The healthy Architect or how to master Stress in Architecture

Assumingly every architect is experiencing stress in some way or another on a recurring basis.

In this article, we will uncover 7 powerful approaches to less Stress in Architecture to live a better life in the long run. In addition, at the end of this article, you’ll find two strong concepts that might sharpen and change your perspective on effectiveness.

Whether you are working in an architecture office, or whether you are running your own firm, either way, chances are that you might be exposed to complex problems, short deadlines, huge workloads, and many responsibilities. Most likely stress will become a part of the equation. That makes it necessary to find a way to stay healthy, happy and creative.

Zaha Hadid once said, “If you want an easy life, don’t be an Architect”. Whatever the exact context was, from which this quote originated, it seems to be true for a handful of reasons.


“If you want an easy life, don’t be an Architect”

(Zaha Hadid)


As Architects, we don’t create something off the rack and then simply duplicate and sell it over and over again. Everything is created uniquely from and for a given situation, at least for the most part.

The greatest challenge that I see, is the complexity of architecture and the difficulty to manage that complexity throughout the various stages of the design and construction process. Too much complexity at a time can lead to stress, disturbance, and turmoil.


Stress as part of the profession
or part of the culture?


When thinking about the sources of stress in architecture, there might be two main causes. It is either that stress is an inherent part of the profession or that stress arises out of the office culture and is therefore mainly a problem of the leading management of a practice. Since managing huge loads of complexity on a daily basis has its pitfalls, the truth will probably lie somewhere in the middle.

Howsoever, one thing stays true: Working as an architect involves a lot of work, troubleshooting, and commitment.


Do the most important thing

Since you can’t turn off stress and you can’t change the company culture, you can do the most important thing and change your conscious mind, your thinking and your behavior to stay healthy.

Stressful times will not subside at any time in the future, therefore it can be tremendously beneficial to find a way to master those emotions to live a better life in the long run.


The joy of being an Architect?

There is an ongoing discussion of whether “Architecture is Synonymous with Stress?” or whether someone is “for or against an All-Nighter Culture“. What happened to the joy of being an Architect? Shouldn’t the design of the space we live in be an enjoyable task? Nowadays there seems to be some general truth or an implicit agreement that architecture seems to go against a good work-life balance.

Aside from all that, everybody has a responsibility to take care of his or her body, no matter which profession they belong to. Stress will have an even greater impact on you when you are tired, overworked, unhappy and unbalanced.


The healthy Architect or how to master Stress in Architecture
Architects and the management of complexity


Easier said than done!

There is no doubt, that architects have a huge workload. Crafting designs, developing visualizations, holding presentations, creating plans and construction drawings takes a lot of time. In addition, managing and dealing with (often unrealistic) deadlines has an inherent potential for the occurrence of stress.

Every time you finish something, the next important project task already seems to wait on the other end of your desk.

The permanent loop of work makes it dangerously easy to get into a circle of stress and pressure. The risk of getting lost in front of your screen and within the constraints and the hustle of a project is constantly present.


7 Approaches to less Stress in Architecture

At the end of the day, whether you are the owner, the employe or a student, everything you do or don’t do is a choice for either a healthier or an unhealthier behavior which will manifest itself over time. For that reason alone, it will be quite beneficial to take some time to reflect and adapt.


At the end of the day, everything you do or don’t do is a choice for either a healthier or an unhealthier behavior.


Find your way back to the joy of being an architect!


1. Go to sleep

… and sleep enough. Sounds simple, but it is highly effective for your ability to deal with stressful conditions. Skipping sleep in return of more working hours can give you a few extra hours, yes, but it will harm you much more than it will do good. If you pull an all-nighter once in a while, that might be ok, as long as you understand the consequences. In no case, you should make it a habit.

Sleep deprivation has a lot of side effects. They will add up the more you engage in the habit of 14 hour + workdays combined with hardly restful nights. The effects on your body and soul will result in an diminished morale, a lack of creativity, lacking happiness, irritability, feelings of being overwhelmed, and stubbornness… just to name a few. If you want to be fired up, to really get stuff done, to be highly motivated, to be creative and effective, restore your energy and go to sleep. Again, it sounds simple but you will feel the benefits.

Besides, those late extra hours are not nearly as productive as they could be when you are relaxed and full of energy. It is just a trade that doesn’t pay of in the long term. Even as a supervisor you shouldn’t support that kind of behavior because it hurts the whole company in terms of culture, outcome, and productivity.

Don’t even listen to people who brag out how tired they are and how many hours they work. You can be sure it will come back to them sooner or later.

