Build Your Home Sanctuary

Use these tips to create a relaxing, restful home from getting organized to minimalist home décor.

houseplants

Studies show that houseplants improve concentration and promote healing.

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We all want our homes to be restful retreats where we can get away from the rush of the world, center ourselves and find serenity. Whether we’re working in a fast-paced environment, volunteering in our communities, raising kids or supporting family members, most of us have daily stresses, and we need to find ways to relax and recharge so we can be our most effective.

But achieving deep relaxation can be difficult if you don’t have a haven from day-to-day chaos. If you walk into a home that presents its own lengthy to-do list the minute you walk in the door, it’s hard to let the worries of the world melt away. Fortunately, we are all masters of our domain, and we have the power to change our surroundings and our habits to make sure we do have a restful retreat, a well-feathered nest where we can curl up, feel safe and allow ourselves to recharge.

Everyone’s idea of a serene environment is a little different, but we hope you’ll use the tips and ideas throughout this article as a starting point for considering—and manifesting—what makes a truly replenishing home for you.

Cleaning & Decluttering

SET A CLEANING ROUTINE: Wouldn’t it be nice to walk into a tidy home every day, rather than one with a sink full of dishes, clothes strewn about and mail stacked on the table? It’s not glamorous, but setting a cleaning routine is the best way to keep chores from feeling overwhelming. Daily tidying habits also keep us from being forced to spend a whole day cleaning every weekend. Set a time limit for daily tasks—20 to 30 minutes is usually sufficient—and list the chores that need to be done daily, weekly and monthly. Assign daily tasks throughout the week and divvy out the weekly and monthly ones, too. Then set aside 20 or 30 minutes for daily chores and enjoy getting in the habit of living in a perpetually clean home. You can find many sample weekly cleaning schedules online; the only important thing is that your schedule works for you.

GET RID OF WHAT YOU DON'T LOVE: Clutter makes a home feel chaotic and makes cleaning more difficult. We all have our own preferences in terms of minimalism versus décor/displayed items, but one thing is true for everyone: It’s not worth it to keep things we don’t love. Something as simple as drinking your morning coffee is much more enjoyable when you can grab a handmade mug you adore rather than whatever cup you ended up with from a gas station three years ago. Donate things you don’t really like and keep only the possessions that make you smile.

ELIMINATE CLUTTER STATIONS: Daily life seems to produce a few places especially prone to gathering clutter. Maybe it’s your dining room table, your front entry or the desk in your bedroom. First, take a week to do nothing but observe. What ends up tossed in these clutter zones and why? Is it because you don’t have a place where these things belong (after all, hanging a jacket on a coat rack is just as easy as tossing it on the table)? Is it because you need to implement a get-home routine or checklist (before the TV turns on, shoes must be put away, backpacks hung in rooms and any school forms or paperwork handled)? First figure out what’s stacking up, then figure out how to create an easy way to make sure it gets put away.

Cord Corral. In any room, a tangle of cords feels chaotic. Lots of great products can help you eliminate cord clutter and make your office, dining room or living room a little less cord-crazy. Visit The Container Store and search “cords” for numerous options.

Delightful Décor

TEXTURE TIPS: Incorporating a variety of textures is a designer trick to both create visual interest and invoke calm. Choose a combination of natural fabrics and materials to help create a home environment that is interesting, natural and soothing. Consider nubby hemp or burlap fabrics, smooth polished wood or stone, plush rugs, woven baskets and earthy pottery. Whenever possible, eschew manmade materials such as plastic, vinyl and fiberboard in favor of textures derived from nature: wood, stone, clay, paper and cloth.

CHOOSE THINGS YOU LOVE: My neighbor is an artist and a potter, and he makes beautiful handcrafted mugs. Last year I started collecting these, which I now use for coffee, tea and wine rather than the cheapo plain glasses I got from some big box store. Now every time I drink my tea, I can admire the little nuances in shape and color, the feel of the clay, the way the glaze dripped naturally down the side before it was fired. This adds an extra layer of dimension to my experience, making it more enjoyable. Choosing items we love—and owning fewer items—is a way to insert a level of mindfulness into our possessions, helping us slow down and take notice of the joy in everyday moments.

LINENS AS DECOR: Linens feel and look soft and comforting, and incorporating them into our homes as décor accomplishes several things: First, we’re using functional décor, meaning we don’t have to waste storage space stashing these useful items, and we don’t need to spend money on other décor. Second, it gives a very good reason to invest in quality linens, which will make every day feel more luxurious. In the bathroom, a basket or set of shelves with beautiful rolled towels will help it feel spa-like and ensure you ditch the six ratty, mismatched towels in favor of a set of matching towels you chose because you love how they look and feel. In guest bedrooms, a set of nice towels and extra blankets looks beautiful stacked in a chest, basket or wardrobe, and helps guests feel they have everything they need.

The Color of Calm. Choosing colors we find calming is an obvious choice when it comes to cultivating serenity at home. Check out our feature on selecting colors.

SOOTHE THE TRANSITIONS: Walking out of a room with pale and neutral colors and natural fabrics and into a midcentury modern one filled with bold colors and industrial textures can be jarring. Of course your entire home doesn’t need to match, but consider continuity and flow as you move from one space to the next. Incorporating a few similar colors and textures from room to room can achieve cohesion and help it feel like the whole space moves together.

Please Your Senses

LOTS OF PLANTS: Studies have found that being around houseplants can improve everything from concentration and memory to recovery from illness or surgery. Research also shows that children who spend time around plants experience enhanced learning abilities. Keep lots of plants in the house and you will reap many benefits. For a list of houseplants that anyone can grow, read The Room-by-Room Guide to Houseplants.

