How a one-hour meeting can ruin a maker's day

Paul Graham has an interesting essay about the differences between a "maker's schedule" and a "manager's schedule" and how meetings affect makers' productivity.


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.

* * *

When we were working on our own startup, back in the 90s, I evolved another trick for partitioning the day. I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then I'd sleep till about 11 am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called "business stuff." I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager's schedule and one on the maker's.

I've trained myself to make use of punctuated nuggets of time, but I do cherish appointment-free days.

Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule (Thanks, Daniel!)


  1. A one hour meeting does the same thing to my day and it’s pretty much all business (I’m only a maker in my free time…when I have it, ha ha ha).

    Meetings, for the most part, interrupt work and do nothing more than decrease my productivity for the same reasons they do for a maker – especially the idea that if there is a meeting in the afternoon, I won’t embark on a complicated project in the morning. It is extremely rare that I leave a meeting feeling like:

    a) anything was accomplished,
    b) I have the energy to do anything productive,
    c) I don’t want to drop kick the nearest person.

    I think you could apply this difference as being between a “manager’s schedule” and “anyone who is not a manager’s schedule”.

  2. OK, on the one hand I want to snark on the whole “getting work done when the boss is away.” OTOH, yeah, that’s when you get work done, and it hasn’t changed in decades.

    Project management is the worst. They’re competent in what they’re managing (that’s why they’re there) but they’ve suddenly been handed a reason to justify their existence, which just winds up caught in the sprockets of actual stuff.

  3. In my office we kill creative time with endless meetings to discuss how we’re not being creative enough.

    It’s been refined down to a science.

  4. I’m lucky in that most of my project work takes a lot of creativity on my part.
    I’m very unlucky that I have to live with and be emotionally dependent upon passive-aggressive beetches that get their jollies sniping at me.
    I totally concur about the negative affect of interaction by negative sources. If I’m left alone I can accomplish so much and have a blast doing it. As it is I spend 30% of my time doing stress reduction and psychological triage on myself and trying to figure out ways to pacify and defuse situations that are ridiculously useless. I would like to see actual studies done on this tho… I think it’d be interesting.

  5. This couldn’t be more true for me. When I am in the throes of the creative process, it only really works for me if the entire day ahead of me is clear, with no obligations.

    Any looming appointment, meeting, or any other obligation later in the day totally throws me off, almost invariably. I, too, end up doing most of my ‘making’ in the wee hours after all my commitments have been met, and when the only deadline is when my body finally gives up and succumbs to sleep. Not great for the constitution, but sometimes it’s the only way.

  6. This is a very skewed bunch of comments – which is why I like this site. My perspective is that the point of meetings is to create a sense of doing things together. The creative person is less enthused by these gatherings but the group needs them. It is difficult to manage a team but it is important to give something to the group so the creativity can be applied to the world of commerce.

  7. i did not realized, but i am working the same scedule as mentioned above: Night hours for thinking, planning and the “big junks” you dont want to get disturbed with. Day hours for meetings, executive tasks and others.

    But it is something you can do for a while – dont want to make it my life style concept though. i like to have meetings in the morning, then I usually get the most out of it and still have my day kind of free.

    Thanks for the blogpost: It is nice to read what one actually is doing without realizing it ;-) . Eye opener!

    Cheers, Deniz

  8. Isn’t there a saying… something along the lines of “If the reason that the human race hasn’t lived up to its full potential could be summed up in one word, that word would be ‘meetings'”?

  9. Interesting observation. Seems to be true for me for research work, too. What makes it more difficult is time-sharing research, “management tasks” and meetings – and also roughly half a day of child care/family work. Research works best if I’ undisturbed and free to move slowly into flow (and stay their until night), an egalitarian child-care arrangement works best if both persons use only half days for work. Quite a complicated puzzle, and I don’t have a satisfying solution.

  10. learn to enter a fugue state in meetings where your mind works on the project. In time you will gain a reputation for eccentricity and be left alone. If they do force you to speak, speak maddeningly slowly with much throat clearing, hemming and hawing and adopt a rhythm of no rhythm that is like fingernail son a chalkboard after a few minutes.

  11. I’m currently in a place where I have a meeting every other week, sometimes less. No regular meetings.

    I could actually use more. I’m losing the team feeling.

    But once upon a time I had three calls every day, and at that point I’d be very much agreeing with everything.

  12. This is a “great” industry…as long as you don’t have a marriage, kids, or a life.

    There’s a lot of hypocrisy, too. Companies say they want team players…who can work independently and without supervision. Huh?

