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. Kristen says:

    As a research scientist, I really identify with this! During periods of bench work and writing, I’m in maker mode, but the whole process requires collaboration which necessitates a switch to manager mode. One problem that arises is fragmented time; short periods of 5-30 minutes when I’m switching between one mode and the other, and for all intents and purposes, completely ineffective. I’m still trying to solve this problem.

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  2. dreamking says:

    Throwing around such a broad term as ‘maker’ grates my ears and reeks of self-serving narcissism. Why not just call all the people who potentially waste your time, and by implication disrespect your value, Muggles?

    Honest laborers and physical craftsmen would not so easily agree to call writers (English-language or C++) ‘makers’.

    I think everyone is better off not playing EST-inspired definition games. I say this despite being in total agreement that people engaged in design, architecture or writing work often work better in looser-defined blocks of time. I strongly disagree the text you’re directing people to is a good description of this very obvious fact.

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  3. Howard Tayler says:

    I believe the book Peopleware addressed this exact concern thirty years ago. It amazes me that in spite of the increasing prevalence of “makers” in the same office building as “managers” we haven’t internalized this principle.

    I used to work as a manager at Novell. These days I work as a cartoonist for me. The scheduling needs between the two could not be more different, and yes, they’re exactly as Paul Graham (and DeMarco and Lister before him) described.

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  4. Mike says:

    @Derick – I don’t think Graham is implying anything bad about Managers in this (He’s one himself, but hes also a Maker). Managers are needed to organize and run things, just as much as the Makers are needed to make things. This article is just a good explanation of how the two working styles don’t agree very well. As a programmer myself, I try my best to only allow meetings on one day a week, I know that day is going to be shot, but I do need to sync up with management (and other programmers), so it’s a necessary evil. Just last week, I had a day with only 2 1/2 hour meetings, but they were split up so that one was in the middle of the morning and the other was in the middle of the afternoon. I tried, but got nothing productive done that day. It’s just the nature of the beast. But I can also see why the 1-hour chunk meetings that managers work in works well for their style of work (for one, it’s just a more social work where as programming is more solitary)

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  5. sue says:

    totally nails it – writing from a copywriter’s point of view – sometimes you need an entire afternoon to get into a creative writing “groove” – a meeting breaks it up – or you’ve gotten into the groove and have to stop for a meeting.

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  6. Richard Hendricks says:

    Kristen,
    We used to have that problem at my old company. What we did to try and solve it was to agree to only have meetings during part of the day. It was decided that meetings could only be held in the afternoon. This way work could be done in the morning when we were fresh, and before meetings had an opportunity to demotivate anyone.

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  7. Mike says:

    BTW – I have a meeting scheduled in one hour. But I’m reading the Freakonomics blog rather than working because I know I can’t get anything done in that hour.

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  8. Jim says:

    Meetings are usually a waste of time, especially if the subjects to be discussed are off-tracked! Usually, people (truthful people)abhor going to meetings. Some people are not even involved in some discussions! Meetings are usually a façade, not involving the true feeling of the person speaking them! Usually the company line on subjects that company policy. Managers usually call meetings because they want to be “coddled.” The most important way to communicate, that is receive information and give information is an informal talk to the individual or individuals, it is definitely more useful and truthful.

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