IN BLOOM: Did you know that having fresh-cut flowers in the house is scientifically proven to increase feelings of compassion and kindness; reduce anxieties and worry; and boost energy and happiness? That’s all according to a behavioral research study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. Grow your own flowers to pluck for fresh weekly bouquets, or get in the habit of buying a bunch from your farmers market. When it’s not the height of flower season, replace your fresh bouquet with seasonal items from nature—for example, an evergreen bough, a sprig of holly or a sculptural branch in a clay pot.

BRING OUTDOORS IN: Making our homes feel connected with the outdoors, even when we’re inside, is one of the best things we can do to bring a sense of calm into a space. If you’re building or remodeling, consider folding walls that open spaces to the outdoors; corner windows, a Frank Lloyd Wright technique to help create the illusion of being part of the scenery; covered patios and decks; and outdoor rooms that mirror indoor ones. If you’re not making major changes, you can still enhance your interior’s connection with the outdoors: Hang eye-catching items within view of your windows to draw your eye outdoors—think a brightly colored bird feeder, an ethereal solar lantern or a brightly painted garden bench; decorate inside with potted versions of plants in your garden to help create continuity between indoors and out; and decorate with items from nature—e. g. a bowl of rocks collected from trips you’ve taken or a set of bud vases filled with interesting twigs or feathers.

WATER WAYS: Science has found that the sounds of water really do calm the mind, thanks to our brain’s interpretation of them as a “non-threat,” which it can use to block out alarming noises. Especially if you live somewhere like an urban apartment where noise pollution is hard to avoid, consider bringing the sound of water into your home to mask jarring noises and increase calm. Of course you can simply play the sound of water, but incorporating real water can be more soothing—and can help maintain natural humidity indoors, too. A variety of stores offer free-standing fountains that range in price from $30 to hundreds of dollars. Visit Wayfair and search “indoor fountains” for several lovely options.

"WELCOME HOME" SCENT: One beautiful way to welcome ourselves home and instantly signal our brains to relax is to create a “welcome home” scent. Choose some of your favorite scents, then put them in a reed diffuser or a bowl of potpourri set just inside the door. As you walk in and smell your home’s signature fragrance, you’ll feel the first sensations of serenity wash over you. Refresh diffusers or potpourri monthly.

ESSENTIAL OIL DIFFUSER: A calming scent can instantly relax the mind and lift the spirits. We have several good options when it comes to scenting our homes—but be sure to avoid synthetic fragrances (air sprays, plug-ins, etc.) as these contain irritating and potentially carcinogenic chemical ingredients. Instead, use the scents of nature. One of the easiest ways is to combine 20 to 30 drops of essential oils in a spray bottle, fill it with water and a dash of witch hazel, and spray as desired. If you wish to infuse your whole home with scent, consider electric, candle- or reed-based essential oil diffusers, easy to find online or in health-food stores.

NATURE SOUNDS: According to a recent study by researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, playing nature sounds in offices boosts mood and improves cognitive abilities. Harness those feelings at home, too, with the sounds of nature. Of course you could pipe in nature sounds, but at home you might be able to enjoy the real thing. A few ideas: Open windows; plant rustling tall native grasses near windows; attract birds with feeders or birdhouses; and install water features near windows.

CLEAN WITH SPA SCENTS: Remember those old Pine-Sol commercials that said the smell of Pine-Sol was the smell of clean? We quickly come to associate the scents of cleaning products with cleanliness. Of course today we know that the chemical fragrances of commercial cleaners aren’t good for us. Instead, invoke a sense of cleanliness by using spa scents when you clean. A mix of lavender and peppermint is a good fit for me, but you could use whatever scent you like. Mix a few drops of essential oil with white vinegar and hot water in a bucket, then use it to mop the floors. Your whole house will smell like a day at the spa.

Light It Right

LET IN THE SUN: Sunlight makes any home cheerier, and getting plenty of light throughout the day helps align our circadian rhythms, making it easier to feel energetic during the day and get high-quality sleep at night. Of course opening windows and shutting off electric lights during the day is the first step, but a few other ideas might also help brighten your home. If privacy is a concern, opt for translucent shades or curtains that hide details but let in light. Also consider the use of mirrors in your décor—interior designers use this trick all the time. An appropriately placed mirror can help bounce sunshine into dark corners. You might also consider tubular skylights, less expensive skylights that funnel sunlight into specific areas. If you’re remodeling or building, try clerestory windows, high-set windows that admit light but don’t affect privacy.

THE RIGHT LIGHTS: When it comes to lighting our homes at night, the lights we choose can make a big difference. Blue-toned lights are the most invigorating, making them a poor choice for a relaxing evening atmosphere. Instead, at night try lights with pink or red undertones, which are more soothing. Some studies have found that wearing blue-blocking sunglasses indoors at night impedes the capacity of bright light to suppress melatonin production, which interferes with quality sleep.

Check These Out. Some lights let you control the color yourself. Philips Hue lights are energy-efficient LEDs that can be made any color, dimmed electronically and turned on remotely.

EMBRACE FIRELIGHT: We didn’t evolve with electric lights, and before the days of Thomas Edison, we relaxed at home to the soothing light of fire. It’s old-fashioned, but you might be surprised at the instant calm you feel when you let candles and lanterns replace bright lights and overhead glare as you relax in the evening. Try listening to music, chatting, singing songs, taking a bath, drinking tea or eating dinner under the flicker of firelight. You might never go back.