  13. until you have endured the hell of Japanese corporate/government meeting culture, you are as infants before the terminally bored master.

  14. Effective time management is necessary for any profession whether you are manager or an artist.

    If your office uses a calendering program like Outlook, then make sure to block out large chunks of time for uninterrupted “work stuff”. That way when somebody wants to schedule a meeting, they will see that you are unavailable.

    Leave one or two days each week available for meetings, phone calls, etc. and make sure your co-workers and managers know you are available on these days.

    Turn your phone off and don’t answer your emails during your “work time”. If you have an office, close the door.

    You can’t fault others for wanting/needing your input on projects and meetings if you are not clear about your availability and accessibility.

  15. Nope! My muse waits for no man, and even if I have to be on a plane in half an hour, I MUST work on a creative project when a creative project demands to be worked on! (I still leave at the last possible minute to catch the plane, though)

  16. In my office “meeting to discuss” means “I’m going to dictate requirements to you” and that definitely has an effect on morale.

  17. Ah so spot on, thank you! I’m struggling with this exact same thing now and your article was so interesting to read because it made me feel like I’m not alone. I will have to learn to cope and make better use of my time. Great read.

  18. flatulence, uncertain personal hygiene and a reputation for spreading the word of the lord can all be your friends here.

  19. The company I work for has meetings at 8:30 Monday morning. This was changed from 9:00 AM because people tended to get too caught up in stuff by the time 9:00 rolled around.

    Not much time is lost by unproductivity this way. Also our meetings are only about an hour long (small company, less to jabber about).

  20. in the tradition of the “standing meeting” (wherein trembling leg muscles limit the time wasted) I hereby offer up the Russian Roulette Meeting. Whatever person calling the meeting is required to chamber a single round in a standard six shot revolver, and not less than once every three minutes, raise it to his or her forehead and PROVE the meeting is worth the use of the other’s precious time.

  21. @19,

    I had a web client who dicked-me around, kept changing his mind and expecting me to implement his out-of-scope changes. I finally realized that was his game, so the next time he asked for work, I insisted on a written, signed specification.

    He said, “I’ll *never* get a 100%-complete spec from him,” and “He’ll ‘humor’ me and sign the spec, but he has no intention of honoring it. What am I going to do, sue him?”

    You can guess how much more work I did for him after I heard *that* gem. And *he* was pissed at *me*. Like a plumber or anyone else would put-up with that sh*t…

    Anytime someone dares you to sue him, it’s time to decline the work…and put-out a contract on *him*. And I don’t mean for web-dev, either.

  22. i wish he had also mentioned how this applies to new development and maintenance work… how new development takes forever when you have the same team attempting to maintain an existing product.

  23. This was very true for me when I was in school (just graduated in June). I couldn’t work on a paper if I knew I had to go to class or an appointment or whatever within the next two hours. It just wasn’t enough time to get into the deep thinking I needed for a paper. That meant I did a lot of work at night, which luckily, was tenable as a student.

  24. I used to have a boss who held a daily status meeting for a few months.

    Before you scoff, it was actually pretty good. It had a 15 minute time limit, and was over sooner if there was nothing left to say. It only covered the topics that we were working on, so there wasn’t much of a context switch.


  25. Moore’s Law and other advances in storage tech means the personal soul-keeper is near at hand. With petabytes for the penny and a truly ubiquitous web we can finally account for every second of every human life. The social engineering required to have universal acceptance is almost trivial compared to say getting people to brush regularly. All these points converge to mean only one thing: finally! meeting accountability!

    We must immediately commence work on the software needed to debit the life-accounts of time wasters. Let those meeting morons that trot out “just one more thing for the agenda” be made to PAY! Advanced actuarial science will permit the precise calculation of the span of any person and coupled with the aforementioned, make it possible to even the score. I suggest either a running account with sudden termination without warning when the balance becomes due, or an option of having one’s time shortened by scientifically applied physical trauma.

    That’ll show the bastards.

  26. Fulfilling lives to be sure but what about family and friends. Developing a relationship to share your life with a marital partner (to me at least) requires a many hours in the day to spend time together, live and learn together, talk, emote, share. Let alone parents, extended family and children. I just don’t understand how people can work from dinner to 3am AND from the moment they wake up until dinner. Although work can be fulfilling it is precisely that fact that makes it addictive. Brilliant ideas brought to fruition are gratifying in the moment but meaningful relationships take years – I guess it is the Great Maker’s Pitfall.

