A to-do list as long as I am tall? Nothing to worry about. We’ve got this!
About the Episode:
We’ve been working on our turn-of-the-century farmhouse for the better part of 4 years and done all the work ourselves. Even when we were both working outside the house 9-to-5, we were still doing demo and renovation projects at night and on weekends. Neither of us had ever done something on this scale before! But we got it done. Here’s how!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- How we invented 30 Minutes of House for days when we just couldn’t
- Why long and specific lists shouldn’t intimidate you
- Why planning day and execution day are never on the SAME day
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
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Hello and welcome to The Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that could go on in our turn of the century Vernacular Farmhouse. I’m your host Paige, as usual. And today we’re going to talk about a little bit of renovation stuff. So if you’ve been following along you know it’s no secret that we have been renovating this house top to bottom for pretty much the last four years and it’s been an adventure.We’ll just put it that way. But the biggest thing is that we’ve been renovating this while both working more or less full-time.
So, for the first three years or so we were working full-time outside the home. And then I left to work on this social media business, and that’s still a decently full-time job. So, renovation isn’t our full-time gig. We do it in the weekends and the evenings in between other things that we’re doing. And even still we have managed to make very good progress. We average about four to six months a room, depending on what the room is. And that includes demoling everything completely down to the studs, fixing any structural issues and then rebuilding it all back up to be glorious and beautiful.
So today I want to talk about what we do to keep our projects moving. Because after four years we have definitely learned what works for us and what doesn’t. So, really, there are only two things. We use two different techniques to keep our projects moving and keep us on track. And that has really served us well. In the first roughly three and a half years we completed the entire first floor, which is seven rooms. And then hopefully within the next year or two we will complete the upstairs. So, as a little bit of background, I do want to talk about our renovation journey because we were fairly inexperienced when we moved here.
For me personally, I grew up in a 100 year old farmhouse that needed a lot of work and my parents were always doing some crazy project. There was one very memorable year, where the day after Christmas. So we had just opened everything, kind of that sleepy day after Christmas feeling and my parents took a circular saw to one of the walls in the house and cut a doorway where there hadn’t been a doorway before.
And growing up we were just always around while my parents were doing crazy DIY activities. And so to me, that was a very normal thing to do. Like the idea of paying someone to come paint your house or hang drywall, it just wasn’t a thing because my parents did so much of it themselves.
So even though I didn’t really have any specific experience with skills like mudding drywall or sanding floors, I was familiar with, well, I guess, we’ll just do it ourselves mentality. And that, I think, prepared me decently well for this house. Now, my husband, on the other hand, he was a lot more involved with more building type renovation things.
Still nothing quite to the extent of what we are doing, but he grew up working on cars. So he was familiar with working with his hands. He helped build some porches. So he was familiar with framing and he’s very, very much of a hands on person and a self-starter and very much a self learner.
So both of us had this excitement and this hunger to try out new things and to learn new things and to do things ourselves, which I think has really served us in this house. Even still though, I don’t think either of us were prepared for just how much went into this house. I ask my husband sometimes, if we knew what we knew now about this house, would we buy it again? And it’s like, “I don’t know. I don’t regret doing anything in this house because this house is my soulmate and I don’t ever want to leave, but I don’t know that I would take on a house that needed this extensive of renovation again if we were the ones doing it.” Just because it’s consumed our entire lives and weekends for the past four years.
So, we moved here, and we moved from a suburban house that had been built in 2015. And we lived there for maybe a year and a half, not very long. And that house predictably really didn’t need anything. There was nothing that needed to be done. I painted some rooms. I did my best to redecorate that house and I had the time though. I didn’t understand how to decorate it. It just didn’t talk to me the way that this house does.
So we moved from that house that really didn’t need anything to this house which was a mess. The biggest things that it needed. It had sinking foundations in the two front corners of the house. It had subflooring carpet in every single room. It had wallboard over furring strips and plaster. It had terrifying electrical. There was one point where we pulled down the walls in the study and found a nail driven clear through one of the electrical wires. And all around that nail it was like black and charred.
So that was just a house fire waiting to happen. It had abysmal plumbing. They didn’t even bother to run the plumbing in the walls. They just built walls outside of the plumbing to house it all. And it had no air conditioning. The oil tank was buried in the ground, and when we dug it up it had holes in it. So the amount of work in this house, I mean, we got it for a good price, but the price reflected how much we’ve had to do in this house. So how do you move from a house that doesn’t need anything to a house that literally needs everything with more or less no experience? How do you get started?
Well, the first thing that we did, and this was kind of the pre-stage, is that I looked everywhere I could for $0 projects. It’s no secret that renovation is expensive. It’s no secret that supplies are expensive. That whether you’re hiring it out or you’re putting in the time yourself, it costs a lot of money to fully renovate a house. And the $0 projects I found were really good to help you build your confidence without spending money.
