Time Management in Practice
Having enough time is one of the greatest challenges facing architects in practice. Time is valuable. Michael Lewarne advises on how to eke out more, with tips on planning, frameworks, strategies, meetings, eliminating distractions, and avoiding perfectionism.
I’ve spoken to countless architects about the challenges of practice. The singular and universal obstacle they all face is having enough time.
This article is about finding time as well as improving productivity – which in itself is a timesaver. With one or many of these ideas, the temptation might be to respond with “I can’t do this because…”. If that’s your initial reaction, first try responding, “I can do this if…” and write down three to five ideas about how you might make improvements. You might surprise yourself when you think more about it. Ultimately, find the approaches that work for you, then slowly implement them and experiment with them.
Plan out your tasks and do the most important ones first
Do important before urgent (more on this below). Program and timetable your day or week with the important work in the most productive slots of your day. When doing so, build slack time into your day, to account for unavoidable interruptions.
Block out your most productive time as uninterrupted time
Ensure everyone knows not to disturb you. Cal Newport notes that “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”
Urgent does not necessarily mean important
Try using the Eisenhower Method. Part of the brilliance of structured work is that in many ways it eliminates this urgent vs. important issue. If you check your email or return calls in scheduled batches of your structured routine, it trains your staff and clients to figure out their own problems. Have the judgment and discipline to step out of the easy habit of thinking every urgent thing is important – it’s not. Learning to let urgent go will save you a tremendous amount of time and stress, so you can work smarter and focus on what’s important instead.
Track your time and understand where it goes
Do this rigorously for a few weeks. It’s likely that will give you all the information you need to understand the demands of your time (and the distractions).
“More effort is wasted doing things that don’t matter than is wasted doing things inefficiently. Elimination is the highest form of optimisation.”— James Clear
Do the hard work first
We waste a lot of time simply to avoid something that might bring up fear, a hard conversation, a difficult decision, etc. Get it out of the way. You’ll feel better and you won’t waste any more time.
Build in accountability
Build in deadlines (even if artificial) and be accountable to them – preferably to someone else (sorry to point it out, but you’re not to be relied upon for accountability).
Use job management tools
Use tools such as Basecamp, Streamtime, Monday and Notion to assign tasks, schedule deadlines, keep track of project status, track milestones and view what’s in the project pipeline. Define small milestones with a scope and a checklist for team members. This allows people to keep working through a checklist not your direct instruction.
Avoid unrealistic expectations
Don’t underestimate how much time you will require to complete the work. This is the Planning Fallacy.
Organise all your tools
This might be your physical or digital workspace. Make sure you have the right tools for the tasks and that they’re at hand. Don’t waste time once you’ve started looking for things and being distracted by the need to search for the things you need to complete your task.
Prioritise high-value tasks
The Pareto principle states that roughly 20% of your tasks will create about 80% of the value. Focus on those high-value tasks and prioritise them, aligning with employee strengths and practice goals.
Cut, reduce or eliminate tasks that don’t add value
Cut meeting times in half (see below), turn off notifications, and only check email every two hours. All are good places to start. What else?
Automate any tasks you can
Step-by-step process-oriented tasks can probably be automated. There are apps like Zapier that can do it instead.
Outsource tasks that can be delegated
This might include social media posting, office admin or bookkeeping. You might employ someone to do them to keep them in the office, or engage externally.
Always be testing
Time is wasted by overthinking and over-investing in the wrong things. Experiment, measure and adapt accordingly. If you can’t be objective, find someone to help you and be accountable.
Start or nothing happens
Do whatever it takes. Block out time in your calendar. Do one thing at a time. Always, always do the hardest thing first. Try using the Pomodoro technique, a time management method.[These frameworks are based on “The Case for a 6-hour Workday” in the Harvard Business Review]
Try out some or all of these strategies, and experiment with ways that work best for you.
Learn to say “no”
Our time is often taken up by tasks around work we should have said no to. Remember: saying “no” is saying “no” to one thing; saying “yes” is saying “no” to many things.
Multi-tasking is a myth. (Also see context switching below.)
