Read This If You Hate Meetings

This is the best explanation I have ever read of why I hate meetings so much, and why other people love them. If you are like me, you should save this link and simply forward it to anybody who asks if you’d like to “grab coffee” or “have a quick phone call to pick each other’s brains” or, God forbid, actually go somewhere and sit around a table with a lot of other people and have a proper meeting.

It is written by Paul Graham, and it divides the world into two kinds of people — managers and makers:

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

There are two types of schedule, 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.

If this is a topic that interests you at all, you should go read the whole thing. It is very well thought-out and very well written.

Perhaps I say this simply because I agree so strongly with what Graham has written. Sometimes I am on a manager’s schedule. But when I am writing a book — not researching it, but writing — I am a maker. I try also to be a functioning husband and father during those periods, and to pay the important bills, but beyond that I eliminate just about everything. This is hard to do, especially if I’ve been on a manager’s schedule in previous months, during which time I interact with a lot of people who, naturally, come to expect future interactions.

But when the time comes to write, I disappear. I reply to as few e-mails as possible, rarely answer the telephone, and try to turn down every invitation that isn’t vital. When I fail to turn something down I inevitably regret it, and I am guessing the people who invited me regret it as well, for I am distracted and cranky. A book is like a child who never naps, never goes to camp, always needs care and feeding, and whose presence gnaws on you if you dare neglect it.

Having read Paul Graham’s wise words — seriously, go read it already — I feel somewhat less guilty about being such a jerk during my “maker” periods. I have developed a too-complex set of responses and coping mechanisms to protect my writing time, but Graham has given me and everyone like me permission to simplify that mess and see the world as it is: people for whom meetings are their work, and people for whom meetings are a disaster.

That said, I do look forward to this current maker’s period being over (soon!) because I really like a lot of the people that I meet with. Just not when I’m busy being a maker.

I am interested in hearing from both makers and managers on this topic.

(Hat tip: Kottke)


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  1. Derick says:

    I understand your thinking and I’m sure my father (a software develeoper who hates pointless meetings and the like) would enjoy this, but I think this marginalizes managers too much and makes the “productive hero” image the exclusive property of the direct design position. You know that makers wouldn’t be able to succede without a well-managed company to work within, at least typically, or else companies with no managers would form and blow the rest out of the market. Integrating the complexities of the business world also requires extreme productive enthusiasm; they’re not all just full of hot air.

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  2. Derick says:

    The terms “maker” and “manager” for example seem to imply that managers aren’t producing anything. Which is the same premise a physical laborer would make to you that you’re not a “maker” you’re a “designer” or something.

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  3. Chance says:

    Almost everyone hates a poorly run meeting. Unfortunately, most of the ones I attrend are poorly run. First, determine if a meeting is actually necessary. If other methods of communication are adequete (email, phone, web 2.0) use thopse instead. If a meeting is necessary, write up an agenda, alert attendees to it, and then stick to it. Some tangets are okay, depending on the topic, but for the most part don’t allow the dialog to get too far off topic. Next, make it as short as possible – it should only be just long enough to get the task completed. Finally, make sure everyone understands the next steps – another meeting, individual tasks, no further action, whatever. There should be no confusion on this.

    If more meetings were run like this, fewer people would hate them.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    Here’s the plan: In the corner of the meeting room is a floor to ceiling glass cylinder a foot in diameter. Inside the cylinder is a gentle fall of $100 bills…gently falling like Autumn leaves. This should remind the managers of the cost of the meeting.

    Scott Adams “Dilbert” has already said what has to be said. Somehow the management has become occupied by characters who can’t do anything else. And they have good hair. Narcissistic personality disorders fly right to the top. This is typically, but not entirely, an American-British disease.

    In World War 2, you could drop a dime to the FBI, tell them you saw the boss speaking German on the phone and see these “managers” frog-marched out as industrial saboteurs. Now these frauds just wreck the companies while getting huge bonuses.

    No one travelling on a business trip would be missed if he failed to arrive.
    –Thorstein Veblen

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  5. Fred says:

    Wow, someone has finally validated what I have believed for many years. As a structural engineer who actually sits down, performs calculations and develops construction drawings, I have found that two well scheduled meetings at say 10 AM and 2 PM meeting can essentially destroy my entire day. My productivity falls to perhaps 50% of what it would be with no meetings.

    With cell phones, backberries, etc, things have gotten even worse. I sometime find myself hiding in a small conference room in the office space of a different division of the company, where no one can find me, in order to get things done.

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  6. charles says:

    Poor Eric. What a burden to live with. Sure there are those types…as well as others, people worthy of learning from.

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  7. A. B. says:

    As a business analyst responsible for eliciting requirements for software products, I definitely agree with this viewpoint, and would only add that some people (like me) represent a third type of people, that aren’t neither managers nor “makers”, but rather analysts that design processes, systems, etc.

    For this third kind, I think that meetings are extremely valuable when they occur for the right reasons (typically make decisions that allow the analyst to move forward with their design work). Analysts typically can get work done in smaller chunks of time so they are not as badly affected by a meeting breaking their day in smaller units of free time as makers are.

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  8. Fred says:

    At 1:

    You are correct. As an engineer, I have seen plenty of firms poorly run by engineers who do not understand the importance of managing. However, mangers also need to understand managing engineers, and how their actions affect their employees.

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