So, some examples of $0 projects that we did first were ripping up the carpet. Ripping up the carpet, we found three quarter inch particle board subfloor that was nailed every three inches all the way around the perimeter and down the center of both boards.
And that was a horrible adventure to try to get that stuff off the floor. You couldn’t pry it directly because it was held in so tightly that the pry bar would just damage the wood underneath. So we had to end up individually pulling up the nails from the top surface. Now, as horrible as that project was, and as time consuming as it was, it was basically free.
Ripping up the carpet was free. And then doing our little technique to get the nails up on top was a matter of, I think, about a $35 tool. So if you want to talk about cost per hour of renovation experience, $0 projects are the best things that you can do that don’t cost any money.
It might make things look a little cosmetically worse, but it will build your confidence. So this is things like stripping wallpaper, pulling up carpet. One of the things I did before we did our kitchen renovation is I pulled out all the cabinets and cut them up and rearranged them into what I thought our kitchen layout would be. And this was really helpful because it let us test drive the kitchen layout before we actually got to building the kitchen.
So, to get the projects done, I think building up your confidence is a really good first step, and figuring out what you’re working with in terms of what is the condition of the house? How are things going? How are things set up? $0 projects are a really great place to start.
All of that is kind of the unofficial prep work that goes into really getting these renovations going. But at some point you’re going to need to take the kid gloves off. You’re going to need to do the real thing. You’re going to need to actually start the renovation. So how do you do it? The first thing, most important thing I swear is like, if you take nothing else away from this, lists. I know, I know, I know, whenever I say this, the immediate reaction is always, “But I’m not a list person.”
Okay. Let me explain to you why the lists are so fantastic. And, of course, if this doesn’t apply to you, that’s fine. You do you. I’m not here to try to change your entire life. But I am telling you that every time we’ve fallen off the renovation bandwagon and need to get our mojo back, these are the two things that help us.
I don’t use lists like most people use lists. I think. The key thing with these lists is to break down absolutely everything you are doing into the smallest possible unit that makes you feel comfortable. I aim for projects that are 15 to 30, 45 minutes each on the list. How we do this, is we go into the room that we’re working on and we sit down with usually a five by eight notebook. Because somehow we found that five by eight sheets of paper are just the best size for this activity.
And we look around and we start saying, “Okay, what needs to be done?” So if I was going into a room that we hadn’t touched yet, if I was going into a room that we hadn’t gutted yet, I would say, “Okay, first thing I need to do is clear the room out. Second thing I need to do is pull off the window trim.”
Now, this is where you can start to get as detailed as you want. Because if there are four windows in a room and you say, pull off window trim, what happens if you only have 10 minutes and you only get the window trim pulled off of one while you can’t cross anything off your list because nothing’s done but you still did something.
So what I tend to do is to write, “Pull trim off of north window. Pull trim off of south window. Pull trim off of hall door. Pull trim off of ceiling. Pull trim off of a closet door.” And I will take that one activity of pulling off the trim and expand it into 5, 6, 7, 8 different things. Why do we do this? It’s very, very simple. To give yourself more opportunities to reward yourself for doing the work.
If you’re going to pull the trim off anyway, and you have an hour and you knock it all out, think about how rewarded you’re going to feel if you get to go over to your to-do list and you get to cross off five things. Cross off five different things on that to do list. And if you don’t get a little bit of an accomplishment high off of that, I mean, I don’t really know what to tell you.
So that would be the first thing that was on that list that we hadn’t… Demo the room yet. We’re going to pull off the trim. So I’d write down those five things. Then in our house, typically the layers are wallboard, furring strips, which space the wallboard out, and then plaster.
So for each of the four walls in the room, I would write, pull off wallboard. Pull off furring strips. Pull off plaster. Clean up plaster. Four different things for each wall. That’s going to put 16 things on your list, but that’s 16 small chunks of the project that you can work on instead of just saying “gut the room.”
Because gutting the room is usually a 2, 3, 4, 5 day process. And I personally get very sad if I don’t feel like I’ve made any accomplishments after doing that much work. Now, the normal objection to this that I hear and why people don’t do it is because our lists end up very, very long.
We are working on a renovation upstairs right now and that list, I think, it’s six pages long or so. And so it’s about three and a half feet. And we have it hung up on one of the doorways, and we walk by it and we can see all of this stuff that we have to do. And what I usually hear from people is that, “This is overwhelming.”
That when they see how much stuff they have to do, they just get overwhelmed because how are they ever going to get it all done? And then it stresses them out and they don’t look at the list. And that’s the end of that. Which, I can’t really make you not be stressed out about a list. I don’t have that particular superpower. But I want to change your mind frame a little bit, change your perspective.
