How to Live in a Micro-Apartment Without Going Crazy

Photo: Henrik Sorensen

In just a few weeks, the residents of New York’s first micro-apartment building can move in to their new homes. And when they say micro, they mean it: The studios at 335 East 27th Street top out at 360 square feet, with some as small as 265. That includes kitchen, bathroom, a place to sleep, a place to be when you’re not sleeping, and enough open space to maneuver between the door and the sink and the bed.

But it seems that the building picked a particularly good time to open its doors — between the tiny house movement, the TV show Tiny House Hunters, and the decluttering dogma of Marie Kondo, living smaller appears to be having something of a moment.

The term micro-apartment may be a newish one, but the concept, of course, is not: Plenty of people cram together in tight spaces out of economic necessity, and they often face dire health consequences. As Jacoba Urist has reported for The Atlantic, overcrowded homes have been linked to higher rates of substance abuse and domestic violence. But even when it’s by choice, living smaller can also have a psychological downside.

In her Atlantic story, Urist laid out some of the other ways that tiny apartments can take their toll on the mind: Spending extended amounts of time in a crowded space can be stressful; if the unit holds multiple people, the occupants – especially kids – can suffer as a result of the lack of privacy. And creative space-saving layouts, she explained, can become a source of mental fatigue:

Because micro-apartments are too small to hold basic furniture like a bed, table, and couch at the same time, residents must reconfigure their quarters throughout the day: folding down a Murphy bed, or hanging up a dining table on the wall. What might seem novel at the beginning ends up including a lot of little inconveniences, just to go to sleep or make breakfast before work. In this case, residents might eventually stop folding up their furniture every day and the space will start feeling even more constrained.

Still, there are ways to stay sane, happy, and comfortable within the confines of a crazy-small space, says environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, founder of the design firm Design With Science. For one thing, micro-units may be more affordable than regular-sized homes (not at 335 East 27th, where studios go for $2,700 — but, you know, in theory), allowing people to cut down on the number of roommates, which can come with its own psychological benefits. Take “a bunch of new college graduates who go to New York and they need five incomes to rent a three-bedroom apartment,” she says. “In those cases, having a place of your own can be a great advantage,” offering a greater sense of privacy than would otherwise be affordable.

It also offers more autonomy, another perk that can help make cramped quarters feel more appealing than than a larger space with more people. “Remind yourself that you can control what it looks like. When you get down to it, that’s a lot of what distinguishes one of these small homes from a prison cell,” she says. “When you have your own tiny apartment, you can make your own rules.” Past research has shown that employees feel more in control and less stressed when they can personalize their work space; similarly, Augustin says, there’s something soothing about having an entire living space to make your own — even if it’s not that much bigger than your office cubicle.

That being said, some ways to decorate a tiny space are more psychologically healthy than others. Plants can help small rooms feel less stuffy; cabinets that hide clutter make for a more calming setup than shelves that display it. And especially in a compact setup, Augustin says, it’s important to find the sweet spot in terms of pattern: Too many different visuals crammed into one small space can be sensory overload, but on the other end of the spectrum, a lack of visual stimulation in the form of plain-white everything can be stressful, too.

Of course, these apartments are only likely to attract a certain type in the first place, and part of dealing with the close quarters could be having the right disposition for it. The move to a tiny house or micro-apartment can also be a form of identity signaling, a tool people use to communicating something about themselves to the outside world – that they’re concerned about the environment, say, and want to cut down on their own impact by living smaller. Or that they’re a nonconformist, bucking the rules of what a “normal” living space ought to look like.

And certain personality types might be more drawn than others to living small: As long as tiny houses remain a novelty, Augustin says, people who are more open to experience — one of the “big five” personality traits — may find them especially appealing. Same goes for people who enjoy puzzles and problem-solving. In those cases, the creativity required of small layouts can seem more like a game than a frustrating hurdle.

There’s no getting around the fact that a 200-square-foot space is a 200-square-foot space, in other words, but depending on the person occupying it, those 200 square feet can feel like a cage, or they can feel like a home. No matter who you are, though, definitely don’t forget to buy a plant.

Live in a Micro-Apartment Without Going Crazy