Book recommendation: Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes


2. Go home in time

If there is one thing a lot of architecture firms have in common, it is the misunderstood concept of the relation between working hours and productivity. Often times people will stay late because everyone is staying late. Even if they finished their work, employees wouldn’t leave because there is some kind of silly company morale that says staying late means that you are more productive. When people start to look weird at you because you pack your stuff and leave in time, that is no good. You shouldn’t feel guilty for having a life besides work, no one should. In fact, that is something everybody should highly engage in.


“You don’t need to work more hours, you only need to work better hours.”


Book recommendation: Rework


Set achievable goals, focus and get stuff done. Then, take care of your body and have a life besides work. It will pay off. When people have something to do beside work, they get down to business. If they like what they do and if they have a healthy balance between pressure and joy they will produce dramatically better outcomes.

As mentioned before, there is always a danger of getting lost in front of your screen. Don’t get lost into work, things will look even worse when you lose distance. Problems will look like the highest mountains when you are standing to close. However, the distance will adjust when stepping away from work for a while. Maybe make appointments that force you to look at your watch and then leave in time!


3. Have fun

Go out and enjoy yourself. Have fun, seriously. It is proven that this is a crucial part of successful people. You can’t work 24/7. Certainly, most business owners would like their employees to be like that. But that serves no one at all. Neither the employee nor the company.

Having fun and doing things you enjoy will adjust your view to the work and the workload that’s in front of you. It refuels your motivation and creativity. So go out and have fun.

Shawn Achor (CEO of Good Think Inc.) researches and teaches about positive psychology. In his Ted Talk „The happy secret to better work“ he says that, if you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences a so-called happiness advantage, which is simply when your brain is positive it performs significantly better than it does in negative or stressed conditions. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.

What they found was, that in fact, every single business outcome improves when being happy and positive!


“You are not a machine – the ideal of human productivity is not acting like a robot. Humans need rest, relaxation, sleep, and play in order to function effectively.”

(Josh Kaufman)


Josh Kaufman put it very well in his book The Personal MBA: “Humans need rest, relaxation, sleep, and play in order to function effectively. Too little of any of these things can seriously diminish your capacity to do good work and impact how much you enjoy your life. Rest and recover by doing something completely different.”

Book recommendation: The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life The Personal MBA



4. Set a daily goal

Often times, working in architecture can feel like you don’t achieve something meaningful because there is a constant flow of work in multiple projects. There is rarely a moment in time with nothing to do. That can be extremely dangerous because it will make you miserable. Even if you get a lot of stuff done every day, it might not feel like that at all, because of an ongoing workload. Sometimes you leave after a long workday, but you don’t appreciate what you have done because you are already thinking about what needs to be done tomorrow. Your achievements get lost in the steady flow of work. That is simply not good.


Sit down first thing in the morning and write down one thing that would make your day great if you would achieve “X”.


Here is the deal: Sit down first thing in the morning and write down one thing that would make your day great if you would achieve “X”. And then finish this thing first in the morning when you step into the office.

Everything else can be seen as an additional benefit in terms of achievements. That doesn’t need to be a huge thing. Start with small things and enjoy the feeling of achievements. This will give you the satisfaction and a feeling of real achievement. It makes you aware of what you actually finished. Give it a try.

After a while, you might raise your “Most Important Task” or short MIT from one to three and then tackle these three goals first. Besides, this prevents procrastination because you focus on what’s important and get the important things done first. In that way, you will prevent yourself from getting into a cycle of work without appreciation, where stress becomes a constant variable.


5. Don’t worry about things you can’t control

A constant source of stress is to worry about things you can’t control anyway. To do the opposite and not worry about things you cannot control is classic stoic advice and comes from the stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and later Rome. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was one of the most famous representers of stoicism and their advice is experiencing a renaissance in our modern world. Simply because of its applicability.

Think about giving an important presentation. How easy it is to get caught up in worries and stressful thinking? However, the only thing you actually can control is your personal goal to give your best. You have no influence on anything that happens outside that circle of influence. That awareness is calming, everything else is wasted energy.


“You don’t control the world around you, you can only control your response to that world.”

(Answer to what is Stoicism)


According to the Stoic Advice (taken from „A guide to the good life by William B. Irvine“), there are three categories of control:


There are (A) a few things we have complete control of. We have complete control over our values we form and the goals we set for ourselves.

There are (B) things over we have some but not complete control. For example, whether we win while playing tennis or in our case, whether the client will like the design we created. The only thing we can do is to give our best in terms of A, the things we value. Everything else is out of our control, hence we shouldn’t worry about it.

Finally, there are (C) things over we have no control at all. For example, whether the sun will rise tomorrow, hence we shouldn’t concern ourselves with these things.

„Because we have no control at all over the things in question, any time and energy we spend will have no effect on the outcome of events and will, therefore, be wasted time and energy.“ (William B. Irvine)


As long as you give your best according to your personal values and goals you set for yourself you will be fine.

