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Maker’s schedule is weird

May 22, 2013

For the past week, I’ve been transitioning from working on the nuts and bolts of research to writing up a manuscript. And, as I’ve done it, I’ve slowly come to appreciate Paul Graham’s model of makers’ vs. managers’ schedules.

Studying and doing bench research is manager’s schedule.  You have a certain number of tasks you need to get done.  Many are quite brain-intenstive, some are more mechanical and mindless.  But what they share in common is that they’re all single, self-contained tasks, you can take a free half hour, get something done, and check it off a list.  All you need to be maximally productive is the free time and energy.

Writing a manuscript is a more creative endeavor.  You need to hold the whole problem in your head before you can get anything meaningful done.  So, you can’t work in block of a half hour – you’d barely have grasped the problem before time’s up.  Real work gets done in long uninterrupted blocks, and when you’ve got one of those, it’s amazing how productive you become.

It’s a weird place to be in after being on the “manager’s schedule” for so long.  Time no longer compounds arithmetically.  It’s not so important how much total time you have, the real measure of your wealth is the amount of uninterrupted time you can string together.  Even in an otherwise free day, interruption and distractions are killers.

Given that there are always errands to be done and emails to write, last week I tried to intersperse them throughout the day as a “study break” and as a result struggled to make much progress.  My breakthrough was to condense all my errands and fun stuff into the middle of the day (when I am least focused and productive) and then use the long stretches of freed up time in the morning and at night to do actual work.  A good 80% of the actual useful writing results came in the two days that I implemented this schedule.

This way of arranging one’s day is common in writers and coders but rare elsewhere, including among research professors.  One wonders how much creative output we’re foregoing by following the norm of expecting constant availability from 9-5.


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