Life...Work...Balance

Life happens whether you are prepared or not. I do not have a choice about when I'll get the flu, or have to spend hours filing an insurance claim, or meet with the cable guy. These are hours of my life I'll never get back. At the same time, family and domestic life bring huge joys which also require several (or more) hours per day and must be balanced out with work.

The good news is that I can choose my workload, especially as a business owner. Since 2001, our firm (Rick & Cindy Black Architects) has handled about five full service residential projects per year, plus a handful of a la carte design consultations and feasibility studies. In 2008, a year after we had our son, I started Hello Kitchen in order to provide architectural services on smaller, similar themed projects with shorter timeframes. Having both businesses has given us the flexibility to tailor our workload and take on projects that best suit our services and availability; the downside is that we have to manage two businesses!

In my experience, the key to not getting overwhelmed and out of balance is to choose our workload thoughtfully. At times I may feel pressured to take on new tasks in order to keep the income going or satisfy the project needs, but I quickly realize the tradeoffs when I miss walking my son to school for an 8am meeting. Here are a few things I've learned in balancing an efficient and rewarding workload:

Manage Expectations from the Get-go.
Before I meet with a potential client in person, we email to discuss their project location, timeframe, design goals and rough budget. I listen to the client's expectations and try to balance those out with what I know is possible. If expectations are off base at the start of a project - at least, compared to what I have delivered in the past - the clients' needs tend to creep into the space of my personal life. There's nothing wrong with a client expressing an ideal completion date or pie-in-the-sky idea... as long as they communicate that with a smile and open mind. If I can't deliver, or if the client isn't able to compromise, then I pass on the project.

There's Nothing Wrong with finding a Comfort Zone:
I ask myself: is the potential project scope similar to what I've done before? Or is this going to require reinventing the wheel? This was my theory behind starting Hello Kitchen: I had been cooking long enough that I didn't have to think twice about how things should come together in a kitchen; it felt obvious to me. I highly recommend finding a project type that doesn't require you to strain your brain, and tailor your message to attract these projects. And avoid the ones that will consume your efforts: that 'zero-energy ballroom / yoga studio / cafe / wedding venue'  might sound like the dream project and just full of potential, but keep in mind the particular challenges you might face making this a reality. And estimate your fee accordingly.

Avoid deadlines:
I have been guilty of agreeing to slightly ambitious project timeframes. Every so often a deadline is justified by a reward (more often in commercial work, when tenants negotiate build-out costs contingent on completion dates). More often the deadline is set according to the client's personal desires (moving in by Christmas, before the baby's due date, by the annual party, etc). My approach is this: I clearly tell the clients that the deadline will be a challenge, and they should give themselves some options for how to deal with the delay. It’s the client’s responsibility, not mine, to handle the stress of a typical project timeframe.

Avoid scheduling too many meetings (especially outside of work hours):
I constantly struggle with this since I run several small jobs at a time, and everyone wants to have meetings. If I don't have at least two meeting-free days in the week, I'm not getting any design work done. My feeling of productivity and accomplishment for the week is diminished, and it wears me out. I have a few general rules for scheduling meetings: I allow time in the week for new clients, design meetings, and construction administration, in order from lowest to highest priority. I try to avoid Monday meetings, and set time slots for meetings that make sense (10am or 2pm, never over lunch hour). And I started an 'exercise / health' category on my calendar, which gets its own 'appointments' that can't be cancelled.

Foster professional relationships to help lighten your load:
The contractors are the people that bring projects to life. It's a collaborative and rewarding relationship at best, and combative at worst. At this point, I refer only contractors that I've worked with, or who have worked with our peers on successful projects. I have the same respect for vendors and installers who bring quality materials and labor to the projects. They help take work off my plate by contributing to the design and handling clients effectively.

Be thankful and gracious:
With reasonable expectations in place, some truly amazing clients are created. It's been very clear to me over the past several years that I love my job mainly because I love my clients. They inspire great ideas, are patient with the design process, send payments with thank-you notes, and refer me to others. Above all else I recognize that these people are truly committed to design and make my business possible, so I remember give thanks for their commitment... and recognize that this is THEIR personal life in my hands.

And life... it's so much bigger than a few bullet points.
Life is full of both precious, easy-to-miss moments and big experiences that consume your senses. It's hard to even put life down into words, as thought there is some check list to complete. As much as possible, I try to put business into a box and let life swell into the remaining space. We are lucky that architecture affords these amazing opportunities to work with people who introduce us to new experiences and places.

Cindy Black, AIA