There’s a thing about scheduling that anyone who’s ever programmed, or written or designed for a job knows that people who haven’t have trouble understanding. Meetings don’t just keep you from working while you’re at them. They screw you up when you know it’s coming up and they screw you up for an hour or two after they’re done. Paul Graham talks about this discrepancy between “makers” and “managers.”
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.
For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.
I recently finished up a huge project at work. We moved basically every system but one in the company to a new system, and we did it in less than six months. This meant that every single department in the company had a significant piece of their job being moved from a familiar system to some new thing that no one fully understood. That meant someone had to talk to the departments so that we, the development team, could build out the new system properly.
That someone turned to be the development team itself.
The bulk of our work was done over a three month period, during which we had to find out what department heads wanted, find out if what we had done met what they wanted and then make sure what they wanted didn’t clash with what other department heads wanted. This meant a lot of meetings. A. Lot. Of. Meetings.
There were weeks where I had meetings every other hour. Those were the weeks I got nothing done. There was no way for me to get out of a meeting, sort out what we had just talked through and prepare for the next meeting in the hour I had free. So that also meant I got no design and no programming done either. Those four hours of meetings might as well have been eight. At a certain point, your day is segmented that you never get any momentum.
When I’m getting ready to write or program, I spend some time doing what looks like nothing. I skip between websites, send off a brief, no-thought e-mail or two, drop a few pointless notes on twitter. Stuff like that. I know when my wife looks at me flitting between websites, she thinks I’m not working and thinks she can talk to me without interrupting anything. I can’t blame her, but what I’m doing is part of working. I’m clearing my head, getting into a place where I can do what I have to do. Things like phone calls from co-workers and my wife showing me funny things on her computer screw that process up. And meetings? They absolutely demolish it.
In the creative world this is less of a problem. Writers work from home, so at the least they don’t have to worry about management meetings and status calls. Programmers are forced to deal with a half dozen people who think that an hour meeting really only steals an hour out of their day. In fact, suggesting otherwise is met by a mixture of puzzlement and outright hostility.
But hey, who wants your people to get stuff done when they can have a meeting about the things that could be working on if they weren’t actually in the meeting?