Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Dear Maya,

I am a first time homeowner and currently having some major renovations done. I need to figure out paint options for all rooms including the bathrooms and kitchen, and I have to pick out fixtures, tiles and flooring!!

I generally love all things about home decor and renovations, but I am feeling overwhelmed because I have to make all these decisions so fast! I am familiar with the website Houzz and I can spend hours searching that website! But I need to start making some decisions ASAP. Any advice on how to get this project under control?

I want to make sure I have considered all options and I feel a bit overwhelmed making these “big” decisions!

Dear Harried Homemaker,

I can relate to your issue 100%.  When I gave my 92-year-old house a MAJOR facelift, the process was so stressful that I checked myself into a mindfulness-based stress-reduction course.

Decision fatigue is real.   The mental work of being “the decider” on every little detail of your project takes a toll.  Studies have shown that each cumulative choice (in life, not just renovation) literally drains your energy and depletes your willpower and self-control. The upshot: poor choices all around!

My best advice is to focus on the biggest, most important decisions early in the day before you’ve worn yourself out.  Do research, peruse options and consider the possibilities any time, but don’t decide anything major until you are well-rested and well-fed. 

Here are four steps to help you take charge of your home renovations.

Get Inspired

I love Houzz and created several ideabooks using its extensive online collection of interior design ideas during my renovation project.  I clipped images and jotted down brief notes on what I liked about each, such as the tile color or the light fixture shape or the cabinet style.

It’s important to scroll through images at a snappy pace so that you capture your reactions without overthinking. As your ideabooks grow, themes will emerge.  For example, I clipped several photos of kitchens with white cabinets, marble countertops and wood islands.   They illustrated a preference for bright, airy kitchens that I hadn’t articulated in words yet.

The inspiration shots give you something concrete to share with contractors and vendors.  This is extremely valuable, especially if you don’t speak their language and don’t have an interior designer or other intermediary to interpret for you.

Clarify Priorities

When it comes time to make specific fixture, flooring and paint color choices, you want to focus your best energy on the highest impact areas.  This is easier said than done.

For me, the kitchen was huge.  It was the largest, most expensive part of the renovation.  Yet amid the fast-paced project, those decisions got jumbled in with all of the rest in my mind.

Luckily, I worked with a great contractor who pulled me aside at one point and asked me to consider some of my decisions more carefully.  He said that I was largely going to judge the success or failure of the entire renovation on the strength of that one room so I should take the time to get it how I wanted it, even if it meant lengthening my original timeline.

He was absolutely correct and I appreciated his candor.  It prompted me to slow down and redirect my focus to that particular space above all others.

I recommend that you do the same.  Recognize that you have 1,001 decisions to make and that some are way more important than others.  Then act accordingly–think about that space early in the day before a barrage of low-grade decisions cloud your judgment.

List and Rank Choices

You also have to prioritize decision-making within rooms.  The biggest, most permanent decisions should be made first.  Then work your way down to the minute details. My ranking:

  1. Flooring
  2. Cabinetry
  3. Lighting
  4. Hardware
  5. Paint

The point is that a particular paint color or other relatively minor decision shouldn’t be driving your renovation. Paint can easily be redone if you change your mind.  Tile, not so much.  Work to keep everything in proper perspective.

Of course, this process isn’t as linear as my description suggests.  There is interplay among the various elements and they can’t be viewed in total isolation from one another.

Your inspiration photos can help you sense an overall vibe and color palette.  But you have to find corollaries that suit your space and budget.  Order samples so that you can physically layer them together in a 3D collage to ensure that they mesh.

If something doesn’t feel right, tweak it until it works for you. Remember, you’ve got to live with these choices.

Write Decisions Down

It’s not enough to rank things in your head and think that you’re done.  Too much stuff is swirling in your mind already.  Take a load off by writing down what you’re thinking and what you’ve decided.

Use these questions as prompts and think up some of your own:

  • What room in this house is most important to me and why?
  • What is the room’s function?
  • What does it need to inspire, enable or support in your life?
  • What mood or emotions do I want it to evoke when I enter?
  • What kinds of materials, textures and colors would support both the function and the atmosphere you want?

As you ask yourself similar questions about each space within the project, write down your responses.  Then, in a separate document, start listing the specific design decisions you’ve made and why.

Both notes will help you stand firm in your decisions.  You’ll no longer be able to change your mind on a whim.  You’ll have to justify the change to yourself by making an argument against your previous choice.  Rationales could include a budget consideration or an introduction to a new material that better suits your purpose.

Writing things down also acts as a safeguard against inevitable lapses of memory, attention and thoroughness.

Congratulations and best of luck outfitting the house of your dreams!

Readers: If you’ve done any renovations or redecorating, help her out!  Please scroll down to post other thoughts and suggestions below.