Time Management Tips for Designers

image: Deborah Steinberg
image: Deborah Steinberg

Who didn’t have the studio experience in school of the daunting all-nighter?  Furiously drawing scheme after scheme, the pile of crumpled trace that was once low on the ground, slowly climbing ominously high?

School too often cultivated an atmosphere of deadline-driven work that does not serve us well in our professional lives. Nonetheless, many offices run similarly to design studios, with frenzied employees working 12 or 16 hour days (or worse) to deliver a concept presentation, a bid package, etc.

As designers, we are uniquely susceptible to confusing urgency with importance.  If you have ever attended a business conference, chances are you have heard about this keystone tenet to time management.  While urgency is time-sensitive, importance is not – or it shouldn’t always have to be. Google “important + urgent + matrix” and you’ll find a variety of charts identifying time usage in the following categories: urgent and important, urgent and unimportant, not urgent and unimportant, and not urgent and important.

Ideally, we minimize our time spent on things that are urgent and important so that we are not rushing on the important tasks.  Consider a design presentation: the more work we do in advance (when it’s not an urgent matter) the more time we have to give the design the thought and deliberation it is due.  If we delay work on the design until it becomes a critical (read: urgent) matter, the likelihood of delivering a half-baked presentation increases.

Invariably, some important and urgent matters cannot be avoided.  A construction issue can develop, requiring a fast and thorough response.  A new meeting can be scheduled unexpectedly or a deadline can be moved, and occasionally we cannot help but work on important matters at the last minute because we are simply busy.

Let’s consider the other combinations in those matrices.  While we want to avoid delaying important work until it becomes urgent, we also must remember that non-urgent yet important items cannot be ignored.  Examples of that could include long-term planning and ongoing business development activities.  We do not want to manage our time so poorly that we often neglect these tasks, as they are vital to our career development.  Attaining continuing education credits can also be considered non-urgent, important work as it would be downright impossible to “cram” for your CEU’s at the last minute.

But what about the unimportant items – why deal with them at all?  Shouldn’t we avoid unimportant tasks altogether?  Not necessarily.  Frequently, we have little control over when an unimportant item must be addressed.  A distracting phone call or other interruption may not matter much to us, but possibly it is critical to the caller.  If it is urgently important to the other party, you will have to help them address the issue.  If their concern is not time-sensitive, manage the task carefully so that it doesn’t impede on the work that is more vital to you.

Finally, a lot of pleasure in our lives comes from time spent on non-important, non-urgent activities such as parties, dinners, or a workout at the gym.  And let’s not forget that, as creatives, we need these activities to find inspiration.  Great ideas rarely come to you on demand at your office desk.  More often than not, great ideas happen while your mind and body are focusing on other things.

So now that I have identified the four categories within which time is often arranged, how do we use this knowledge to better manage our time?  Chances are, being cognizant of these categories as you go about your week will automatically influence you to make smarter decisions.  For example, realizing that a colleague’s request for a meeting is not important to you and not urgent to them, you can schedule the meeting after this week’s big deadline.  Going to next week’s ASLA function may not be urgent, but it’s important to career development, so you may be more inclined to attend, even if you are swamped at work.  These changes to your habits may be so easy to adopt they can be considered (for the sake of this discussion at least) “passive” changes in how you manage time.

Active changes to your time management habits may require more work, but will bring you greater results.  Assess the time you have spent in the past week.  Where is the fat that can be trimmed?  Where are you wasting time? Furthermore, where (or when) are you most efficient?  We often think about the time we lose, but we can be served well by considering when our most productive time is spent.

Consider the Pareto Principle. Also known as the 80-20 rule or the law of the vital few, the principle postulates that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.  In 1906, Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.  It’s uncanny, but this principle applies in many scenarios.  80% of your time spent on the phone is likely spent talking to 20% of your contacts.  80% of complaints about your work come from 20% of your clients.  More optimistically, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients.  And when we apply this principle to our time, 80% of our productivity can come from 20% of our time.

When you look back on a week’s worth of work, where does that 20% fit?  For me, I am most productive in the mornings.  Whenever possible I schedule meetings and phone calls in the afternoons.  I also avoid writing non-urgent emails and taking non-urgent calls in the morning — it is a poor use of my “20% time.”

It is likely that simply re-organizing your time will get you better mileage out of your schedule and make you more productive.  It may even free up some time for you to have a bit more fun!  Despite what you thought during those nights spent in college studios, spending more time working on a task doesn’t necessarily guarantee better performance.  Work smarter, not harder.

by Jennifer Horn, RLA, ASLA, Principal, Jennifer Horn Landscape Architecture, LLC

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