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Why Are Maker Schedules So Rare?

April 5th, 2017 · 28 comments

A Tale of Two Schedules

In 2009, tech investor Paul Graham published an influential essay titled “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” In this piece, he argued that the best types of schedules for people who makes things are different than the best schedules for those who manage things.

As Graham elaborates:

“The manager’s schedule is…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…”

“…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.”

He then delivers the key conclusion: “When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster.”

Though Graham doesn’t mention it specifically in the essay, we might add that the need to keep up with an inbox or chat channel can be equally disastrous to a maker. The constant context switching, as we now know from research, also prevents the maker’s brain from fully engaging the creative task at hand.

In the years since this essay was published, it has spread widely. The (slightly modified) terms maker schedule and manager schedule are well-known, and most people who deal with both types of workers agree that Graham is speaking the truth: if you want someone to make something valuable, they’ll be most effective if you let them work in long, uninterrupted chunks.

But here’s the thing: almost no organizations support maker schedules.

The reasons for this reality are straightforward: (a) distractions like constant messaging and frequent meetings are often convenient in the moment for the person instigating them; (b) most organizations place no barriers around such behaviors; (c) without these barriers, convenience will almost always win.

To me, the more interesting question is what an organization could do if they decided they were ready to support Graham’s maker schedule concept. Here are two ideas off the top of my head; one moderate, and the other more extreme…

  • Moderate Option: Dual Schedules. A straightforward strategy is to have makers switch back and forth between maker and manager schedules. For example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday might be maker days: you cannot schedule meetings with makers on these days, and emails sent to them will be held by the server until the day is over. A special phone number is provided for emergencies. The other two days are manager days, and the expectation is that the maker will be checking inboxes constantly and is willing to fill every hour with meetings. I call this a moderate option because it doesn’t change a culture that forces makers to also act like managers (for the sake of convenience), it just grants them enough reprieve to get valuable things done on a regular basis.
  • Extreme Option: The Maker Firewall. A more aggressive approach is to declare a stark split between makers and managers. To enforce this split you need a strong barrier between the two worker types. My suggestion is to eliminate any general way for people to contact a maker: no email address, no slack handle, no phone. Instead, each maker is assigned a manager. All communication to and from the maker go through that manager. (The exception, of course, is that makers working in teams have ways to communicate within their team.) The manager handles all incoming requests, and in return brings to the makers each day a schedule of what they should be working on — otherwise leaving them to put their head down and craft valuable things. I call this an extreme option as it would require substantial shifts in an organization’s structure and how it operates. (I suspect, however, that it would also lead maker-centric organizations to become much more profitable, especially in sectors like tech, where the value of 10x code is massive.)

The above options are just speculation, but their motivation is important. I think Paul Graham is 100% right in his analysis of the different types of schedules, and in an increasingly competitive knowledge economy, the role of makers are more important than ever before (as most other knowledge activities are vulnerable to automation and outsourcing). There are, in other words, big advantages lurking for those organizations brave enough to take Graham’s analysis seriously.

28 thoughts on “Why Are Maker Schedules So Rare?

  1. Dave Ardent says:

    I think your best hope for seeing differing schedules for different workers (or ‘Makers’ and ‘Managers’, to use Graham’s terms) become part of modern business structures is some sort of generational shift: the folks running the show just now are generally pretty set in their ways, so it will take a new generation of showrunners to push through new ideas.

    Which means those of us stuck in the public sector are going to be waiting a good long while, but that’s just something you have to accept I guess.

  2. Joshua says:

    I have implemented a variation of the Dual Schedule option with some success. Most days of the week (3-4 days per week when not traveling) I have from 8am-1pm blocked off and without external distraction. Then in the afternoon I take meetings and do more administrative and logistics tasks, as well as planning out my work for the next day. This split works well for me. I have tried full days of maker work, and I end up with a wandering mind by about 1pm anyway.

