How to Stay 1 Step Ahead

If there is anything I anticipated but was still totally unprepared for this year, it was the rate at which the pace and workload speeds up. Naturally, the first few weeks are pretty light, in order to ease everyone into the university, course and life as a student. But since I went back to the same university there wasn’t a whole lot I needed to get familiar with. This gave me the perfect period of time to plan and set my systems in place. It was the best time for me to set myself up for staying just a single step ahead. I have to clarify that when I say ‘staying one step ahead’, it doesn’t mean ahead of others. I don’t agree with the toxic competitive nature that some students might have. my definition is simply referring to staying a step ahead of your own path. Making things easy for my future self has become almost something of a habit, because just like so many others out there, I’m prone to anxiety when curveballs are thrown my way and planning meticulously is my way of keeping myself sane.

During the first term of any degree, you’ll start to see the pace picking up probably a few weeks before the Christmas break. For me, I was trying to keep up with 3 different deadlines each week leading up to the dreaded portfolio submission. Luckily, there were certain systems and actions in place that did a few things to help me during this time.

  1. I completed small, non-urgent tasks way before I needed to. Think of the last-minute stuff you usually stress about. The design of your essay or the kind of colour scheme or layout you’re going to use in your portfolio pages. Yes, they matter.
  2. I made it a priority to switch off for a few hours during the day. Depending on which time of day you work best (there’s no right or wrong), this break can act like a really great buffer zone where you go for a walk, meet a friend, get some exercise in – whatever you want! The point is, to prioritise this no matter what.
  3. Know when something is done. I know it’s easier said than done, especially to creatives. I’ve been there too. Stuck at an unreasonably late hour stressing over the fine details that probably won’t even get noticed? This is why setting boundaries either through the definition of being done or time limits can be a way to keep yourself in check.

It all begins with a bit of self-discipline

Discipline is crucial when it comes to staying one step ahead. I don’t just mean finding the perfect routine where you work 8-10 hours a day on end, each week. I also mean the kind of mindset you have and the ambitions you’re reaching towards. One experience that has shaped my attitude towards this Master’s degree has been my year out working in practice. With it being my first ‘proper job’ i.e. a full-time job in the architecture industry, it was quite difficult for me to become familiar with the way things work and the kind of discipline you need to work a job like that. I don’t just mean the routine or the repetitiveness of the job, but the ability to recognise what the bigger goal is and how what you’re working on, no matter how small it may seem, is actually pretty valuable.

I know most of the awful experiences of working in an architecture practice that we are accustomed to hear about often include being a ‘CAD monkey’ and working on door schedules for months on end, but someone’s got to do it right? If framed in the right way, it could prove to be a useful skill or lesson learnt. Looking at it from a glass half full viewpoint can be all that you need in order to understand what it is you want from this career. If all else fails, you might even push yourself to asking for more than just door schedules which could take you on another path altogether.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes quite a while and I’ll admit I’m not a perfect example either. Some days are better than others but once I find a spark, it can really get me going. Discipline is important when you’re trying to stay one step ahead because you have to be brutally honest with yourself and stay on track with the goals you’ve set yourself. Again, easier said than done but there are small steps you can take each day or week to get yourself closer to finding that self-discipline. For one, it can be a good thing to keep your goals in front of you all the time. I did try the whole vision board in my room thing but it wasn’t really doing much for me. Then I thought, what is the one thing we spend all our times on and check 24/7? Why not keep a simple list of your goals as your lock screen? Just a thought.

Panicking is part of the process

scrabbled tiles on red surface
Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

When you’re trying to stay one step ahead, it can be really easy to get lost down the rabbit hole. I’ll tell you one thing, panicking is normal. I had the same feeling during my undergrad and again during my Masters. I wouldn’t say try and avoid it or pretend that it doesn’t affect you at all, but try to think of the bigger picture. If you can feel yourself overthinking about the importance of a task you’re doing, take a moment to re-evaluate whether this is the best use of your time right now. How can you gauge that?

Your energy is the most important factor you should be considering. I’m writing this at 2am, not out of panic or desparation or because I feel compelled to. It’s because I could tell my energy level was going to be high and I wanted to spend it doing something meaningful to me, which is writing. Similarly, if you’re forcing yourself to do smaller tasks at a point where you have the most energy, you might have huge bouts of regret later on. Be realistic with yourself and how much energy you can dedicate to something. Take it one step at a time and don’t dismiss the little things. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour and it’s pre-lunch or first thing in the morning, use your time wisely but don’t overdo it. I’m not trying to say make the most of every minute in your day by working because that’s not healthy.

Channelling your energy towards certain types of tasks is the best way to stay one step ahead. For example, if you find yourself getting bored or distracted with the task at hand (which happens to me a lot), it might just mean that your energy is best suited for something else right now. I know the usual action would be to gravitate towards a break or to give up and procrastinate, but maybe you just need to find the fun in whatever it is you’re doing. Although I planned the way I wanted to write my theory essay, I found myself getting bored or lost for ideas after writing a few paragraphs. In this situation, I’d start scrolling on Pinterest to look at how I could make the graphic presentation of the essay more exciting. A few trials and errors later, I had a colour palette, aesthetic and a start on the way it looked – and that was fun enough for me to then go back to writing the essay with a bit of a fresh perspective.

Treat it like a job

I already mentioned being realistic with what you invest your energy into, but another thing that can help you stay one step ahead is to treat your university work like a job. The difference between my attitude in my undergraduate as compared to my postgraduate is that the during the latter, I’ve made sure to set boundaries in terms of how long I work on design projects or essays or other modules. In comparison, during undergraduate it was the only thing I was constantly doing, without any kind of structure. It was all about taking it as it comes and not really having a plan in place or even a mental priority list. This was probably due to the lack of a system that allowed me to step back and consider the future tasks alongside the current ones.

Now, I make sure to regularly review the upcoming deadlines or major tasks I need to complete for the next couple of weeks or months. This means that even if I have a deadline 2 months away, I’m making sure to familiarise myself with what’s coming. Another simple thing about staying one step ahead that most people don’t think about is to ask for advise from the people who have been where you are now. I’ve been super lucky to keep in contact with some of the 5th years on my course who tell me what to look out for and give me reassurance that I’ll be alright. But there’s really no harm in asking what a future module entails or when the best time is to start working on certain aspects of a deadline.

Another part of staying a step ahead is to make sure that the quality of what you’re producing is at a high level. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having to go back and iterate or improve on things you spent loads of time on. This can be great for a process that welcomes the iterative method, but for smaller tasks it can just be a pain. But how do you nail things so well? Think of it as producing work for your boss or a client. When I was working in practice, I wanted to prove myself by not just completing the task but doing it as fast as I could. This was a mistake because the architects could catch errors in seconds. Eventually (and it took me a long time), I managed to learn how to take my time with things and comb through the work I was doing. After all, a small error could end up costing a lot of money. Think of your work in the same way. You really don’t want to present your ideas through poorly executed work that’s done last minute. It’s really just a disrespect to your own creativity.

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