Because we have found that if we do not have a list, we do not make as much progress. We do not move as fast. And I think it’s for three reasons. One, thinking is one of the most exhausting parts of renovation. Demo is tiring. Hanging drywall is tiring. But it doesn’t give me the same kind of like, whoa, I did a lot of work today, as thinking and deciding and planning. So when you do all of that thinking, when you do all of that deciding and planning, when you think about what needs to be done ahead of time, and you put it on the list, you have front loaded all of that thinking. You’ve already done it all.
So the next time you have energy to work on your project, you can just go to the list and pick something that past you has already decided is a good idea to do. So let me just paint a picture for you. Okay. It’s Saturday morning, you are off, it’s the weekend. You get up, maybe you roll out of bed about eight o’clock or nine o’clock, you have yourself some breakfast, and at about 10 o’clock you’re ready to start working on the room or your project.
So you wander over to where your project is and you look around, and there’s tools scattered everywhere, and there’s some things half finished, and you have to say, “huh, okay, what was I working on?” And then you play back in your brain. “Okay, last time we were here, we were fixing the floor.” And so then you wander over to where you were fixing the floor.
You say, “Okay, we’ve got some boards left. We have a few more holes to fix. We have some tools here. I don’t remember exactly what we were doing. So I guess I’ll just start.” You have to do all of this thinking to figure out where to start, what you were doing, how you were doing it. And I personally think that that mental load of figuring out what to do is why it’s so hard to get these projects going.
In our experience, if we have a list, we will do the same thing. We’ll get up at 8:00 or 9:00, by 10:00 we’re ready to start working. And we know generally that we are not in the middle of something. We crossed off a complete task on the list last time we were working.
So instead of staring around the room and thinking, “Okay, what are we going to do today? Where are we going to work? What’s going to get done?” We go straight to the list and we say, “Okay, what do we feel like doing today?” It’s like, “Well, we have some time. So you want to put in a window? Sure. We can put in a window.” Or, “Well, it’s raining outside and we were going to put in a window, but it’s raining.
So we can’t do that. So what else can we do on here? Oh, we have a big hole in the ceiling that we have to patch with drywall. Should we do that instead? Yeah, that’s fine.” And it becomes less about figuring out what you need to do to keep the project moving forward, and it becomes more about picking what you want to do to move the project forward.
Because past you has already done all the thinking, telling you that this is everything that’s relevant to moving the project forward. So that’s the first reason that I heavily advocate these lists is because it gets the thinking out of the way so you can just concentrate on doing. One more example I guess would be, if you go to a grocery store with no list, you spend a lot of time thinking about, “Okay, do I need hamburger? Do I need apples? Are we out of milk? I don’t know. I guess I’ll just buy milk just in case.”
And then you get home. You’ve forgotten half the things you actually needed. You already had a gallon of milk. And now you’ve spent your time and energy and mental effort to not get the result that you want. If you go into a grocery store with a list, you know that’s everything you need, and all you’re focused on is getting through the store and getting the things on that list.
You come home, you mostly have the stuff you need. Everybody’s happy. The second reason that I think this works is because it gives you a roadmap. Now, when you’re making these lists, you don’t necessarily have to go from the start of the project to the end of the project in one go. Because a lot of times you don’t know what’s in the last half of the project because you haven’t finished the first half. So when we do this, we just go as far as we reasonably can.
If we don’t know exactly how we’re reframing a floor, we’re not going to talk about refinishing the floor yet. But when you put that mental energy into thinking as far into the future as you can manage, you’ve given yourself a roadmap, you’ve given yourself direction, you’ve given yourself steps to follow that will get you farther along your project than you are right now.
And for us, that allows for planning. So that allows us to look at our list during the week and pick up any materials that we know that we’re going to need that weekend. We can say this weekend is a weekend of insulation, so we need to make sure that we buy our insulation before Saturday so that we’re not spending half of our Saturday going to get supplies.
Or we need to make sure that we have drywall so we can put the drywall up and we’re not spending Saturday morning doing a supply run. Giving yourself a roadmap just makes it easier to actually execute on the value added activities which are the renovation. And the third thing that I think is probably one of the most helpful is that, it shrinks the tasks into manageable chunks.
These chunks are small enough that you can find a couple minutes to do them. They’re small enough that you get the reward of crossing them off your list pretty quickly. They’re small enough that you can tackle them and feel accomplished but not totally overwhelmed. It shrinks everything down into a small series of steps that you’re not sitting there and looking at the entire room feeling like we’re never going to get this done.
