Makers, Managers, and Getting Into the Creative Box

SUMMARY:  I recently read Paul Graham’s essay on Maker and Manager Schedules, and I realized that this had bearing on overcoming the procrastinator-perfectionist mindset, which is essentially that of management. If you can’t shake that, you can’t make stuff. From there, I describe two changes in perspective that might help me get into that productive “maker” mindset.

I recently came across Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule article, which explains why programmers hate meetings so much. Graham’s position is that programmers are on a different schedule than their managers. The manager’s schedule is essentially the schedule of command, comprised of blocks designed to gather information or spawn new progress-producing tasks. The maker’s schedule, by comparison, is one that requires large chunks of time to even get started; every interruption causes the making process to stall. As Graham explains:

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. […] [Programmers and writers] 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.

The problems start when an individual attempts to mix the two schedules in their day. Graham, one of the folks behind the technology-oriented Y Combinator venture capital firm, finds that even a single meeting destroys his momentum. This may sound familiar to many of you:

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

A Convergence of Insights

When Graham was running his own startup, he split his day into two parts, one for manager-style tasks, and the other for doing creative work. I used to do something similar when I was at our game company startup Qualia years ago, except I called it “hermit mode” and thought of it as “extroverted vs introverted” time. I hadn’t made the connection that creative work takes time and solitude, but I did recognize that I needed to reset my brain with a short sleep cycle. I’m rather encouraged to see that I wasn’t completely nuts.

The notion that creative work requires, at minimum, half-day chunks of time has lead me to reassess my thoughts on what it means to be a procrastinator-perfectionist. Prior to reading Graham’s article, I had assumed that I had to engineer new processes to overcome my innate lack of focus. Instead, it may be that the creative act itself, of the kind that I am interested in, requires awareness of the quality of “maker time” itself.

The Creative Act Takes Time

I’ve written often about how long it seems to take me to get anything started, and I had attributed this to an inherent fault in my character. It never occurred to me that it might just be, as Graham suggests, that I’m in manager mode. My expectations of how work should be done is entrenched in the management perspective, probably because I’ve never been managed myself; I have tended to be in creative management positions when working for someone else. And as a freelancer, one of my quality of service goals is to create customer satisfaction on a schedule because this has always been expected in the companies I’ve worked for. The two elements that I focus on to bring this about are timely communication and delivering to the desires of the heart. The first part is purely management, and the second is purely creative. As I have tended to mix these tasks together in the same day, it’s no wonder I get a lot of communicating done but find it hard to actually get into “work mode”.

As a small business operator, I also have to guide my own business development, so I am constantly taking what Graham calls speculative meetings. This is a meeting where you get together for coffee to just see what’s happening. Maybe there’s an opportunity to work together? Perhaps you just want to introduce two people to each other, because you think that something good might come from it. I love having meetings like this because I like to see what amazing things emerge from chance occurrences, but like Graham I’ve found that my entire day is derailed by even a single meeting. Why? There is a certain energy cost associated with meeting people and exchanging ideas, and I am super-energized by the possibilities before me. This can be mentally exhausting, which makes it impossible to launch the creative mindset. By the time I’ve recovered, there usually isn’t any time left in the day to get moving on the real meat of the process, unless I’m willing to “break” my daily schedule and do an all-nighter. At best, I can muster some organizing or other mindless work. Usually I just go to sleep and hope the next day will be more productive.

Rather than berating myself as a procrastinator-perfectionist that can’t make use of scraps of time and energy, the alternative interpretation is that the creative process takes 4 hours, period to get going. To improve productivity, one has to acknowledge this fact and arrange schedules to make it possible. This is sort of addressed in the use of time boxes in some of my tools, but I hadn’t explicitly made the distinction between maker and manager tasks.

Killing the Speculative Mindset

Ok, assume that I’ve managed to give myself 4 good hours in a row to make something. Getting started is still an enormous challenge. The start-up method that has most reliably worked for me is having someone else working in the room with me. This is why co-working is attractive to me, and why I like to set up shop in a coffee house with other people who are pounding away at their laptops. I had thought that this put me in the camp of “people who need external motivation”, which implied a lack of internal motivation…yet another character flaw to work around! But maybe it’s speculative behavior that is subverting a clean transition into maker mode. This speculative behavior is also known as distraction, by shiny things like the Internet, toys, and whatever happens to be around.

For much of my life, I’ve never really had a clear idea of what “focus” was supposed to feel like. I’ve attempted to trick my way into focus, but it has not been a very reliable process. Defining focus as the opposite of distraction doesn’t work either, because that’s like telling someone to not think about their tongue in their mouth, as this excerpt from Peanuts illustrates:

Linus and his tongue So here’s a different view: for creative people, focus is turning-off the manager mindset. Flush all manager-y thoughts out of your head. If you are a procrastinator-perfectionist you have more of those than you might be aware of. Any language that sets a deadline, has an expectation of quality, defines a deliverable, judges your performance, or compares you to an existing solution is manager speak, and the mere act of listening to it will throw you back into the manager mindset. Which, if I am to liberally interpret what Graham is saying, effectively kills the maker mindset and turns the whole affair into a chore. Forget all that stuff. When you go into the white room with the creative challenge, leave all that crap at the door and lock it outside. You can play manager when you come back out with your newly-created awesomeness.

When it’s time to start creating, it’s also time to stop speculating about what could be. For imaginative people, that’s hard, particularly if you’re still trying to shake the judging eye of your management mindset. Thinking of cool new things is a form of escape. To get focused on the act of creation, then, you have to recognize that it’s time to get into the white room with that creative challenge. If there is nothing there but you and the challenge, your creative maker mindset will automatically start to do something out of sheer necessity. There’s nothing else to do. Let the challenge itself drive the possibility, not your mind’s desire to escape judgment. Remember that you can always come back to speculation later, but recognize that speculation is part of the practice of refining your notions of desire; this is not the same as the trance-like state of making, which takes the self out of it.

I’m speaking here primarily from a self-motivation perspective for my own projects, but I imagine something similar works if you have to report to someone else. The difficulty, as Graham points out, is educating your managers that there is a difference between what you do and what they do.