Book recommendation: A Guide to the Good LifeThe daily Stoic


6. Work out

Go out and engage in sports activities you enjoy the most. In that way, you can increase your fitness level and reduce stress at the same time. Additionally, your body releases endorphins during and especially after the workout, which are „the happiness hormones“. It is one efficient way to decrease the stress level, free your mind, become happier and healthier at the same time.


7. Mediadate

Start with some kind of meditation practice. Preferably, first thing in the morning or at least before leaving for work. That might sound weird, but I am not talking about some religious or spiritual kind of mediation.


No sitting on a pillow with your legs crossed until it hurts.


What I am talking about is a very minimal form of awareness, only 10 minutes in the morning can do the trick. I use the app „Headspace“ every morning. (At least I am still trying and struggling to make it a constant habit.)


Meditation has become an important part of my daily routine because it simply calms down my mind and eases everything up.

To give you some kind of proof that this isn’t exclusively something that religious monks are practicing in secluded monasteries: After listening to hundreds of podcast interviews during the last two years, I found that nearly everyone who is doing something on a high level, from sports athletes to entrepreneurs and actors, are often times engaging in some kind of meditation practice to gain the mental power and clarity they need.

It will help you to be non-reactive to all the things that appear during a day, it gives you calmness and ease.

Headspace has 1 million users and there are already 250 larger companies bringing the meditation exercises to their employees.

In fact, meditation is by far the most effective approach to master stress, at least in my experience. When you start doing that every morning you will develop a natural resilience and a mindset of awareness and calm, that gives you the tool to handle stress at the moment of its appearance.


Book recommendation: Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success and Happiness


Here is how it works – an Idea on how to get started with Headspace:


Two perspectives on Effectiveness


Preserve your golden Eggs with a sharp Saw

One of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read to improve my perspective on effectiveness is “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen R. Covey.

Besides many outstanding ideas in this book, Stephen Covey refers especially to two aspects of life that create the crucial and very basic fundamentals for any sustained effectiveness: “The golden Eggs – Idea” and “The sharpen the Saw – Approach”.

Book recommendation: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


1. The golden Egg

The golden egg idea basically means that when you are only focused on producing golden eggs (produce excellent outcomes) and neglect your production capability (yourself) to produce those eggs, you will create an imbalance in the long term and eventually find it hard to rebalance at some point.

Imagine you bought a solid machine to produce golden eggs. In the beginning, it keeps producing and producing and you don’t think about maintaining or investing to keep the long-term production capability alive. It seems far away, but one day the machine breaks, maintenance costs have stacked up and it became too expensive to invest all at once.


The healthy Architect or how to master Stress in Architecture
Finished projects are the Architect’s golden Eggs


Steven Covey explains, “Effectiveness lies in the balance – what he calls the P/PC Balance. P stands for production of desired results, the golden eggs. PC stands for production capability, the ability or asset that produces the golden eggs.”

“The P/PC Balance is the very essence of effectiveness. It’s validated in every arena of life. We can work with it or against it, but it’s there. It’s a lighthouse. It’s the definition and paradigm of effectiveness upon which the Seven Habits are based.”

In the quest for short-term results we often forget and neglect the relation between production and preserving the production capability as one crucial aspect of a healthy and effective lifestyle.


2. Sharpen the Saw

The sharpen the saw approach is based on a short but strong anecdote that creates a powerful picture for personal effectiveness:


Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted!” You claim. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”
“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen the saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically.
“I’m too busy sawing!”

(The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)


Stephen Covey breaks it down into a powerfully clear and intruding advice:

It all comes down to “preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have – you.” […] “This is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life – investment in ourselves, in the only instrument we have with which to deal with life and to contribute. We are the instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time regularly to sharpen the saw.”


“Sometimes when I consider
what tremendous 
come from little things …

I am tempted to think …
There are no little things.”

Bruce Barton


The healthy Architect or how to master Stress in Architecture
Take time to rebalance – whatever that means to you!

As mentioned earlier, at the end of the day, everything you do or don’t do is a choice for either a healthier or an unhealthier behavior which will manifest itself over time.

Little things can have tremendous consequences. For that reason alone, take time to sharpen the saw and rebalance.

Don’t be too busy sawing!







Finally, enjoy being an Architect

Hopefully, you could find some value in the suggested ideas and approaches to less stress in architecture. In the end, the creation of architecture should be an enjoyable process. In line with Bjarke Ingels definition of a hedonistic sustainability, where he states that it doesn’t need to hurt in order to do good, the core idea applies equally to the daily life of an architect.


It doesn’t need to hurt in order to receive exceptional results.


Having said that, enjoy being an Architect.

We’d be happy to hear your experience and thoughts on that topic. Since you made it all the way down to the end, you might want to join “The Monthly Archiitect” to stay in touch on how to work smarter.


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