space!

Living with others

I've had the opportunity to not only live in a tiny place, but to share it with multiple flat-mates. Even though the benefits of living with people certainly can be big - I think that you have to really prepare and talk through some aspects of that with your flat-mates-to-be before committing to it.

6. Designate a communal place

If you're gonna live with other people, and really wanna see benefits from it, it's a given that you're going to spend time together. But also there will be times when you don't want to be intruded upon. So, most definitely designate a room or a part of a room, where you can come together and spend time without disturbing anyone who doesn't want it at the time.

In one of the places I lived, we didn't have a spare room for a living room, so we just organised part of the kitchen into a communal place. In fact that was a large decision factor for us - have a big enough kitchen. And even though at first glance, the flat we got in the end had a smaller than desirable kitchen, we still found a way to make it work. We built our own table and benches, to maximise the used area, and in this way kept the individual rooms to invite-only status. In my experience that worked absolutely great.

7. Split communal areas into shared and private

Even though anything outside of the bedrooms of a place might be designated as shared space, you might still need part of that space for your own needs. Personal food storage in the kitchen, a coat-hanger, shoes storage, any tools or appliances that you don't want to only keep to yourself, but still consider yours, and so on. Talk these through with your flat-mates! There's no reason why you should feel annoyed because somebody took your screwdriver from the shared tools, and didn't know better than not putting it back in the same spot, or put their shoes on your shelf of the shoes cabinet. Split the fridge into personal and public shelves, and ask for permission to take something from somebody's shelf. These are all common-sense communication-based objectives, that you shouldn't skip!

8. Talk about noise, lights, schedules and maintenance

Some people work night-shifts, some people don't like the lights in the corridor to be on during the night. There's many details, that for each one's sanity should be communicated clearly and in advance, so as to keep everybody happy.

But there's also the issue of cleaning and maintaining the shared areas. I consider myself a somewhat messy person. Things sometimes even get out of control until I do something about it. But my personal rule to myself is to always clean after myself outside of my private areas. I keep the mess to my own room. I think that this is an easier promise to oneself to keep rather than just "be less messy".

And when it comes to regular cleaning and organising, there are quite a few methods of doing that in a shared place. Just discuss it with your flat-mates, choose one and keep to it. Maybe improve it over time. As you adjust to each-other it will likely become a no-brainer over time, and you won't even think about it.

Conclusion

We as humans tend to prefer larger spaces around us. We like spacious. But urbanisation and over-population takes that away from us more and more so over time. But when it comes to living spaces, we've lived in tiny homes for generations.

Nowadays though, more and more people start working from home, or just can't afford renting large-enough work spaces for their work. This should not be a miserable experience though. Working and living in small spaces is a challenge, one which can and should be met with some thought and planning in advance. It's as situation that can be made comfortable with minimal sacrifices.

And in some cases people just have hobbies that are hard to find a space for. This can sometimes make people choose to abandon their hobbies when forced to change their living situation. In reality though, with some foresight and by applying some rules and concepts to ourselves and the people around us, we can and should make it work.