As I enter my second year of renovating my house and garden solo, I’ve been feeling a touch unenthused about all the decisions left to make and all the work still to go.

So, to reinvigorate myself, I’m employing what I call the “one thing” rule: try to do just one thing each day.

It could be a big thing or a small thing. Or a small thing that turns into a big thing – like the day I decided to “quickly” saw through a bit of rebar mesh and ended up hacking away for half an hour.

In this era of snap-your-fingers before-and-afters on social media, and couples smashing out major renovations in mere months, it’s easy to feel disheartened at the slower pace my solo home-ownership situation dictates.

But the “one thing” rule has consistently proven itself as a simple way I can keep moving forward without so much overwhelm.

Applying permaculture to solo renovations

When I first bought my rundown old house in 2021, it was together with a fiancé who possessed reasonable practical building skills. Our plan to make this dingy bungalow more sustainable via small-scale, affordable retrofits felt entirely doable between the two of us.

A year later, after that relationship broke down, I pulled out all the stops and bought the place myself.

But finishing the outstanding renovations solo — including creating a food-producing urban permaculture paradise in my backyard — felt like a mammoth task. Especially because I experience chronic pain, which saps my energy on flare-up days.

As a permaculture gardener, I often look to the movement’s 12 principles for guidance. It was the principle “use small and slow solutions” that got me thinking about the “one thing” rule.

Small tasks help build motivation

On low-energy days, my “one thing” can be so small it’s mostly tokenistic.

I might pick that one giant zucchini. Rinse out and refill the bird bath. Snip back a branch growing across a path. Or throw some homemade “weed tea” into a watering can and spend just 1 minute giving a sick plant a foliar spray.

A small gardening task to complete in a day could be as simple as putting some homemade “weed tea” in a watering can and giving a sick plant a foliar spray.(Supplied: Koren Helbig)

But often, getting out to do one thing is a catalyst for drumming up energy and enthusiasm for other things too. Because just getting started can be the hardest part.

The other day, for example, I committed to turning my compost as my “one thing” – and then found myself still outside two hours later, hair wild and face streaked with dirt.

I’d gone on to stake my tomatoes, plant out seedlings, paint a fence and clean the chicken pen – a list of tasks I may have dreaded and avoided if I’d intentionally set out to tackle them all at once.

Taking garden cues from guitar lessons

This is essentially a garden version of something a guitar teacher once told me: “Commit to practising just 5 minutes a day.”

You can almost always find 5 minutes, this teacher told me, because it’s such a small amount of time.

But once you start, you might feel like playing more. You might end up practising for 10 minutes, or even half an hour, without realising. And even if you don’t, you’ve kept up the consistency with that simple 5 minutes.

Applied to a garden, I’ve found this philosophy helps cultivate the consistent attention and tending that makes a veggie patch really thrive.

And it’s especially useful now that my upgraded patch is mostly replanted, so I’m juggling regular garden maintenance tasks alongside bigger renovation jobs, such as building a pergola.

I don’t have the practical skills to complete those big-picture building projects myself.

But getting help from tradies or skilled friends involves planning and decision-making on my behalf – so some days, this thinking is ticked off as my “one thing” for the day, though I haven’t set foot outdoors.

I want my garden to be a source of joy, a place that draws me outside each day and encourages me to eat well – rather than another heavy “work task” that gets added to the long list.

Embracing the “one thing” rule is a simple mindset shift that helps reduce the pressure and instead cultivate lovely feelings of calm, motivation and ease.

Koren Helbig is a freelance journalist who practices permaculture and grows organic food in the backyard of her small urban Tarntanya (Adelaide) home.

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