Take breaks – lunch especially
You’ll work more efficiently and effectively when you take breaks. Walk away from the desk.
Use small windows of time to do small tasks
Those windows that pop up unexpectedly or are left over.
Use the “two-minute rule”
If it’s going to take less than two minutes, do it right now, when you think of it. When combined with the previous strategy, you’ll waste far less time.
Get better clients
Clients can be time vampires. Good clients trust you, they respect your time, your opinion and they don’t generate unnecessary work for you. They understand that by not interrupting you with calls, emails or unnecessary meetings, you can work more efficiently and effectively. Easier said than done, but if you want to maximise the time in your week I can’t emphasise it enough – get better clients!
Meetings suck the time out of your architectural practice. Being better at designing meetings, or better still, designing meetings out, is a gift of time. Meetings are not always within our control but I encourage you to inculcate the meetings you’re invited to with as many of these ideas as possible.
There are three kinds of meetings:
- Information – the point is to disseminate information.
- Discussion – the leader wants/needs feedback, direction or connections. This meeting might be to come up with an action plan, or develop a new idea.
- Permission – where permission is being sought or a combination of the three.
The key question to interrogate is, What’s the meeting for? Once clear on the answer to this question then ask, Do we need to meet in order to achieve this outcome? If it’s to disseminate information or seek permission, for example, can that be done a different way? Do you need a meeting?
Adopt communications platforms that all can join, and eliminate the need for many meetings. Platforms such as an office Wiki, Slack, Basecamp, Notion, and so on. There’s a cavalcade of choices.
If you’re not there to change or make a decision right now, don’t have the meeting.
How long does the meeting realistically need to be to achieve the outcome for which it has been scheduled? (the What’s the meeting for?) Note, length doesn’t have to correspond to a half or full hour. Be disciplined in your decision about length – keep it as short as realistically possible.
Create an agenda, define the length of the meeting. Stick rigorously to both – DON’T break this rule.
REDUCE CONTEXT SWITCHING
Context switching happens when people stop working on one project/activity to swap over to another, to then return to the original task. Here are some stats on why this is a problem and wastes time:
- People take 9.5 minutes to get back to full productivity when swapping between tasks.
- 45% people say they’re less productive working this way
- 43% of people report that it causes them fatigue.
Our cognitive function is constrained when continually swapping, leading to fatigue and being less productive.
One way to alleviate this is to reduce larger tasks and projects down into smaller tasks that can be easily completed in relatively short periods of time. Time blocking, as above, is also helpful. Block out time to exclusively work on just one task, without interruption.
It should go without saying. Email, social media, web browsing, co-workers, text messages, instant messaging – there are limitless distractions and akin to the problem of multi-tasking. A key to personal time management is being proactive about getting rid of distractions. Shut your door to limit interruptions (literally and metaphorically). Turn off messaging notifications, leave your personal phone calls for lunch, and review advice in Frameworks above.
DON’T LET PERFECT GET IN THE WAY OF DONE
I’ve given this its own heading and left it to last. It’s a classic problem for many. I might also have written, Don’t let perfect get in the way of the good.
Perfect is a hiding place. Hiding from finishing, publishing, presenting, etc. It wastes time either in the doing or in the avoidance of showing your work to others, both in the quest for the perfect.
Architects are notorious perfectionists. Perfect is a mirage. Don’t chase it.
I’ll finish as I started. The key is to find the methods and tools that work for you. If you’re fighting against or with the framework or strategy, it’s likely not for you and it won’t last. There are many ideas here. Experiment with them, iterate or adapt them. Make the changes to your workflow and methodology slowly. You’re less likely to adapt to big change than to slow, more mindful and deliberate ones.
Please let me know if you have other ways of saving time as well as what has worked for you and what hasn’t. I’m always interested in feedback and ways of saving time. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Lewarne is a coach on the edge of architectural practice, curious about the way architects practise and keen to uncover better ways to do good work. Michael founded unmeasured to help architects plot their desire lines in their practice through coaching, workshops and community. He works to build better practice, culture and leadership in the profession.