Deciding how to decide: How to deal with overwhelming decisions in tiny house design.

Photo of tiny house interior bench area

How many design decisions can you spot in this photo? – Photo by Tammy Strobel

Recently at a restaurant, my partner Tammy had a difficult time deciding what she wanted to order from the menu. Her difficulty in making a choice reminded me of all of the choices that went into building and designing the tiny house. As renters, Tammy and I had always chosen the part of town we wanted to live in and let our feelings help us decide which apartment felt right. Once in the rented apartment we accepted the building as it was. We added creature comforts to fit our aesthetics and our preferences but we never had to consider detail of the infrastructure.

When designing the tiny house we were overwhelmed with choices that we had never considered before. What we focused on seemed to expand, and soon we had to ask:

Tammy quickly abandoned me. It was hard enough for her to decide what she wanted to eat in a restaurant much less deciding what furnishings would be permanently installed in our tiny home; and so it became my job to narrow down the options.

I enjoyed the challenge of design, but with the thousands of decisions that lay before me, I knew I needed help to strategize. I needed to decide how I would decide. “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz was a great intro to this topic and helped me understand Tammy’s decision paralysis. Jonah Lehrer’s book “How we decide” gave some me some fantastic insight and tools to use in making my decisions on tiny house furnishings. Both books cite research that finds:

  • The logical portion of our brain can quickly become overwhelmed once the variables (choices) exceed about seven.
  • We should encourage reliance on instinctual emotions for decision making (this mechanism can handle millions of variables)
  • It’s important to understand decision weaknesses. These emotional blind spots include things like loss aversion and normative social influence.

To simplify my choices I tried to listen to my instincts and look for examples while keeping in mind my logical needs and budget. Each area of the house had different needs so I tried to consider each area as a separate project instead of, for example, trying to find a lighting type that would be a compromise fit for everything. Also, I tried to relax a bit since perfect is the enemy of good. As humans, we adapt quickly to our surroundings and soon rarely notice the details of our routine environment. Further, nothing is permanent. If I really hated something or wanted to improve it, I could save some money and replace it the future.

I no longer take home furnishing details for granted. Next time you are in your home, a public building, or staring at tiny house examples, try to notice a few details. For instance, maybe consider which door handles were chosen and why. After going through the process of choosing tools and materials for the tiny house I can now appreciate the small details I find in other homes. I now pay attention to how things work and try to imagine the designer’s rationale. It’s a fun challenge, but Tammy still thinks I’m crazy. ;)

11 thoughts on “Deciding how to decide: How to deal with overwhelming decisions in tiny house design.

  1. We had an equally long and detailed process and the challenge was great. After all was said and done we felt we had done a tremendous, thoughtful, and successful job. Not two weeks later my wife was cooking at the stove when she turned to me and said, “why is there an outlet 6′ up the wall in that place?” THAT place is about two foot to the left of the stove and indeed 6’4″ high. I responded to her with the most confident response I could, “because that is where we wanted it.”

    To this day that plus sits empty and we still have NO IDEA what we were thinking. HAHAHAHAH

    • We installed an outlet way up high also. We installed it for our stereo that sits on a shelf just below it. It really helps keep all of the wires out of sight. :)

  2. Yes!!! This is me this week regarding my tiny. Who am i kidding.. This has been me for a while!! Just found your partners book in the local library and read it straight through. Loved it!!

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  4. Decision fatigue, what a fascinating subject! Thanks for the helpful tips. I have enjoyed many of Jonah Lehrer’s books, including How We Decide. I’ve kept up with Rowdy Kittens blog for a long time, now I’m loving your blog too! Much thanks.

  5. I’m so grateful for this post. I make so many decisions by that internal feel. I use it to assess a restaurant to dine in (intimate, modern, hip) and what to eat for dinner (spicy, light, savory, fresh) and what to wear (comfortable, active, professional). I also use it in furnishings and paint colors (cozy, inviting, warm) and fixtures (unpredictable, repurposed.) The idea of building a whole house seems absolutely overwhelming. For the last few years I’ve been studying videos and blogs for that “ideal framework” within which I can create my vision. I was looking for a place that didn’t feel small and also felt comfortable. I’ve seen too many bench seats that look more like a place to put my boots on than to curl up with a book. And while I would love a cozy reading nook up in a loft, having to climb down a ladder in the middle of the night to urinate doesn’t sit right with me. I’ve never heard anyone discuss how they make love in those confined spaces either- I want enough space that not only allows but encourages more playful and adventurous partnering than many loft spaces appear to permit. Thoughts such as these have flitted through my mind with every video- “no work surface in the kitchen” or “must have toilet waste removal system” or “need a place for my books” and “must have wall space to hang art”. While I’ve been frustrated at the lack of a clear direction, I finally realized that there is direction in the “no ways” as much as there is in the “must haves.” So I won’t have a loft bed and I will have a book shelf. I won’t have a full-sized stove but I will have a larger refrigerator. I have been nervous to tackle heating decisions because of all the options out there but I realize also that I’m drawn to off-grid opportunities and I like the natural look and feel of a flame. While these leanings initally didn’t seem like enough to go on, what I realize now is that I do have a vision of the house that is intact. These decisions have made themselves. If I take what I know I like and combine my penchant for repurposing things, I believe my tiny house can reflect both my sensibilities in design and style as well as my need for a warm and comforting environment that is functional, too. I’ve heard people talk about an 8 foot wide tiny house that “feels spacious” and I’ve had a hard time imagining how that could be. The thought of it being confining was always accompanied by an internal response of feeling constricted. It wasn’t until I saw a tiny house on a 12 foot wide trailer that I realized the problem wasn’t in the design of those earlier houses but rather my own need for more actual space. It’s ironic to me that simply four more feet are needed for me to feel less confined in a space that is still only 231 square feet!

    Thanks for writing about your journey with great honesty; your pro/con list sounds exactly like my own internal chatter and makes me realize it’s all part of the process. Hope you and your partner enjoy your new winter digs in town- I look forward to hearing how that works out for you both and how your relationship to tiny living grows as a result. :)