Feel like you’re on a hamster wheel? Real estate shouldn’t be a 24-hour job. Restore some sanity with these productivity tips.
Businessman on hamster wheel

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It’s 10 p.m. and the smartphone on your bedside table pings, casting a familiar glow. Your partner is asleep, but the seller, who’s closing in three weeks, sent a text. They want the foyer chandelier after all. Do you fire off a hair-trigger response? You might want to think twice if you want some semblance of work-life balance.

Research shows working long hours backfires for most people, and for companies it doesn’t seem to result in more output. In a study of consultants, Erin Reid, a former professor at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, found that managers couldn’t tell the difference between people who actually put in 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.

Nevertheless, real estate is filled with long hours, lots of weekends, and being tethered to electronic devices. Because of the lack of a set schedule, brokers and agents are often pulled in many directions, and the stress can take its toll. But there are steps you can take to work smarter, not longer.

“Being on your A-game at all times is crucial,” says Mike McElroy, founder and managing broker of Center Coast Realty in Chicago. “Working long hours can lead to poor sleep, which then leads to poor focus. Lack of focus can have big consequences, especially when your buyer’s dream home or your seller’s contract negotiations are on the line.”

McElroy admits he has been guilty of working “ridiculously long hours” that stretch into the late evening because those off hours offer fewer distractions. “But after a certain point, my focus starts to drop and each additional hour I work has diminishing returns,” he says.

Working later often leads to lousy sleep, which will zap your productivity the next day. It’s a vicious cycle. So, how do you get off the hamster wheel? Time management is an obvious first step, McElroy says, but here are additional tips he and other successful brokers from around the country have to offer brokers and their agents.

Know When It’s Time to Ask For Help

McElroy recalls a former agent who put in crazy hours. The man’s time-management skills weren't the culprit. In fact, he was very efficient and organized. But the top producer’s business was exploding and he couldn’t sustain the growth. Sound familiar?

McElroy encouraged the agent to hire an assistant. The agent wasn’t one to relinquish control, but eventually acquiesced and delegated part of his workload so he could grow his transaction volume while working significantly less. “He even took a two-week vacation to Europe and nothing burned down while he was gone,” McElroy notes.

Learning to pass on certain duties goes for broker-owners as well. At a certain point, you have to hire management who can help your company grow. The art of delegation is key.

Set Some Boundaries, Please

Setting expectations with clients during your initial buyer or seller consultation by explaining the hours you work, the best ways to communicate with you, and how quickly they should expect a response. Don’t feel guilty about having the conversation, McElroy says, because “the clients you actually want to work with will respect it.”

Brokers should set similar expectations with their agents and enforce them. If someone sends a text at 9 p.m., in most cases, the issue can probably wait. Sure, if a team member pings to say a listing is flooding with water, you might want to respond. But a query from a client such as, “Should we paint the living room Agreeable Gray or Passive?" will keep. Consider putting your phone on “do not disturb” or turning it off after a certain time.

Jenelle Isaacson, founder and broker-owner of Living Room Realty in Portland, Ore., gives salaried staff $500 bonuses for taking at least five consecutive days off and offers unlimited paid time off. Her company, which has 20 full-time staffers and 133 agents, also provides agents with marketing, transaction management services, and an on-call buyer’s agent so they can get support without hiring their own full-time staff. “What’s great about being at a brokerage of our size is the economy of scale and the ability to pool resources,” Isaacson says.

Tripti Kasal, GRI, a broker and senior vice president of residential sales at Baird & Warner in Chicago, says agents should create downtime by scheduling their own "work hours,” such as what time their day starts and ends. They should also schedule times each day when they won’t allow themselves to get distracted. “No phone calls, work texts, or emails,” Kasal says.

It’s also important for both broker and agents to schedule days off and vacations with a proper backup plan that spells out who’ll take care of business. Spell out when you want to be contacted, if at all, and who should be contacted in your absence. You probably don’t need to be updated on open house traffic but you might want to know if an offer comes in on a certain property, for instance. ​

There’s Got to Be a Better Way

Early in her sales career, Rebecca Cafiero, broker-owner of Elevate Homes Realty in Palo Alto, Calif., routinely logged 10 to 12 hours or more, seven days a week. She loved the challenge but admits she was “stressed to the max.” At 31, while director of sales for a major homebuilder, she went to the emergency room thinking she was having a heart attack that turned out to be an anxiety attack. Cafiero knew she had to make some changes. She began eating cleaner, exercising, and doing yoga.

These days, Cafiero also runs a healthy lifestyle coaching business for executives. To carve out “me” time, she says email signatures and out of office replies help. An email signature might say “I answer emails from 8 to 9 a.m. and again from 1 to 2 p.m.”

Because eight hours of laser-focused work is often not productive, Cafiero recommends “power sessions” where follow-up or prospecting can be done in 60-minute blocks of time with no distractions, instead of constantly switching tasks. “Do a solid hour, then take a break to get outside for fresh air or a walk,” she says. Or, join a networking group so you have a team of referrers and can work smarter, not harder.

In the end, taking care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally, with time away from work and quality time with family, friends, hobbies, or volunteering, is essential to avoid getting burned out.

“It’s easy to work around the clock because there is always more to do—an event to go to for networking or a referral to ask for,” Cafiero says. “However, it's not sustainable, and you're only as good as your last deal.”