In my previous life leading teams of “doers” and “makers,” most of whom were designers, product people, writers, editors, and programmers, I thought a lot about what Paul Graham described as “the manager’s schedule” vs “the maker’s schedule.” He wrote:
“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.”
His insights were powerful for me, and helped me better manage my team so that members were not hemmed in (or out) by a grid-work of meetings. We tended to have morning “stand-ups” (the trendy start-up patois for “quick, five-minute check-ins,” meant to be conducted while the team is physically standing up to keep things snappy) where we’d each share a top priority for the day, a top challenge we were confronting, and something inspiring us, and then I’d more or less let them go on their way, fastidiously avoiding cutting into their time before at least half a day had passed.
Becoming a parent, working at home alongside my husband, and serving as both manager and maker of Magpie has introduced complexities to this ideal equation. It is rare I have a half-day of time spread out graciously before me with nary an interruption. At a very minimum, I will have texts to answer about the dog barking at the mailman and “what’s for lunch?” from my husband, a son barreling through the door at noon sharp, negotiations with parenting and household responsibilities — and that’s in addition to the exigencies of running Magpie as a business: calls with contractors, technical snafus, emails, accounting matters.
For years I strained against these perceived interruptions. It was maddening to be in the midst of writerly flow and to lose grasp of language against the wailing of my daughter next door or a phone call I’d forgotten about. The words would disappear, pulverized by the gristmill of my personal life and my role as a manager of my own business.
Over time, I have learned to acculturate. I know that 10-12 is the anointed time: children ensconced in school, rarely an urgent text, and never a scheduled phone call in that window. I’m also freshest and most generative in the morning. 10-12 is not half a day, but at this point, I have become so adept at drafting musings of a certain length that I know with confidence that I can usually manage a first draft of something within those two hours and can then revisit from an editorial lens at a later time. And so my writing process has curled, vine-like and accommodating, around the schedule available to me. I have also developed some dexterity with freeze-framing a thought flow before I lose it. If my daughter comes sprinting into my office while I am mid-sentence, I can usually manage to type just enough of the thought in shorthand, spitfire form that I will be able to resume my place once I have addressed my girl, as though I’ve put my finger in a book to return to the correct passage later.
I write all of this for two reasons.
First: where there is a will, there is a way. The creative impulse will always prevail. I am convinced that finding “ideal conditions for creativity” is something of a fool’s errand. Yes, it is good — imperative! — to understand when we are at our best, and under what conditions we prefer to operate, but Elizabeth Gilbert made a provocative point in Big Magic when she said that all artists wish they had more uninterrupted time in which to create, but if they all waited until they had it, we’d have some barren walls and empty bookshelves. I find this line of thinking liberating. Just start the thing — write the thing! — even when the context is less than ideal.
Second: I think that even “managers” need “maker’s time.” I use those parentheses intentionally, as I I believe we are all makers — all creatives! — and that we all need pockets of time (perhaps smaller than half-day units) to think, meander, doodle, conceptualize. The blogger Mattie James wrote last year about the concept of “thinking time.” She’d schedule an hour of time before her children rose each morning to “think,” an act that took on a variety of shapes: “I had the time to think through ideas, and even think about what I would like to ask during a phone call that I had later on that day or week. When I wrote tasks down in my planner, they were much more clear and concise + things that helped me complete a project versus listing a bunch of things that kept me busy.” I followed similar suit in my last job: I’d block off two-hour segments every few days on my calendar with the title: “HEAD DOWN,” and my boss and team always knew that those blocks were sacrosanct. It was dedicated time to put my nose to the grindstone and get “thinking” done. For me, this usually meant drafting outlines, plans, job listings, product requirements, presentations, and what I called “thinkpads” (free-form, draft proposals on various projects and opportunities). Having the time to think and generate some written representation of my thought was essential to me and my role.
Whether you are a stay at home mom, a creative, an entrepreneur, an individual contributor at a business, a manager of other people, an executive, or any combination of those roles, you might consider finding and blocking off a pocket of “thinking time.” This might be before children wake up in the morning or while they nap, or just after lunch every Tuesday and Thursday, or at six P.M., when most of your colleagues have left the office already. It might give you a better grip on the incessant flood of to-dos, or help you make more of your meetings (i.e., by going in with a clear agenda), or achieve the results you want from a phone call more quickly, or simply feel a bit more “in the pocket” heading into a busy week looking after your babies. Or it might do something spectacular, like give you the space to come up with a new idea, or forge a connection you’d not yet divined, or reach a breakthrough in some personal or professional relationship. But the point, I think, is unstructured room to let yourself explore, reflect, create. I think you will be surprised by what that space affords.
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