For Dr. Kate Sang, associate professor in management at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, the work life of architects provided a rich vein of material to mine.
A career path filled with all-night work sessions and sprints to finish submissions, the profession provided an ideal exploration of work-life balance. But after interviewing numerous firms and writing academic papers on the subject, especially the challenges faced by female architects, Sang has seen how the scales are severely tilted.
“I kept hearing architecture is a lifestyle, a career, not a job, and that you never stop being creative,” says Sang, who observed that the reality is as much about economics as it is about creative drive. “The vast amount of architects are self-employed, which leads to a feeling that you can never turn down work, and you have to go to construction sites during the day and work nights and weekends.”
Sang’s conclusions aren’t a surprise to many in the field; the picture she paints of parents struggling under the burden of trying to be there for their children and the job, where full time may mean 70 hours a week, is all too common. She spoke to many older, male architects during the course of her research who felt like they didn’t spend enough time with their wives and children.
Client demands, uneven workflows, and the necessity of carving out time for creativity creates a hectic routine filled with multitasking, one often exacerbated by company policies built around this lifestyle. Sang recalls speaking to a firm that had won an award for offering the best work-life balance to its employees. When she asked them about maternity leave, they didn’t actually have a policy in place.
These industry challenges can make worries about time management and work-life balance seem like distant priorities. But Sang and other experts all believe that with discipline and prioritization, there are ways to do more with less, to find healthier ways to multitask and time for creativity.
According to Chris Bailey, author of the A Life of Productivity blog, the need to balance between the maker and manager mindsets requires not just creative scheduling, but scheduling for creativity. The attentional costs of interruption, of breaking up a brainstorming or sketching session, are too damaging not to be more strategic about planning.
“As a maker, you have to set aside time to get your creative work done without distractions,” he says. “An ill-timed meeting may destroy your focus and productivity.”
He calls that just-right right balance—between meetings and maintenance tasks and finding free time to let the mind wander and innovate—being in the “Goldilocks Zone.” Laura Vanderkam, a writer focused on time-management issues for publications such as Fast Company, also feels that creative professionals like architects need to normalize the creative part of their job. Being diligent about setting aside time to find ideas provides a sense of control, removes stress, and helps make a nebulous process more focused.
“We have a tendency to romanticize the creative process,” Vanderkam says, “but rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, set up a time to think. Schedule time and devote it to coming up with new ideas. It’s not romantic; it’s your job. Devote time and get it done during the week.”
Block off creative time early in the day, when you have more energy and focus, and give it the priority it deserves. Vanderkam says slotting maintenance and communication tasks, such as answering emails, to later in the day makes sure the mental energy spent on a series of small decisions doesn’t drain you for more important big-picture thinking. Beware the productivity quick fix of a shrinking inbox and the immediate reward of surfing through small tasks, and focus on vital tasks first.
That focus on tackling a wide array of small tasks is what gives multitasking such a bad name. According to Bailey, there really isn’t a good type of multitasking—instead of doing multiple things at once, your brain is actually just constantly switching between tasks and wearing itself out. Being disciplined about staying away from distractions helps you give those tasks more focus when you find the time.
“Be more efficient rather than paying the switching cost for taking too many things on at once,” he says. “It’s not how busy you are; it’s what you truly accomplish at the end of the day.”
If your schedule seems overbearing, Vanderkam suggests combining activities that workaholics ignore, such as lunch and exercise, with socializing and meetings; she calls it “the good form of multitasking.” In addition to the effectiveness of a walking meeting and the stress reduction of socializing and physical activity, it also sets a good example for the office. Within a studio or firm filled with workaholics, modeling good behavior sets a tone and helps encourage a better work environment.
“Burnout isn’t good for anyone,” she says. “One of the best things leaders at a firm can do, in addition to establishing better processes and investing in great project management, is have leaders show employees they’re doing things outside of work. It gives them permission to do the same. If you send emails at 3 a.m., it creates a culture where employees feel like they have to be on and answer all the time.”
When creativity is such an embedded part of the architect’s lifestyle, it’s difficult to change. As Sang points out, firms and studios need to focus on building better work-life balance. Echoing the idea that it’s not about being busy but getting things done, she says the culture of presentee-ism needs to be eliminated. By focusing on disciplined routines and more understanding policies regarding life outside of the office, a healthier, and hopefully more creative cadre of architects can be created.