Ronda Kaysen is a New York Times columnist, where she writes for the Sunday Real Estate Section. I got to know her (though we’ve never actually met in person), because we’re both very interested in the idea of home, and how home can influence our happiness. I’ve talked to her about my books Outer Order, Inner Calm and Happier at Home.
Now Ronda is also the co-author of The New York Times Right at Home: How to Buy, Decorate, Organize and Maintain Your Space.
For the past few weeks, she, like millions of other Americans, has been social distancing at home with her family during the coronavirus pandemic.
I talked to Ronda to find out what an expert in home organizing and decor does with her days at home. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say about happiness, habits, and outer order.
Gretchen: Since you’ve been social distancing at home, what’s a simple activity that’s helped you feel happier and healthier during this time?
Ronda: Like so many people, I have been struggling to stay calm, positive and focused at a time when my daily routine has been completely upended. I can’t control what’s happening around me, but I can control my immediate environment. So, I’ve spent a lot of time organizing, and decluttering. It may sound small, but by clearing out my office bookshelf and my desk, I feel less overwhelmed by the work that’s in front of me.
Every day, I take on one small tidying task and complete it. I’ve been focusing on projects that will help our home work better for our family in this moment. On Sunday, I helped my daughter sort through her dress-up bin. The items in good condition that she no longer used went into a bag we set aside for charity. The rest we’ll use for our evening family improv games, which have become a nightly ritual while we’re sheltering here.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness comes in small packages. At 18, I wanted to be a travel writer and fly around the globe, in search of great adventure. It’s ironic that I ended up writing about homes, instead. But it also makes sense to me. I’ve discovered that my husband’s homemade apple pie is basically the best thing in the world, and I can have it without going anywhere.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
I’ve always admired people with great style, or a natural ability to stay organized. Years ago, I had a friend who had this incredible home filing system with printed labels and color coded folders. I was so impressed. I’ve learned through years of reporting and interviewing experts that these are learned skills, yet few of us ever learn them.
I’ve found that readers gravitate toward practical information—they want to know how to shape their home environment in a way that makes sense to them. It’s ok to have a space that feels welcoming, calming and reflects who you are—and it’s not an impossible goal, either. These are valuable skills to learn, especially now that we are spending so much time hunkering down, and our homes are literally protective cocoons in uncertain times.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I never leave a pile of clothes on the chair in my bedroom anymore, or almost never (I still have bad days). A home organizer I interviewed once told me that the secret to breaking that habit was to get undressed in front of your open closet. With the closet right there, you have no excuse but to put your clothes away. After doing this for a while it occurred to me that this new habit is actually less work—I no longer have to hang up a week’s worth of clothes on Saturday.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Yes. Stress. If I’ve overscheduled my week, my good habits go out the window. But I try to go easy on myself. Tomorrow is another day. The work will get done.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
I’m not sure if it’s a motto. But I am a strong believer that we should all be our own biggest champions. If your body is tired, give it rest. If you need to slow down, listen to yourself. This is true especially now. These are difficult times. We are worried about our physical health and our financial wellbeing. We should take care of ourselves. I do firmly believe that part of that should involve creating a space for you and your family at home that feels safe, welcoming and comfortable.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
People often think that journalists have an “angle” or we come to a story with our mind already set. But it’s the opposite. The reporting—the interviews with experts, the data, the research—drives the story. We show the reader what we find, not what we imagined to be true.
More on Ronda Kaysen.