Overcoming decorating paralysis
Illustration: Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Your dream home will never materialize if your design schemes remain imaginary. Get going with this four-point, stop-putting-it-off plan.
Here's how you know you've got a problem: Months, maybe even years, after moving into your home, you still have to talk people through it. Sure, in your mind things may be nicely arranged, but that ideal bears little resemblance to three-dimensional reality. So you say things like this:

  • To the pizza delivery guy: "Sorry you have to step over the bicycles; they're only there until I get this stuff organized..."

  • To your in-laws: "This'll look a lot better with hardwood floors, of course. And we want to knock out a wall."

  • To a friend: "I wish that chair were more comfortable. It's just a placeholder until I get some pieces I really like."

Such comments are fine if you've recently sent out change-of-address cards, but some people spend their whole lives substituting apologies and descriptions for window treatments and furniture placement. It's not that they don't have great ideas; it's that acting on them is another story. If any of this sounds familiar—if you're still narrating the home of your dreams, instead of living in it—you might need a little push to get started.

First, let's figure out why taking your living room from the theoretical to the actual seems so daunting. The cause of almost all decorating paralysis can be summed up in one little word: fear. Of course, that breaks down into a host of different subspecies: the fear of doing something wrong, the fear of displaying poor taste, the fear of spending too much money, the fear that your floor will collapse under the weight of new furniture and swallow you like a bug in a Venus flytrap.

In the end, though, fear is just one more excuse to not begin. If you get cold feet when you try to start a home-improvement project, you could take the issue to a therapist and "work through it." But that'll take time—a lot of time—which is exactly the problem. I prefer quick-and-dirty approaches that allow me and my clients to overcome fear without having to dissect our various personality complexes and mental disorders. I refer, of course, to horse tranquilizers.

I wish.

Seriously, although I don't object to chemical assistance, I myself am a fake doctor (the kind with a PhD instead of an MD), so I can only prescribe behavioral strategies to break through beginners' qualms. A few of my favorites follow.
Decorating dilemma
Illustration: Rachell Sumpter
Fear-buster #1: Play make-believe

Remove the pressure of perfection and imagine that:

  • No one except you is ever going to see your space.

  • You can create any look you want, free of charge.

  • If you don't like something, you can change it instantly.
Hold this suspension of disbelief as you flip through magazines, catalogs, and design books, noticing the decor you adore when fear is absent. Then set about creating the look you love. If fear rises up, ignore it. If you can't, read on.
Fear-buster #2: Make mammoth mini-moves

Question: How did cavemen eat entire mammoths? Answer: One bite at a time. The most common source of anxiety is thinking of big jobs as monolithic events. This overwhelms most people before they move a muscle. The solution is to move a muscle. Or maybe two. Not more.

Here's how this might work if, say, the previous owners painted your home study a lovely shade of dung brown. Instead of thinking, "I've got to take a weekend and paint this room," which is a big and therefore threatening task, slice off a tiny bit of mammoth each day. Today, collect a few objects whose colors you love—flowers, fabric, a magazine photo. Tomorrow, drop by the paint store and grab some chips in the general right color range. On Day 3, prop the paint chips against the wall of the living room. Day 4, walk in and squint at the paint chips at different times of the day, observing how they look in changing light. And so on.

I'm delineating these excruciatingly small steps because that's how big projects get done. Ironically, it's the worst procrastinators who insist this is no way to proceed. "If I worked at that rate," they say in disgust, "I'd never finish!" Two years, five years, 10 years later, they're still talking people past their turd-colored walls.

The problem is, there's never time in this moment—right this moment—for a huge job. There's only time to take one small step. Tiny steps allow action to slip through the cracks in your anxiety. Take them, and things start getting done. Big things. Mammoth, you'll find, is quite tasty in small servings. Keep it around, and before you know it, you'll have eaten the whole thing.

Fear-buster #3: Apprentice yourself to a master

Nothing is scarier than the unknown, and most amateur decorators don't know exactly how to go about creating the changes they want. I certainly don't. What I do know is that I can benefit from the years of training and experience that I don't have simply by following the method of a designer I admire. For example, I love Christopher Lowell's Seven-Layer system, which you can learn in detail from his books and television demonstrations. But even the following highly abridged version can ease your fear of tackling a room makeover:

1. Start by painting the walls and ceiling.

2. Install wall-to-wall flooring.

3. Buy upholstered furniture in solid, safe colors.

4. Add accent rugs and pillows.

5. Add non-upholstered workhorse furniture (side tables, etc.).

6. Accessories a-go-go! Photos, books, lava lamps, whatever!

7. Use plants and lighting to create depth and lushness.

You can get more details on the specifics online or in a bookstore, but this list tends to get my clients started all by itself. One reason is that it helps address perhaps the most overwhelming fear of all—going broke.

Fear-buster #4: Minimize spending risks

Compounding the visceral dread of taking on large, poorly understood tasks is the mother of all fears: creating a money pit so colossal that to finish your children's rooms, you'd have to sell the children. This fear isn't unrealistic, but here's a quick, eight-word solution: If it's expensive, it's got to be neutral.

A trained designer may decide to buy that shocking fuchsia credenza, but beginners can greatly reduce their financial risk—and its paralyzing effects—by choosing expensive design elements, like big furniture and flooring, in classic designs and go-with-everything colors. Boring? By themselves, perhaps. But they'll blend with design changes from minimalist to wild and crazy—changes you can make using relatively cheap items like wallpaper or paint or pillows.

At this very moment, think of one thing, one tiny thing, you could do to change a space about which you typically explain and complain. Imitate the visuals of a designer you admire, or mimic processes like the Seven-Layer system. If you spend money, keep your risks to a minimum. Now—now—before you put this magazine down, take a step toward doing that tiny thing: It really is half the task. I'll even join you. It's so much easier to zip to the hardware store for paint chips since I put those bicycles away.


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