Why Architecture Students Need Feel-Good Productivity
Productivity feels like a word we all throw around here and there and whilst many of my peers have often asked me how I am so productive all the time, I never quite know how to put it into words. Some might credit frameworks or hacks like the 2-minute rule or dismiss it completely and turn to discipline or a hustle mindset. I usually respond with the practice that helps me gain clarity; lists. I break down my tasks for the day into a list, I write lists of what I’m feeling and even this blog post was planned as a list.
Ali Abdaal has been in the world of productivity long before I even knew what it meant to be productive. He’s most widely known as the ‘productivity guru’ of YouTube. It’s no surprise that his curiosity for productive methods and background in medicine has led him to write this book, Feel Good Productivity. A memorable quote of Ali’s that has stuck in my head for years is ‘journey before destination’ (which I believe he actually stole from a fantasy novel). It’s also something my tutors told me in the early days of my Master’s and has just made sense.
Why might architecture students think about productivity though? The stereotype for a worrying number of years has been that those who study architecture and eventually go on to become architects have a terrible work/life balance. They’re doing an incredibly difficult course, for a significant number of years and have to cope through multiple deadlines and projects and tutors breathing down their necks. I call bullshit. Why have we been limited to this type of narrative when I’ve known plenty of successful designers find their passions in branches of architecture, didn’t rely on all-nighters or haven’t experienced toxic behaviours from tutors? I think the issue lies in how we perceive productivity. Or more so, this backward mould of what an architecture student should have to ‘survive’ in architecture school.
I have to mention, that I wasn’t quite expecting the balance of anecdotal or actionable advice to be outweighed by scientific experiments and studies in the book. But I understand why it’s there and the value it provides behind the general ideas. The book is separated into 3 distinct chapters, energise, unblock and sustain; each with sub-chapters and bite-sized lessons. There are also 3 standout lessons that I think architecture students can take away from this book. I love the fact that it isn’t a one-time read. You will undoubtedly go back and uncover that golden nugget of advice you skimmed over in your first read. Which makes this book a powerful resource. It almost feels as if Ali has extracted and distilled his most valuable teachings from his content into this book - which is great!
[Page 64] A beginner’s mindset is explained through the Zen concept of Shoshin. This, as told in the book, ‘refers to a state of mind in which we approach every task and situation with the curiosity, openness and humility of a beginner’. Ali then goes on to explain how our hobbies and skills are a series of set methods that we’ve learnt which define our decisions. A beginner is more willing to try things out and experiment in various ways and ‘embrace innovation and experimentation’.
Beginners don’t hold strong beliefs about what will work, they just try
You might be thinking, this isn’t exactly the productivity advice I thought would be in a book like this. However, this is vital in understanding the role that power plays in our day-to-day lives. In particular, the feeling of empowerment rather than the type of power you assert over others.
When you first start out in architecture school, you’re a beginner. Maybe you don’t have any background knowledge of architecture, architects, buildings, drawings and so on. Maybe you are just curious and feel that your skillset matches that of whatever it is that architects do. I was this person. Now there are some brilliant programmes and initiatives which allow you to get a taste of what the degree entails or even learn essential skills before you step into university. There are hundreds of creators, documenting their student life or sharing their design process. I didn’t have any of this back when I started studying architecture. The only thing I could rely on was my willingness to learn.
Almost half of my coursemates dropped out by the end of my first year. No fault of theirs, but the degree is demanding and somewhat elusive to the point where you don’t really know if it’s for you until you’re doing it. I think that having the willingness to try and experiment with different approaches without falling into a rabbit hole of whether or not it will work or catastrophising a failure is how you can be productive in the early days.
If you approach your next task with that of a beginner’s mindset and go back to the basics or even cut yourself some slack, you can enjoy the learnings and embrace failures along the way. I quite like the idea of being curious and to some extent even questioning things. Why can’t I make a model of a city based on carpet designs that is as tall as me? I’ve mentioned before how the trajectory of a design project often involves a golden nugget or catalyst that catapults you to the edge of your skills and this is often a huge turning point that distinguishes your project from good to great. A beginner’s mindset can be just the thing to unlocking that golden nugget.
[page 128] Ali calls implementation intentions ‘little triggers that build moments for your new behaviour into your daily routine’. Basically, if you ‘decide beforehand when you’re going to do something, you’re much more likely to do it’. He follows this up with a chapter on time blocking by the way so therein lies your answer. Now, I’ve skipped past the ‘why’ and what’ of identifying tasks and end goals because I think to a degree, the ‘when’ is the most important lesson for architecture students.
