Jesse Lenz

Time management, stress management, life-work balance, burnout avoidance; all these management buzzwords address a challenge every builder will recognize: How to keep the business that puts food on your table from eating you alive. • Construction business consultant Jim Schug sees the problem at close range with his clients, whose job descriptions—and work hours­—often seem endless. “There’s a crushing amount of pressure,” says Schug, principal of FMI Corp. • Yet success in business depends on shaking off the stress and staying healthy. • A constant stream of business books promise formulas for getting the balance right. But for home builders the best source of advice is probably their peers: builders at various stages of their careers who have made running a successful business part of a successful life. Most of them have flirted with burnout at some point in the past, but all concur to a surprising degree on the basics of protecting your company’s most valuable asset: you. • Here are their suggestions:

Put It In Writing

The first and most essential tool in managing your time is a system for planning and prioritizing what you do. But while the world is full of time-management programs and smartphone apps, many builders favor paper-based systems, some as simple as an obsessively updated to-do list. Jim Murphy, who runs Jim Murphy & Associates, a high-end custom building company in Santa Rosa, Calif., swears by the old standby, the Franklin Planner, which he first learned about some 30 years ago at a seminar led by its inventor, Hyrum Smith.

“It’s about as simple as you can get,” Murphy says. “You spend five or 10 minutes each morning prioritizing things. An ‘A’ item is something that really should be done that day. A ‘B’ is something that’s important but not critical. And a ‘C’ is something to do when you have a little bit of time. So you prioritize tasks, and then you start knocking them off. You do your A priorities first, period, because if you get rid of the tough stuff, the rest becomes easier.”

Much easier, Murphy says. “Because all of a sudden you’re not so stressed out. You start slaying the dragons. I guarantee you it will change your life; and I mean your personal life, your business life, everything.

“I’ve always been a make-things-happen kind of person,” Murphy notes, “so I would always take on more than I was able to do with the systems I had in place. Once I got things organized like that, I was able to do all the work I had in half the time.”

Share the Load

While a carefully managed to-do list can cut the time you spend on your tasks, Murphy advises whittling that list of tasks to a minimum. “You need to go hunting with a rifle with a scope on it, not with a shotgun,” says Murphy, who has made an art out of cultivating a team who can take jobs away from him. “Figure out what you do well,” he says, and delegate the rest.

Running a business out of your own head makes delegation impossible and leads to managing from crisis to crisis. Worse, Murphy says, “you get comfortable with that feeling … it’s what makes you feel like you’re in control.”

Jesse Lenz

Avoid making yourself indispensable, he warns. “You have to trust other people.”

Allison Iantosca is a partner in F.H. Perry Builder, a Boston-area custom building and remodeling company founded by her father, Finley Perry, who proved an excellent role model for balancing life and work. Most builders are so focused on their direct contribution to the business that they can’t separate themselves from it, Iantosca says.

“Dad taught me that that’s the leverage point. You hire people who are better than you to do the work, to be the essence of what the company is.”

Along with making sure the machine is humming, Iantosca says, “my job is to be up and out, talking about the business, exploring possibilities, and making sure that my to-do list doesn’t get too piled full of day-to-day stuff.”

Book Time for Yourself

Robert Soens may have learned his most important lesson about being a builder before he ever swung a hammer for money. He was working his way through college, waiting tables and cooking in a restaurant, when he got a little too wrapped up in his work. “I went for a couple of years without a break,” says Soens, who now runs Pinnacle Custom Builders, a small Atlanta firm that does custom residential and commercial projects.

That long-ago attendance streak ended when the restaurant closed for renovations, Soens remembers. “I was really excited about the fact that I was being forced into taking a break, and I woke up the next morning with the flu. So I was either in bed or recovering from the flu for the entire break, and then it was right back to work. I told myself I would never allow that to happen again.”

Inspired by his early brush with burnout, Soens builds non-work time into his weekly schedule. “Friday night is family pizza night. Saturday mornings, I’m with my 11-year-old. Sunday, I take the day off and spend the day relaxing.”

In order to protect that time—as well as his regular vacations­—Soens chooses his projects carefully. “I’m fortunate in that I live in town, so I live close to most of the work that I do. I won’t take a job that would create a lot of lost time getting to.”

He also avoids clients who would unduly strain his resources. “Learning to turn down some work so you’re not overloaded is really important,” he says. “Part of it is getting the sense of clients that are going to waste your time.”

Iantosca describes herself as being “in the thick of child-rearing,” but she also schedules dedicated free time. “I’ve got a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, so my best time is first thing in the morning, when everyone’s still asleep. I get up early and do some reading or some meditating, or I go for a walk. That time has become really precious and critical for me, and I like to have it before the day gets started.”

Work Hard, Play Hard

Iantosca’s children get first crack at her evening and weekend hours, providing a built-in counterbalance to work. Murphy and Soens have hobbies that demand a similar degree of absorption. For decades, Murphy has raced top-fuel dragsters, and he maintains a home machine shop where he fabricates parts for his race car.

“I go out there probably four nights a week, and usually all day Saturday,” he says. “When I go out into the shop, I lose myself. I don’t think about work; I don’t think about anything except what I’m trying to make or design there. You need something to get your mind off the job so you can come in fresh the next day. If you carry the garbage around long enough, it’s going to start stinking.”

Jesse Lenz

Soens burned through a number of leisure pursuits, including deer hunting and fly fishing, before settling on motorcycle touring and sports car racing. “One of the things about motorcycling or having a Porsche on a racetrack is, man, you’d better be paying attention to what you’re doing,” he says. “You can’t be thinking about work; you can’t be thinking about the bills. It really forces you to focus on something other than the things that worry you most of the time. I think that’s one of the reasons why I got away from the fly fishing. It’s a little like sitting in the deer stand during deer season; you have too much time to think.

“I had to find something that got me out of thinking mode,” he continues. “And that’s really important. I’m a big believer in the work-hard, play-hard philosophy. If you’re working, focus on the work and be as efficient as you can, so you can carve out time to play. And when you play, play hard. Do something that takes you far enough away from your daily worries that you really can’t be thinking about them.”

Keep an Eye on the Finish Line

During his career as a custom builder, Andy Beck cleared his head by skiing and cycling in the big mountains around his company’s base in Vail, Colo. But what best focused his time-management strategy on the job was his determination ultimately to retire.

“You’re always trying to train your replacement,” says Beck, who worked for years with a professional transition planner and is now in the final stage of selling his company to its employees. “One of the things that helped toward the end of my career is that we had a transition plan. Fifteen years before I retired, I started thinking about exit planning.”

“You can create a saleable entity,” Beck says, even in custom building, where businesses tend to be strongly tied to the owners’ personality. “But in order to do that you truly have to delegate. If you can’t delegate, you’re not going to survive,” and you’re surely not going to pass along a functioning business when you retire. Planning to do both, he says, “forces you to think long term, work on your business rather than in your business, [and] think about how you’re going to bring people in and develop them so that they can take your place.”

Beck points out that the things you need to reach retirement in shape to actually enjoy it—efficient time management, adequate separation between work and private time, and a team that can run the business without you—are the very things necessary to create a business that can survive your exit.

“All the things you need to sell your business only serve to make it run better,” Beck says. “Common vision, the right staff, empowering people—all those things just make it easier for you to leave, sell, do whatever you want to do. Or stay, because now you’ve got this finely running machine.”