  27. Could not agree more. Meetings suck ass. In fact any interaction with people sucks ass. I’d like them to just slip the brief under the door and leave me the fuck alone to work on it. And the brief better be one they have thought about, and gained consensus from all stakeholders, with some references for style and tone.

    Dare to dream.

    Takuan, you totally rule. I come for the “Russian Roullette Meetings”, but I stay for the “wimp”.

  28. for me, often having to do ANYTHING non-work related during “work time” is enough to derail my creative process for hours. I’ve tried to express this to my wife, who despite her best efforts doesn’t understand that a simple thing like stopping my work to take out the trash or help move the couch, etc, is enough to pull me out of my “zone,” and i may not be able to get back into it for quite a while. I wish creativity was a switch i could simply throw on a whim, but sometimes it just isn’t. It’s a delicate machine and some days the gears just don’t turn as freely as others.


  29. Just lost a long comment (my own fault) anyhow. There’s two elements to this problem.

    Part one, running effective meetings. There’s a huge amount of information about this, and you can act as an agent of change for your offices meeting culture, possibly. However, despite clear evidence that meetings often don’t work, people keep having bad meetings. So …

    Part two – improve your ability to gracefully shift context. I see a lot of people saying “If I have a one hour meeting, I lose much more than an hour of time.” – that’s not a statement about the value of meetings, it’s a statement about your ability to change context quickly.

    Which is entirely possible – I used to have problems doing it, and now I don’t. What is different? First, I practiced. When I leave off doing one thing, I take a quick inventory – stance, feelings, thoughts, current moment. Then I physically step out of that stance and mentally hang it all on a hook. Sometimes I give myself a shake to make sure I’m actually in a new state of mind.

    Then I go do what I need to do.

    When I return, I slide back into the stance, bring the feelings and thoughts to mind – and bam, pick up where I left off.

    Now, it may take practice to get the process down to a second or two, but changing context usefully is one of the key skills in todays interrupt driven world. It’s worth the practice.

    1. The trouble with meetings is that they’re commonly organized and run by managers. The trouble with managers is that they commonly go into management because they couldn’t cut it as workers or because it’s the only way to get a pay raise. Meetings run by people who know why and when to have a meeting and how to run it are fine. The other kind are horrible.

      Case in point: incompetent manager runs mandatory monthly staff meeting. Having no idea why he’s having a meeting, he makes the employees pass the Policy Manual around and each read a paragraph aloud. It really happened. I quit right then and there.

  30. Like Lauren O (#29), I feel like classes have much the same effect as meetings. They break up the day and ironically can make it difficult to get any studying done.

    I feel like I have been trying to explain this phenomenon to my mother for much of my life without knowing exactly what I was trying to say. Free days are not good times to schedule anything. Medical appointments, tea with the neighbors, a trip to the video store, whatever. Even if it lasts five minutes it can ruin a whole day’s worth of work.

    Now I wish someone would please explain it to my college. A schedule that spreads classes out over every weekday may look easier, but it is remarkably less productive, and therefore actually more difficult.

  31. I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then I’d sleep till about 11 am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called “business stuff.”

    Work 16 hours a day? Er, no thanks.

    #30, jeffbell:

    daily status meeting. It had a 15 minute time limit

    We do this at the moment. As you say, it’s not a problem switching back after a short meeting like that.

    For me, long sessions of uninterrupted programming are singularly unproductive; all my breakthroughs come when I’m thinking about something else.

  32. Ugg try being in the medical field. Countless HOURS wasted in pointless meetings.

    Its mostly the management rubbing their stuff in front of the doctors saying how great the clinic is doing, we spend 10 minutes on acknowledgments. (I want to acknowledge them with taste of my knuckles.)

    20 minutes on “old bussiness or ‘tabled’ bussiness”
    then if we get around to it, new business!!

    Which in turn gets tabled, becasue well, there are patients waiting to be seen.

    I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in the circle of defunct management. Why have a manager at all? Hire competent workers who don’t need to be baby sat, and have one lead for each ” division.” But well thats just my military side speaking.

    We’d have 0700 muster, say what needed to be said in 15 minutes, then get our asses to work. Didn’t have time to stroke myself or my buddies with empty acknowledgments with 22 aircraft being shot off the flight deck before breakfast. And at least 30 crew members, sniffling, scratching or bleeding in my P-Way.


Comments are closed.