    I started this about 1 year ago with 2-hour blocks, and have gradually expanded it to half days. And because it is just a half day, and I am still available for meetings any day of the week (just in the afternoon), I have gotten no push-back from management. And they are happy to continue the support because of the amount of quality work I am able to accomplish.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Out of curiosity, what type of work do you do for a living?

      1. Joshua says:

        I am an engineer doing early stage research.

      2. Jannerdale says:

        I do the same. I’m a Senior Director for a multinational STEM company. I made it clear that between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm I’m unavailable for meetings, calls, and emails. Even though I have managerial responsibilities at board level, I don’t wish to stop being a maker — I still have much to offer to the company in that respect. The managerial and meeting type activities can take place in the afternoon.

    2. Gerard says:

      I work for a small coffee company as their head of finance and IT and am trying to implement a similar schedule, but find that the constant barrage of interruptions makes it hard to get this schedule implemented.
      How did you implement it at first?

  3. Another great post to learn, thanks.

  4. TesTeq says:

    Look at #NoOffice organizations like Nozbe or Basecamp. They’re all about maker schedules / deep work.

  5. Szymon Szott says:

    As an academic, I try to block out time for deep work. But sometimes, especially in the final stages of writing a research paper, I need to start the day with being a manager and checking my email to see if my collaborators have written anything important. Then, I work on the paper (maker schedule) but will probably soon see an issue which necessitates a discussion with my co-authors (usually an e-mail if they’re from another university) and so I switch back and forth between maker and manager.

    I also agree with Joshua about being quickly burnt out by doing a full day of maker schedules. I remember someone giving advice about working on a single topic for a finite amount of time (say, 1-2 hours) before burnout. Then, you work on something else and your brain is less tired.

  6. Bragadeesh says:

    Maker’s firewall sounds too good. I’ve been practicing Pomodoro technique recently. Although the suggestion is to go for 25-minute time slots, when you are really in-the-zone of coding (yes, I am a manager Plus a hands-on developer at heart), time just flies. I could cover 8-10 Pomodoros in a stretch. The irony is these stretches are something I do when I work from home mostly in an isolated place with minimum to no disturbance. Same 10 Pomodoro if I want to split as 2 per day spread over the week, the throughput or efficiency will not even be close to 50%.

    Thanks for sharing another great insight. Go, Cal!

  7. Great thoughts all around. I would add the shredding of the office to the arsenal of the maker as well – on the days where making is the priority and deep work is in full swing, there is no need for the toxicity of the modern office setting (junk light, junk noise, junk food, junk EMR, etc.).

  8. tracyloveswork says:

    Something like the Maker’s Firewall used to exist in advertising agencies. The Creative Director was the gatekeeper. Account had to go through the CD for requests and most creatives only had to worry about a few deadlines. We only shared work, even internally, when the CD felt it was ready. By the time I left, the culture had changed. And not until it changed, did I realize how important it was to have the CD filtering all the daily chatter. I was constantly getting emails and project managers would pop by my office anytime looking for updates. The only time I could get quality work done was before 9:30am and after 6:30pm. It became a choice between my free-time and my work. And you would think this change would be fueled by greater production or profit… But the agency only seemed to struggle more.

  9. Tim Knittel says:

    Great post. It makes me realize the only difference between factory makers and knowledge makers is that knowledge makers sit at a computer … but psychologically, that difference makes them seem accessible. Imagine asking factory makers to stop their work every time an email came in!

  10. Kalpesh Patel says:

    Great thoughts but to management, this may seem extreme. Implementing the MWF maker schedule or maker firewall comes from the top down and needs a management buy-in. As I practice more and more deep work, I see that constant distraction had made me look for quick and easy win tasks, rather than larger complex 10X impact tasks. Allocating 4 hours per day of no distraction had definitely helped in taking on more of the bigger tasks.

