The Procrastination Risk in the Maker’s Schedule

Paul Graham wrote a popular essay a year ago contrasting the "Maker's Schedule" with the "Manager'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.

Marc Andreesen wrote a post a couple years before Graham recommending a something similar: as much as possible don't keep a schedule, don't agree in advance to meetings that can interrupt the most important to-do of the current moment.

It's true that for some creative pursuits you need long, uninterrupted stretches of time to get work done. I try to batch my calls / meetings for just this reason. But one twist: if you have literally nothing on your calendar for a day — and for enthusiasts of the Maker's Schedule, this is the goal — procrastination becomes easier, in my experience.

When I have nothing on today's calendar it's easy to dick around during any one of my morning routine stages: wake up, breakfast, email, workout, shower, lunch. If I don't have any anchor external commitment, I can say to myself, "If I start real work at 2 or 3 PM, what does it matter?"

By contrast, if I have a call scheduled at 1:30 PM (my usual time for doing calls), I keep focused on swiftly moving through my morning routine in time to do the call. Otherwise, my whole day is thrown off. Then, when the call's finished, I'm ready to immediately dive into real work for the rest of the afternoon / night. (I'm up until 1:30 AM.)

Bottom Line: The idea of a day totally free of any external commitments or obligations sounds good in theory yet increases the likelihood I procrastinate. On the other hand, a day full of meetings or obligations means I get nothing done. The optimal point is one or two obligations which mark the passing of the day and create a sense of urgency about how I spend the time that's all mine.

9 Responses to The Procrastination Risk in the Maker’s Schedule

  1. Lucas Oman says:

    As a programmer, I agree that time can’t be measured in hours but also that measuring in days can make procrastination easier.

    Unfortunately, many programmers don’t have daily appointments, either, to mark the passing of the day. I like to have personal goals for each day, instead.

  2. Dan Goodwin says:

    I agree with this, the way I see it is if we create two or three “pillars” in our schedule then we can build around them and in between with smaller, more spontaneous activities.

    Like you said, a completely empty day encourages more procrastination as there’s no real incentive to create any time soon, and before you know it, the day’s over with nothing to show for it.

    It’s similar in a way to white blank page syndrome for writers. If you have a couple of words or phrases to begin within, it’s much easier to flesh them out and build around them, than be daunted by the infinite possibility of a completely blank page.

  3. Tomas says:

    I agree completely. I’ve been having whole weeks of nothing but long stretches of work, with no clear deadline in sight and I’ve been inevitably drifting to waking up later every day. I’ve tried setting myself deadlines but since it partially depends on my boss giving me more material, it’s turned into 3 days of good work, 2 days of nothing as I try to make my boss move faster on giving me more material, then another 3 days of good work.

    I’ve tried filling those 2 days with networking my way into future jobs, meeting colleagues, reading, writing, etc. But at the end of the day it’s taken 6-9 months to do a documentary that could have been done in 3. I charge by work done and not hours put in, so it’s no benefit whatsoever.

    I recall the last doc i worked in, there was so much deadlines that we used our time much better. We got more done in less time, and often with better results.

    It seems a tad ridiculous that im going to start pushing my current boss around to make him work faster, but that’s the way it’s gonna be apparently. No deadlines = no hurry = inefficient time management.

    Half-day slots feels fine for me, but i’ll make sure to have a couple of short meetings or errands in the middle to make it less procastinatable-ish.

  4. LP says:

    Disagree. If I have even one scheduled meeting or call, I find it’s almost impossible to get started on any large project requiring a flow state – I spend the whole day up until the scheduled event is over doing small, routine tasks. Scheduling calls/meetings first thing in the morning also backfires, since it just causes me to enter worry/preparation mode the afternoon before. As much as possible, I try to schedule calls/meetings for Monday and Tuesday, so that I can have several days of uninterrupted work.

  5. Ryan Holiday says:

    A better rule, I’ve found, is to almost NEVER agree to a “call.” Calls are worse than meetings, which at least occasionally have a purpose and can be used for some intangible personal benefits too. Especially if that person is a salesman or someone who will be working on something for you.

    Doing it via email, even if you have to clarify unclear parts occasionally is way faster. It also makes it easier to say no.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Funny, I see it the opposite way. I find calls better than meetings. With
    meetings, there is more small talk that wastes time. If you're done
    discussing a topic after 10 minutes, it's awkward to just leave because both
    parties presumably traveled to the meeting location, so it drags on. It
    usually drags on for the full hour time slot that is customary. Scheduled
    calls involve minimal small talk and can end after 10 mins easily. Not to
    mention the fact that you can do them from anywhere….

  7. Huy J says:

    I find emails could be an interrupting factors. You have allocated some obligations for the day, but some emails coming up remind you of some previous commitments you have not done, and request for your immediate attention. Eventually, you proceed with more obligations than you thought.

  8. Kirsten says:

    I 100% agree with you. Back when I was trying to be a freelance writer, I often got nothing done in a day because I kept pushing out my start time. First it would be 10 a.m., then noon. Then I would start thinking: Well, I can always stay up late.

    The first good thing that happened to my freelance career was when I got a job that started at 3:30 p.m. Now my day had only enough time to drink coffee, read the paper, go for a run, and do some interviews or writing, with maybe an errand or two thrown in.

    The next good thing that happened was when I left journalism entirely and got a full-time career. Being a working professional made me a lot more professional about my writing–and it required a much better use of time. For 10 years now, I’ve gotten much more done than I did back when I devoted the whole day to “writing”

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    I agree. That is definitely a problem with meetings. I try to avoid them both as much as possible. But minute for minute, time spent in a meeting is worth more than time spent on a call. In person, there are all sorts of priceless benefits – establishing a real human relationship for one.

    On Wed, Jun 30, 2010 at 9:47 PM, Ben Casnocha <[email protected]> wrote:

    Funny, I see it the opposite way. I find calls better than meetings. With
    meetings, there is more small talk that wastes time. If you're done
    discussing a topic after 10 minutes, it's awkward to just leave because both
    parties presumably traveled to the meeting location, so it drags on. It
    usually drags on for the full hour time slot that is customary. Scheduled
    calls involve minimal small talk and can end after 10 mins easily. Not to
    mention the fact that you can do them from anywhere….

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