I’m a natural night owl. I can’t usually focus in the mornings or mid-afternoons and my energy spikes in the evenings - don’t ask me why, I’ve just accepted it and used this knowledge to my advantage. Knowing when you are most likely to have more energy or headspace to focus on your more important tasks is probably the first step to realising when you should be doing things. Architecture students are often faced with a weekly deadline, the dreaded tutorial. This means that you’re working on a single project for weeks on end and each week your workload seems to increase. But, every week you get the sense you’re starting from scratch or not really progressing because you spent the majority of the week procrastinating only to try and put something together the night before.
I understand that sometimes life gets in the way and you most definitely should expect the unexpected and plan accordingly (by giving yourself some breathing space). But, as Ali mentions;
On one level, asking ‘when’ is about accepting your limitations.
This leads to the difference between just cramming your calendar with as many tasks as you can think of and prioritising as the second step to clarifying your tasks. The study that Ali mentions related to implementation intentions involves a group that receives prompts via email to work out versus one that doesn’t. You can imagine which one increased their steps just through some simple reminders. You can do this in a very similar way. I have a recurring reminder in my Todoist that prompts me at 8:30am (roughly when I wake up or am sitting in bed on my phone) to ‘get up and go to the gym’. It might not seem like much, but for someone who just loves ticking things off a to-do list, I get the chance to start with this ‘reminder’.
Incorporating these triggers, whether it’s to drink water or sketch for an hour or even to indulge in a hobby unrelated to architecture can be the difference in gaining control of your time. Time is valuable to us all and if implemented correctly or early on, it can make the biggest difference in the long-term.
[page 221] When you avoid rest, you invite burnout. I think it’s so easy to see your friends or peers in the studio, staying till late and saying ‘Who needs sleep? I’ll just stay here till I get my work done’. The reality is that the next day you’ve barely progressed and worse, your sleep is out of whack. I’m a huge advocate for getting your sleep - I can’t stress enough how beneficial sleep is, outside of architecture and work. Mindless recharging is a form of rest that’s best in small doses. Ali defines this as ‘any activity you find yourself doing when you’re not thinking too hard about relaxing’. A popular example of this is how the best ideas come to us in the shower. It’s an activity where you’re not just lazing around but in an environment where you’re relaxed to a certain level yet still actively doing something.
Doing nothing can be surprisingly productive.
I still find this difficult. In fact, I often have dreams of what kind of tasks I should be tackling the next day and this is how I know I’m close to hitting rock bottom. I guess it’s because we tend to view mindless activities as useless or a waste of time and there’s almost this unspoken hustle culture that we are so used to. Using our previous principle, you can try to time-block and schedule in when you want to just do ‘mindless’ activities but the reality is that every day won’t be the same. This is when it becomes incredibly important to listen to your body. Similar to how I mentioned energy levels. If you have the intention to test out a render - great. But you’ve also just come back from finishing your work shift and the sofa is looking pretty good right about now.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but hitting pause on that render is probably the way to go in the long run. Think about it; when you look back on your time as an architecture student are you really going to cherish the moments when you stayed up through the middle of the night forcing yourself to work on renders only for it to not really mean much in the end because your energy wasn’t there? I also like to frame this as the kind of advice you would give to a first-year architecture student once you become a seasoned, fully qualified architect. You’d be surprised how many architects I’ve spoken to who say it’s not worth doing all-nighters and sacrificing your personal life for this career. Or any for that matter.
Ali explains this as the Reitoff principle. This is ‘the idea that we should grant ourselves permission to write off a day and intentionally step away from achieving anything.’ Now, remember how I said small doses? This type of rest can quickly turn into procrastination which turns into panic, which honestly just makes you feel like a mess and then you start to wander down the road to burnout. Instead, giving yourself this get-out-of-jail-free card, maybe once a week or twice a month can help you to shift your energy and not beat yourself up about being unproductive.
I’m yet to go through my re-reads of this book but I am beginning to see the little mindset shifts that happen before I start a new task or say yes to something that I shouldn’t. I think for me, feel-good productivity is all about crafting this sustainable version of productivity. It shouldn’t be defined by what everyone else assumes about productivity, but instead what it means to you. If being productive is spending a Friday night writing or researching your thesis, that’s cool. Similarly, if you believe spending your Friday night painting your nails and giving yourself some self-care is productive, I agree with you. There’s really no singular solution. I don’t think we should be framing ‘productivity’ as a toxic habit that is purposely difficult or unachievable.
I would recommend this to those who those feeling a bit lost in the world of self-improvement. I have found similarities between the book and Ali’s existing content on YouTube so that would be a good place to start and if you like the vibes then definitely get the book.