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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

An Archimom's Everyday Moments of Truth: Yen Ha, RA

Having been a practicing architect and business owner since the late 90s and a mom to a two elementary school kids, I have been following with avid interest all the attention to what it means to be a woman in the workforce and particularly the #archimom conversations. Everyone has a different story though we share many of the same struggles, whether architect or CEO. No one is doing it all; that’s a myth perpetuated by images of stylish moms and their glamorous lifestyles on glossy websites. I promise that under every put-together photo, there is a mom wondering if she remembered to pack the kids’ lunch that day.

We know it’s a challenging life that wouldn’t be possible without a passion for our work and that supportive framework of partners and caregivers. For me, those are the essential ingredients in any secret sauce to this life of motherhood and work.

But the everyday truths are the ones that get us through everyday filled with design conversations, packing lunches for the kids, doctor’s appointments, site meetings and construction details.

These are mine:

1) Have a calm morning. Mornings set the tone for the rest of the day so I wake up in peace as much as I can. A couple times a week, I try to go for a run before everyone wakes up. Otherwise I have an easy breakfast with the kids and then walk (not rush) to school. I still check my emails (but in read only mode). I don’t respond to anything before I’ve had my coffee and some fresh air. Some mornings I might even take time to have a quick breakfast with a mom friend at school before heading up to work. It reinforces the morning as time I’m taking to approach the world on my terms.

2) Set weekly and daily goals. I am always making lists. It gives me a visual sense of how much I need to accomplish. Every morning, when I get to the office, I identify two to three things that I absolutely plan on finishing that day. The short term visualization of goals helps tremendously in prioritizing my daily workflow and at the end of the day, even if I have done nothing that feels productive, at least I have finished those one or two things.

3) Block time. Mornings are for answering emails, catching up with news, and any home chores that need to be completed. Right before lunch I start on a task. So when I get back from lunch, I can dive right back into it. In the late afternoon I usually start on the second or third task to give me enough time to finish it that day. When I’m working on a specific thing, I try to ignore the emails and save responding for later. Designing doesn’t always work that way, nor does architecture, but I find that trying to tackle things in “blocks” helps with the efficiency of the day and of my mind.

4) Don’t waste time, yours or anyone else’s. When you say you will do it, do it. When you say you will be there, be there. Don’t spend your time on tasks that someone else can handle. Relatedly don’t waste your time on work that you don’t find fulfilling. It’s all about prioritizing your time and finding, for yourself, the most efficient way of using time.

5) Do it right away. If you can, reply immediately. That makes it one less thing you have to do because it never goes on your to-do list, it’s already done. I don’t care how uncool it makes you to be the first to respond to a proposal, this frees up your brain space because it doesn’t even exist in your brain space, you’ve already taken care of it. On a job site don’t wait to get back to your desk to figure out the detail, pick up a pencil and work it out right there. Consider this, one less thing to have on your to-do list.

6) Eat lunch away from your desk. This is so important that my work partner, Michi and I, have a lunch blog and manifesto about having lunch out. It’s critical to have recharge time; those pauses of what I like to think of as, moments of calm. Lunch away from our desks allows us both to breathe and free up some of the mind space caught up in the list making and email replying. Some of our most creative moments are over a good lunch. And if you can’t have lunch out, try and take a walk for a small moment of calm. Walk slowly, breathe deeply, and enjoy those couple of blocks before you have to go back to the office.

7) Invest in post-it notes. Don’t try and remember everything, that’s what post-its are for. My mind would probably explode if I didn’t have post-it notes. I use them for immediate tasks that need to be accomplished that day. Those I stick on my phone so every time I go to look at my phone, I am reminded. At home I use a journal for longer term planning and a whiteboard for our weekly menus and schedules. At work I keep a journal right in front of my keyboard so I constantly check and update my lists. Writing everything down frees my brain up from trying to remember what I need to do and instead lets me focus on what needs to be done.

8) Find your mentors and role models. I sit on the Board of Directors of the NewSchool for Architecture and Design where I have the incredible fortune to be surrounded by accomplished and amazing women. They have no problems navigating the lines between being complimented on a pair of shoes and addressing hard questions about budgets and academic excellence. I have worked for and with women throughout my career. I find that having someone to observe whom I respect and has some understanding of what it means to be a woman in architecture is incredibly empowering. It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, but if there is a woman you admire, call her up and invite her to lunch or buy her a coffee one afternoon. Michi and I do this whenever we meet women we find amazing and that we want to learn from.

9) Make time for creativity. For Michi and I, that time is lunch. We leave our phones off the table and instead talk about our weekends, all upcoming business and any design challenge that aren’t jelling. Now that my kids are older, I’ve started finding free bits of time and in those 5 or 10 minutes here and there I’ve started a series of daily drawings that I can pick up, draw, and put down again when the water is boiling for dinner. They are making up a collection that we’ve put on Front Studio’s Instagram. Michi likes to call them my mom art because they require very little set up and the time to make them can be taken in very small increments.

10) Keep your eye on the prize. As Emily Balcetis said in her recent TEDx talk, it is does make a difference if you focus on the finish line. It changes the nature of the exercise itself as well as making that finish line appear closer. Define what your goals are, and define them with your life partner and your work partner. I’ve always believed that if you have an idea of where you want to be in a month or 10 years then that idea will nestle in your brain and as you make your way through everyday life, it will influence where you are going.

Yen Ha is an architect, reader, mother and eater. She founded Front Studio Architects in 2001, where she is a principal, and blogs at Lunch Studio where she writes about the happiness of a good lunch. Her personal writings, drawings and makings are collected at hh1f.

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