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Hills and Valleys

Has no one ever told you about the law of undulation?—C.S. Lewis, from The Screwtape Letters

As with any creative endeavor, the performance of estimating tends, in many ways, to imitate the grander scheme of life. We’ve all come to know quite well those peak days and weeks in our lives in which our spirits swell and our energy flows like a storm-swollen river. We’ve likewise experienced the inevitable downward slide from those peaks into trough periods of indolence when our human motors are barely idling. This is what Screwtape meant by “the law of undulation,” that is, the inevitable swinging pendulum between the hills and valleys of our existence.

As estimators, the peak periods of multiple deadlines and dizzying weeks of hyperactivity are imposed from external sources, i.e., whatever juicy prospects surface on the bid calendar. Similarly, we’re fated by powers beyond our control to cycles of drought when there’s a sudden or unexpected dearth of bid invitations. And while we hope these trough periods don’t last any longer than a few days or a week at most, they do ultimately occur, and I’ve made some interesting observations on how certain bidmeisters spend their downtime.

One approach to a downturn in bid activity might be labeled with a colorfully descriptive term like “shell shock.” The symptoms are quite apparent, as is the cause. The ashen-faced quantifier remains glued to the monitor, spellbound, as it has been his sole source of communication for weeks, perhaps months, on end. He stares slack-jawed into the illuminated screen like a lost woodsman might stare blankly into a flickering signal fire for solace. He surfs (or trawls) the net, hitting on the same tired news sites, hungering for some fresh bit of trivia, as if the gatekeepers of these Web-tabloids refresh their fare on an hourly basis. He scans his email three or four times an hour, famished for the next bid invitation to save him from this pit of lethargy. But alas, it fails to surface, and he is reduced to an existence of tapping fingers, biting pencils and whistling tunelessly. Clearly, this is not the most positive response to a break in the action, but who among us can blame him? He is suffering from a serious case of mental fatigue, brought upon by endless weeks of heightened awareness. His racing mind has been constantly engaged in the kind of intense cerebral gymnastics demanded by a high-stakes competition—the struggle that is the essence of our profession. Now, in this pathetic condition of collapse, he deserves no condemnation from us—only a sympathetic word or two, if he is still capable of registering the sound of a human voice.

A more positive approach to the trough periods would entail picking up the slack that shook loose while all time and undivided attention were focused on a wave of monumental deadline tasks. Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” calls this “saw sharpening,” and each of us who’ve attempted to convert a dead tree into a cord of firewood without stopping to painstakingly file each blunted tooth on the chainsaw knows just what he means. Saw sharpening is analogous to catching up on neglected chores and readying tools for taking on the next wave of work. For exactimators, this might include following up on pending bids, addressing overdue call-back items and preparing hand-offs for awarded jobs. Preparing tools might involve adding or revising pre-built program assemblies, updating default material pricing and labor production rates, or adding new line items to the database. This more healthy response to the trough periods is only open to those who have retained enough cranial spark to kindle some interim fire.

Of course, there’s another preferred downtime avenue that only a handful of intrepid estimators explore when the pressure subsides: the path that leads out of town. One of the disadvantages of being engaged in an unpredictable profession that literally “takes it as it comes,” is the difficulty in planning any vacation time. I’m certain that if a poll were taken, the results would yield a conclusion that the vast majority of estimators utilize less than half of the annual vacation time they are allotted. Ironically enough, I can scarcely think of a segment of the work force that would benefit more from some R&R (refresh and recharge) than those of our bean-counting ilk. Ah, but alas, we bidmeisters are fated to remain ever-vigilant for that next frenzied wave, and few of us ever venture further than the city fringes within a few hours of the office, and never stray beyond the invisible tether of a cellphone signal.

Well there you have a rather hyperbolic look at the don’ts and do’s of downtime. The inspiration came from this current trough period of my own, which I can plainly see will be short-lived. And so I must now try to retrieve my tongue from its grotesque insertion into cheek, and steel myself for this next crescendo of activity.

No complaints. As they say, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

Vince Bailey is an estimator at E&K of Phoenix.

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