Reducing overwhelm in architecture practice

While it's not the only answer, there is a simple solution to reducing the overwhelm of architecture practice...

There’s many moving parts to architectural practice, regardless of size. There’s the innumerable relationships to be managed, a constancy of decisions to be made, and just so many balls to keep in the air. It’s not unusual to begin to be overwhelmed when too much is going on.

The simple solution to overwhelm is to learn to say “no” more. It’s a simple solution, but one that’s less easy to execute.

“No” can be a boundary. One when utilised and maintained, assists in reducing overwhelm.

Saying “no”, for example, to unwelcome projects ensures you avoid the unnecessary tasks, conversations or meetings, interruptions and all the obligations that came with the original “yes”. As the obliging and helpful person that may architects are, saying yes can feel good, but there’s a cost to it. Regardless of how obliging you might be, it’s also often easier than saying “no”.

Before saying “yes” consider whether doing so gets you closer to where you want to go. That means you need to know where you’re going – don’t underestimate how important it is to know and understand where you’re going. Understanding your direction makes it easier to say “no”. For example, you might be able to decline by politely saying, “I know we’ve done this work in the past, but right now we’re changing the direction of our work and this isn’t the type of work we’re taking on any more.” By knowing where you’re going, the feeling of overwhelm may not feel so strong too. The overwhelm is less friction, more responsibility.

When saying “yes” to something, it’s helpful to ask yourself, what else am I saying “yes” to when I agree to this: less time, extra meetings, phone calls, responsibilities, etc. As a balance to the “yes” also consider the things you’re be saying “no” to: free time, relaxation, space, doing great work, etc. Forethought can make it easier to decline, eg “I’m sorry I can’t commit to that right now, I already have a lot of commitments and I simply won’t be able to give this the attention that’s required right now.”

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Steve Jobs

Another useful boundary to overwhelm in your day, is to block out time for focused and consolidated work and saying “no” to everything else. Say “no” to interruptions for 2-3 hours. Turn off your phone, notifications, email, let those around you know you’re not to be interrupted for this given period. It’s incredible how productive we can be without interruption and time for for focused work, greater efficiency and allowing us to get on top of the overwhelm.

While there’s many sides to overwhelm, I assert that agreeing to taking on things that we should have said “no” to is the genesis of many of our problems. As it’s hard to say “no”, it helps to set up systems that assist in saying “no”, such as the aforementioned time blocking. Being clear on our boundaries is another system that prepares us with a ready made response to people requesting our assistance, “I’m sorry I can’t do that presentation. I budget 50 hours a year to work for free on projects I care about and unfortunately I’ve hit my 50 hours this year.” (Hat tip to Mary Freer for this idea)

To reduce practice overwhelm…

You must first understand where it is that you want to go and not agree to anything that doesn’t get you closer. If you don’t understand where you want to go, make time to plan.

You must establish clear boundaries around what you’re not willing to do and learn to say “no” to anything outside the boundary. Saying “no” is a skill, you might need to practice and you’ll also find you get better at it over time.

Create systems that make the “no” automatic or built in.

Remember time is like money. Both can be spent. “yes” puts you into debt, “no” is your savings.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels [edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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