Most students and professionals in the field of architecture have confessed to having a love-hate relationship with sleep. Is the 24 hour studio culture too much pressure to take, or is it just bad time management?

The Architecture Students' Obsession with All-Nighters (and How to avoid them) - Sheet1
Essentials for an architect (image source

Scene: A messy room, rolled up pieces of paper all around, containers of take-out food, half-empty bottles of water strewn around. The curtains are drawn, and a string of multi-colored lights illuminate a corner. Amidst of all this, if you look closely there is a faint glow of a screen or a desk lamp, and glued to it, you shall find the elusive Architect.

This being has been in this enclosure for a week now and is a fascinating creature to study. They have a simple way of life, which seems to revolve around their computers, and they rolled up sheets of paper and strangely tricky ink pens. They draw with these pens, simple shapes at first, which are either discarded very soon or go on to become increasingly complicated drawings. These complicated drawings then become elaborate patterns, which are then beautified with tools on their computers. What is so unique about these creatures, is that they draw as their life depends on it.

They forget the time of the day, they forget to eat and drink, and to take a bath, or a walk. They also make toys from these drawings, little toy houses, or towers. The process of creation of these agitates the Architect a lot, but they tend to take care of them like their own offspring. Once these drawings and toys have been made to the satisfaction of the Architect, they rest for days in the end. Curiously, they remain in the same enclosure, in the same style, glued to their screen watching some moving pictures and eating out of the same containers. Most interestingly, these beings do not differentiate between day and night, not when they work. They drink a strange brown liquid that keeps them awake and rested (although it does make them very jumpy). They will work through days and nights and then sleep through them the same way.

As a student of architecture, I have cited interminable work, back-to-back deadlines and pressure from faculty as reasons for not having enough rest, but how much of that is really true? And if it is, then what can we change?

Architecture is a multi-disciplinary course, one that has a rather crazy mix of theoretical and practical courses. Every semester architecture students juggle an average of five theory and three practical course subjects, all of which have different requirements, and a deadly combination of review dates. And we keep an average of 3 sleepless nights per subject, in order to successfully complete an assignment.

And now the reality. Take, for example, an architectural design studio class. There is a pattern, for an architect’s “creative process”. For the first month, we look for inspiration from our ‘case studies’. For the second month, we wait for design inspiration to strike. When it does, what do we do? We ‘refine’ the solution to the last day, never satisfied with the result. And when we come down to one week before the jury/crit, there is too much work left in order to complete the list of submittals given by the course guides. And in the rare occasion when we have a reasonable amount of work already complete, the guide will ‘suggest’ a ‘minor’ change in the design, which takes us right back to the place we were a month ago!

The Architecture Students' Obsession with All-Nighters (and How to avoid them) - Sheet2
The vicious circle in every designer’s mind (Image courtesy Miranda Hersey,

We can argue that the course work needs to change, or the professors should stop suggesting last-minute changes. While the latter can’t really be helped, for it isn’t in our control, the former is. While course work is grueling, I speak from experience when I say that there are better ways of handling it.

An architect is a creative person, and the stereotype of being ‘lost in the philosophy of design and creativity’ is associated with us for a reason. The habits we form as students are carried forward as professionals, and at some point, we all get a reality check, to act more responsibly. Better time management is important so that we don’t form habits that will be the bane of our professional lives. The human body’s ability to focus and design creatively takes a major hit when it doesn’t get enough rest. Taking all-nighters to complete projects last minute might work for you, as an individual, but it could seriously affect the collective performance of a team where the other members aren’t adept to pull of long working hours.

The scene I described earlier was my first three years in college as an architecture student. I was unhealthy, both physically and mentally. Then I slowly learned that productivity is not defined by the number of hours you put into a project, it is defined by the output you generate in the hours you put in. You might make a complete drawing in 3 hours on average, but that same drawing will take you an extra two hours if you’re tired and sleep-deprived. So working with an alert and cooperative mind is a smarter decision than to force yourself to work when you’re tired.

I realized that it wasn’t very difficult to manage time, and plan my work, but only required some discipline. Here are some of the things I did, which made a big difference:

›  Get real about yourself. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. This will help you gain perspective on how much time you require for various kinds of projects, and how you can proceed with managing them together.

›  Maintain a healthy and REGULAR schedule throughout the semester. While this seems like a real toughie, it is not really that difficult to do. Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, stick to a schedule on a regular basis. Identify and respect your body clock. Staying up nights might seem very productive, but it is actually a HUGE drain on your mental and physical energy and is well known to decrease creative abilities. I used to sleep for a minimum of 5 hours every night, even during end-semester submissions, and needless to say, I performed much better in my project, as well as the jury.

›  Practice the Japanese principle of ‘Kaisen’- if you spend one minute at the same time every day doing a task you’ve been avoiding, you will gradually form a habit of doing it daily for a longer duration of time. I started with this and eventually made it a point to spend at least one hour per day (excluding regular college classes) on design problems/other sessional problems. This ensured that I had a continuous workflow, and helped me keep a timeline of the amount of time I needed to finish the project.

›  Prepare a list of required submittals from the beginning and work accordingly. The list helped me to focus on what was absolutely necessary for the design submission, and how to plan for any extra details I might want to add. This ensures I don’t waste time and effort on unnecessary details.

›  Work with a group- especially in that last gruesome week when panic attacks are common and stress levels run high. It helps to have company around, to keep track of your own progress, and for second opinions, and some much needed cheering up when you feel down in the dumps.

›  Know when to stop in the pursuit of perfection- As creative individuals, architecture students are all guilty of trying to perfect every minute detail in our designs. The course exercises are meant to hone our skills, and our design process, more than the actual output. Hence we have to remind ourselves, that even though God is in the details, we are but mortals, and as students, we have to learn to cut ourselves some slack, in order to fully grow.

Preachy as I might sound, with all my mantras, I want to clarify, that I still did pull a couple of all-nighters occasionally, especially on the last night before a submission, because we all know that the last-minute hustle is the best boost of productivity of a designer. But I was able to handle the pressure much better, and that was evident in my output. In the occasional all-nighters, I was much more in control and focussed on the details of the project. And everything said and done, I relished the rush of exhilaration that came from a successful submission/review after that all-nighter. So keep up the hustle, fellow architecture students.