  11. Glenn says:

    First of all, let me just say that I’m a huge fan of all your books. Hopefully, the previous sentence permits the following: As I writer myself, I know I’d love to know if someone found a typo/mistake in one of my works so I could fix it in future editions. In the section of “Deep Work” in which you profile the Farmers Market Vendor… you use the word “boiler” to describe chickens raised for meat. The correct word is “broiler”. There. I’ve done it. I’ve squandered today’s remaining allotment of “shallow work” posting a picky correction to the blog of one of my favorite thinkers!

  12. Liz says:

    The extreme schedule reminds me of technical services in libraries earlier in my career. If you needed something done, there was a set process and only one way of contacting the people to carry out the work.

  13. Carl says:

    Great piece Cal.

    Whether maker or manager, busyness and meetings feel safe somehow, as if ‘we’re doing something constructive’ even though we may actually be spinning our wheels. Herd mentality grabs hold and it takes a bold organisation and/or individual to break out of this.

    However, uncommon results sometimes call for uncommon methods.

  14. Taylor says:

    I’m definitely on the maker schedule. And yes, I agree it costs us more because it interrupts our work flow and then we have to get back to it again. Kills the momentum.

    Thanks for sharing the insight 🙂

  15. Jessica Mallinus says:

    This article really resonated with me, since I am both a manager and a maker. And I certainly feel the struggle on the weekly basis living both roles. Sometimes I need to delegate and be available as a manager. Some days I need to sit down for a long chunk of time and actually create something. The days I am without meetings and able to win the battle (focus vs. distraction) and actually create stuff, are very satisfying!

  16. sahil jangid says:

    According to me Passionate and ambitious towards works is the most major factor for this.

    But it’s so inspirational post, some points are too new for me ……………and I am feeling so inspirational to read to read this post.

  17. Bob Gower says:

    Option 2 is essentially a Scrum frame with the manager being the Product Owner. I can tell you from experience that it’s incredibly difficult to switch to this model and incredibly powerful when you do.

  18. Anne says:

    I like option two, but I worry that the makers — while revered in their organization — might also be marginalized and not assume powerful decision making roles in the structure. I also have been thinking about the mind blowing podcast Cal cited in an earlier post with Yuval Noah Harari and Ezra Klein. It’s really hard to come up with a robot who could replace early Homo sapiens and all the roles they had to perform in order to survive. If our wonderful makers specialize too much, what would happen?

  19. Sandra Lukic says:

    The second approach is very similar to Agile strategy that most of the industry is trying to move to now.

  20. slope says:

    Thanks for sharing another great insight. Go, Cal!

  21. VV says:

    Hi Cal,

    I consider you my career guru and an avid reader of your books and blog. I have a request , could you add search capability in your blog. Would make it easier when we want to look up for something specific. Blog archive has categories but a search would be useful. I usually end up doing a google search adding cal newport blog as additional criteria.

    Thanks!

  22. Priya says:

    Thanks for sharing this post, Cal. I’ve been a follower of your deep-work philosophy for a while now. My current responsibilities require me to constantly shift between maker and manager frameworks while juggling 10-20 technical consulting projects with varying deadlines, objectives, etc, so I have recently been struggling to find the balance between the two schedules. This terminology provides a good way for me to frame this challenge, especially those I work with, and has prompted me to preemptively block calendar into maker and manager shifts. I’ve blocked off 8-11 and a period after lunch 1-3 for focused, deep work that requires me to build out solutions, and left slots 11-noon and 3-6 open for client meetings and small tasks. It’s not always perfect, but it’s a start and way better than the wild west of scheduling meetings at a start-up.

  23. Jose Agrio says:

    You might want to fix the grammatical mistake in you opening paragraph.

  24. Shane Snover says:

    I’m currently an intern at an engineering company and the way they handle interns has essentially placed me into the maker’s schedule by default. My projects are given to me exclusively by my supervisor and no one really comes to bother me about status updates leaving me very large chunks of time to get work done. I occasionally have days where not a single e-mail hits my inbox. When I’ve mentioned this happy little accident to my coworkers many of them have been rather jealous.

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