Now, some troubleshooting. If you don’t want to make a three foot long list because it’s too overwhelming, I can’t help you. I said that already. I’m sorry. If it’s not your thing, maybe you can figure out something else that works for you better. But I think if you try to think of it more as a list of everything that needs to be done across time, instead of everything that you need to do right now, I think it’ll help.
Second, people say, “I just can’t stick to it.” In my experience that probably means that it’s not detailed enough. We start ignoring the lists when we are doing things that we don’t get to cross off. So if I write, refinish the floors, that is a 15 step process involving standing and coating with polyurethane and standing again and coating again. And so, I’m going to have to work on that for a week without referencing my list. And that makes it easier for me to forget that it’s there and not use it. If I break that sequence of steps down to say, polyurethane coat one, sand coat one, wipe up coat one. Polyurethane coat two, sand coat two, wipe up coat two. Those are short enough that it gives me an incentive to keep going back to look at the list.
So if you find yourself making a list and then ignoring it because you just can’t seem to cross stuff off, try breaking your tasks down into smaller tasks. And then third, the one that I hear all the time is that they lose the list. And I feel you, paper tends to run away. That is why we tape our list up in a very visible location in the middle of our project. So right now it’s hanging on the doorframe between two rooms. So that every time we pass through, that’s where the list is, and we can check it and see what we need to do.
Now, the second thing that we do to really keep our project moving is to implement something called 30 minutes of house. And this was something that we started probably two or three years ago. It started as a new year’s resolution. And what we said was that, every day when we get home from work, when we’re tired, when we just want to mindlessly check out and scroll social media, we are just going to work on the house for 30 minutes.
That’s it. No more, no less. And this is why it’s really helpful to have tasks on your list that are small enough that you can accomplish them within 15 or 30 minutes. So we decided that we are just going to do it for 30 minutes. Because if we both work for 30 minutes a day, that’s two and a half hours per person of effort per working week. And then we have the weekends.
And even if that’s all we get done, that moves the project forward. That’s five hours of renovation effort that moves the project forward. And the rule was, that if you get to the end of the 30 minutes and you’re exhausted, fine, stop. You’re done. You don’t need to do anymore. You’ve done your 30 minutes now you can go space out on your phone for an hour or whatever before bed.
More often than not though, we found that just starting was the hardest part. And most nights we would end up going for an hour or two, getting lots done on the house, and making lots of little progress. And doing things on 30 minutes of house, we ended up expanding it to not just renovation things. We ended up expanding it to cleaning, to laundry, to anything that was kind of piling up that we didn’t want to do.
We would just say, “Okay, let’s get up. We’re going to do this for 30 minutes and we’re just going to go and see what we can get done.” And we found that we would make so much progress, especially when we had a list that had tons of itty bitty tasks on it. If you could work for an hour and cross three things off the list, for both of us that is such a reward and that feels so good that we would feel like we earned the relaxation for the night. And this is why I am such a big fan of these lists and why I talk about them all the time because it has helped us move our project forward and get things done so much more quickly than we ever thought we could.
In any project or anything that you’re doing, momentum is really the hardest thing to build. It’s really, really hard to get something going. And it’s relatively easy to keep it going, but getting that momentum initially so that you can do the projects reliably and things are moving forward quickly, that is the hardest thing to build.
The point of these two things, these extremely detailed lists, and this 30 minutes of house concept, are to give you an easy way to build momentum. That’s been our experience with this process. Is that, when we are stalled, when we are not making progress, it’s because we don’t have a list and we’re not dedicating a small amount of time every day to it.
The point of the list is to get the tasks small enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed at the thought of doing one of them. And that they are small enough that you can fit them into whatever amount of time that you’ve decided that you can allocate every day toward your project. We had a couple months of a serious lull in the project where we just didn’t really get anything done, and we were just dragging our feet, and it was really hard, and we eventually realized it was because we didn’t have a list. And so we sat down one day, and I would say, make this its own day. Don’t try to work and do the list on the same day because making the list tends to take a lot of mental energy.
But we sat down, we made our huge list, it was like three and a half feet long. It took us an hour. And ever since then, we have been able to continuously and reliably make progress on our renovation just because we have that thinking out of the way, we have that structure in place. And everything has just gone a lot more smoothly since then.
So, I hope this was helpful. This is pretty much our entire secret, I would say, of how we get the house done, is we just make sure the projects are laid out and planned out in a way that we can get tiny chunks of them done whenever. And we make sure to do them with some kind of consistency.
And between those two things, we’ve accomplished quite a lot in a short period of time. So I hope that was helpful for you. I hope that maybe gave you a little bit of an insight into how to maybe accomplish some projects in your own life. I very much appreciate you listening and hanging out with me and I will see you next time.