Why the Manager’s Schedule Blows Creative Productivity

July 28, 2009

Maker's scheduleIn his latest essay, Paul Graham describes the difference between what he calls the maker's schedule and the manager's schedule. Makers--the writers, coders, designers, editors, creative types--need half or whole days to produce anything that solves complicated problems. Managers schedule out their workdays in hour-long blocks. When managers schedule makers into midday meetings, they kill creative productivity in real but not-obvious ways. Graham considers himself a maker, and describes why meetings are the enemy of creativity:

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you're a maker, think of your own case. Don't your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don't. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

This resonates with me deeply.

As a freelancer, I get lots of requests to "grab coffee" (as Graham describes) with folks who are just interested in seeing if working together is a possibility. Whenever that happens, my heart sinks. If I'm on deadline or deep in a programming project, grabbing coffee midday with someone I don't know and might not have any good business reason to talk to changes the tenor of the entire day. When I can, I usually I turn down these types of speculative meetings because the costs are too high--but I always feel bad about it, and never know how to word my response. (Generally I say, "Sorry I'm just too busy.")

But the fact is that creative types do have to go to meetings. If you can control when those meetings happen, Graham suggests putting aside end-of-day office hours, which don't split the day in half. I'd add that breakfast or early morning coffee meetings are also a good alternative.

Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule [Paul Graham]

I’m a manager, but still find, especially in Los Angeles, a formidably large city to get through most times of the day, that an ill-placed out of the office meeting can really crush the day’s momentum. I try and match up meetings for mornings nearer my home/office, when my plate is full. At least then I can orient the rest of the day as a full unit of time beginning as soon as the meeting ends.

Peter Rauh [+1]
Jul 28 09 at 3:38 pm

I discussed this with a few of the other ‘managers’ (I’m a product manager, which I consider a ‘maker’ too) and that raised the interesting dilemma of what time of day is best to schedule meetings with creative people in an office environment. Assuming you’d want to avoid the middle of the day, I suggested either at the very beginning or at the end of it. The end of the day seemed a better choice, because that way when an energized employee gets to work after a night of sleep, they’re immediately able to use some of those creative juices that might have gotten flowing after sleeping on a previous problem.

Our project manager on the other hand felt that a meeting at the end of the day means you’re losing any momentum on next action items you might have resulting from the meeting. Further more, the morning is when you’re more likely to have daily scrum meetings per our agile development process. These tend to be 15-20 minutes, but with multiple project managers sharing one project manager, some projects don’t have theirs until later in the morning.

I’m still partial to having meeting with the engineers (in our case) at the end of the day around 4 or 5. Who’s to say that every meeting is going to be such that you’re going to rush to implement what’s just been discussed? That also puts a nice natural cap to the meeting, since nobody wants to stick around in a meeting room after 5 or 6 anymore.

Joost Schuur [+1]
Jul 28 09 at 4:05 pm

This really hits the nail right on the head for me. I don’t consider myself a “creative type” in my day job (IT Infrastructure/Systems Analyst), but any mid-day meeting kills my day.

I work 7am-3pm, and our “morning” team meetings each week are scheduled at 10:30am, which to me is nearly halfway through my day. Knowing I have that meeting, I hesitate to get deep into research or project work for fear that I’ll lose my train of thought and spend 45 minutes after the meeting to get myself back into the frame of mind I was in before the meeting (which has happened quite frequently).

Instead, what I’ve done is used my Thursday’s (our weekly team meeting day) my admin day. I use it to catch up on other responsibilities, such as coding invoices, following up on vendor relationships, etc. It’s helped me overcome the feeling of a lost day.

Bill Clark [+7]
Jul 28 09 at 5:37 pm

Paul put down in writing what I’ve been struggling to communicate to people at work. I can add that the worst is scheduling a meeting then postponing it at the last minute. You get the same negative impact on the maker’s schedule as actually having the meeting so the rescheduling meeting is twice as bad (or more if there are multiple reschedules.)

blog.jonadair.com/ [+1]
Jul 28 09 at 5:52 pm

Paul Graham can get a little twee sometimes. I feel he’s a little precious about the-sacred-work-of- developers. That said, there are obviously some best practices to minimizing disruption. It’s no surprise that the software industry favours the 15-minute stand-up meeting first thing in the morning, thus freeing up the rest of the day.

I really hear what you’re saying about random ‘go for coffee’ meeting requests. I’m sure I get far fewer than you, but it’s a couple a month, certainly. They’re a time suck, and rarely fruitful. My strategy for dealing with such meetings is, even though we’re just going for coffee, to set a firm agenda for what we’re going to discuss, and stick to it. An end-time also helps.

Darren [+6]
Jul 28 09 at 6:58 pm

Thanks for sharing this…it was an excellent read. I’ve long understood the benefits of the maker’s schedule, but hadn’t really been able to juxtapose it so cogently alongside the other approach.

technotheory [+11]
Jul 29 09 at 12:20 am

In my organization, all department heads are required to file a weekly schedule of appointments. I have tried to explain that I rarely have a strict schedule, since the problem solving process doesn’t happen in neat chunks and ad hoc discussions (I don’t call them meetings) occur when needed. After months of “disdain” from administration, I developed a dummy schedule, somewhat based on reality, which I deliver on a weekly basis! This keeps my ideas rolling and my operation relaxed and, dare I say?, happy.

Robert Schnick
Jul 29 09 at 2:00 am

My personal feeling is that there’s a deep truth in this words, because the perception of time management when doing things (not only) when programming is really different than when trying to manage things.

But I think that more than a problem within managers and makers is a generalized issue linked to people leak of abitude in managing due dates and deadlines.

If someone knows the meaning and importance of a due date, thinks twice before making an “immediate” meeting or asking someone to have a coffee, if he (or she) knows that the other is approaching this deadline.

This post also at http://ictheworld.wordpress.com

hotrao [+10]
Jul 29 09 at 5:55 am

Thank you so much. This article finally voices what I have been trying to say to managers around me for a long time.

Continuously interrupting not just with meetings but just random requests (especially as deadlines near) that have very little to do with what I am supposed to be working on.

Now, I just have to figure out how to share this without looking like a prima donna when I all I want is do the project.

Curt Tweedle
Aug 2 09 at 10:18 am


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