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. DaveyNC says:

    The author, Mr. Graham, is in the IT field it sounds like and so he is almost certainly familiar with David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book and the concept of “Mind like water.” If not, he should check it out. I highly recommend it, as well, particularly for someone who is project-oriented.

    Link here: http://www.davidco.com/

    And here: http://www.davidco.com/video/index.php

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  2. Mark Shocklee says:

    After reading this article and the comments, I feel like the person in the middle of an argument between the angel and devil sitting on my shoulders.
    My angel is encouraging me to say that the article made an unfortunate choice of words. Instead of ‘maker’, it should have been pointed out that programmers, analysts, engineers, and writers spend most of their time doing tasks that require a startup and tear-down period. Managers have the same experience when they write reports or work on presentations. Conversely, tasks that have discrete duration, such as dealing with user accounts, scheduling reports, and changing system parameters are similar to the type of tasks that make up a majority of the managers schedule.
    My devil is encouraging me to ask the managers exactly what they ask me for all the time – what is the ROI on your tasks? How exactly do the tasks that you perform contribute to shareholder value? And you cannot use intangibles to justify the task – I want real dollar values.

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  3. Gary says:

    I’ve been both a Maker and a Manager. I agree that a manager has to set aside time when it’s not disruptive to the maker to attend manager meetings. Part of the communication gap between the two schedules is due, in part, to the fact that the manager has little added value in a makers meeting, so they don’t attend, but a maker can add value to both types of meetings. But the maker may not appreciate that because it’s possibly loosely related or unrelated to their maker activity.

    Also, there are two types of behavior in business (and in life)- scheduled activities and event driven activities. The manager has to deal with both types of activities. The maker is focused soley on a makers scheduled activity and unscheduled events are viewed as disruptive to productivity.

    We an all experience both acitivities in every day life. If I plan and execute a job, like painting the house, it requires planning, preparation, setup, execution, teardown, cleanup, and storage. If I get interrupted at any point in the process, it can be devastating to my productivity for that day. In this case the manager is my wife. If she’s faced with an event activity like the dog is sprayed by a skunk- she wants action immmediately. My maker’s schedule is viewed as a lower priority, regardless of how it impacts my progress.

    If all activities could be planned and executed to a schedule we wouldn’t need managers. Unfortunately, business is not all knowing when schedules are made, so as new information and events occur, the manager has to steer a new course and make adjustments in the work to be sucesssful with the objective. Makers don’t see in the same way.

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  4. Stephen says:

    A simple solution for a maker – block the middle of your day with 2 3-hour blocks of “meetings”. Leave time in the morning and evening (and, if necessary, around lunch) for managers to schedule meetings with you. Thus, you meet while still getting the longer blocks of time when you are not able to mult-process.

    By the way, I agree that maker/manager is perjorative. How about one-track-minds and thought-leaders?

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  5. econobiker says:

    So does this now justify the2 1/2 hour start at 3:00pm Friday afternoon meetings that one of my old employer’s sales force scheduled in order to meet with the entire engineering and development team?

    (and no, there was no free cola, donuts or beer either…just lukewarm coffee)

    Pre-cell phone era so we couldn’t even have our spouses call us to “leave and pick up the children” etc

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  6. Fred Baker says:

    I’m jealous of the people who have time to waste with meetings where none of the participants have the knowledge nor the authority to do anything.

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  7. Mark says:

    Wow I couldn’t agree more. I thought I was the only one. I am a graduate student and my time is spent reading, writing, an computer programming. When I am working and people distract me it irritates me because breaks my concentration. I like to schedule my “work” time in a large uninterrupted block.

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  8. ORS says:

    Well, research has already shown that meetings are often only effective if they are used for information dissemination. If they are used for idea generation or brainstorming, they are actually ineffective, contrary to popular belief. This is because of things like groupthink, time wasted with idle chatter, and so forth.

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