How long is your work unit: An hour, or a half-day?

This essay about meetings, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” written by Paul Graham, is right on the money.

I find that I can either set up a work day for meetings, or set it up for being productive. That’s why I like to cluster meetings all into one or two days a week whenever possible. That way, my “meeting days” are productive, because I have lots and lots of meetings. And my “productive days” are productive too, because my own tasks get done.

Paul writes,

There are two types of schedules, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

This is very very true, at least for me. Using Paul’s definitions, I’m both a manager and a maker. It’s hard to shift between the modes.

The concept of a “meeting,” by the way, also includes handling interrupt-driven tasks that weren’t on my agenda for that day. Dropping out of a project to “handle” what someone thinks will be a five-minute task can easily derail my creative productivity for hours. That also includes long instant-messenger chats, things like that. (I love caller ID, so I can let calls go to voicemail and then call back during a non-productive time.)

Paul continues,

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.

That’s true for me as well. If it’s 9:00 AM, and I know I have a 30-minute meeting at 9:30 AM, that half-hour is “wasted” with non-productive tasks because half an hour isn’t enough time to do anything meaningful. If the next 30-minute meeting is at, say, 11:00 AM, then it’s hard to start something between them. Then it’s time to start thinking about lunch. Two 30-minute meetings killed a whole morning.

Days without meetings are a golden treasure. It would be nice to work out a business schedule where all meetings happen just one or two days a week. Most of everyone’s time could then be blissfully interrupt-free and therefore more productive. Wouldn’t that be perfect?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick
1 reply
  1. XML Aficionado
    XML Aficionado says:

    I completely concur. I also found another nice solution to the meeting problem that I started implementing last year: to eliminate them completely wherever I can. There are so many things you can do via e-mail instead, that you’d be surprised. In fact, we’ve gotten rid of any “weekly status meetings”, because a simple weekly department report e-mail captures the same information and doesn’t waste anybody’s time.

Comments are closed.