Guard Your Time, Prioritize Your Creative Work

This morning I re-read a semi-famous essay written by Paul Graham, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, computer scientist, author, and founder, with his wife, Jessica Livingston, of Y Combinator.

In the essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Graham talks about the difference between the two kinds of schedules, and how disruptive it can be if you’re a “maker” being forced to conform to a “manager’s” schedule.

Here’s how Graham describes the two schedules:

“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.”

The first time I read Graham’s essay, it struck me that this was why I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked in my first advertising agency job many years ago.

“You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

As a writer/copywriter in an ad agency, you’re expected to switch tasks constantly. Maybe, not usually, but maybe, you get 3 or more solid hours to work on a single project, uninterrupted.

Even so, you’re not really uninterrupted. Your phone is ringing, and you’re expected to answer it. Your emails are coming in, and if it’s a client, you’re expected to reply. In a typical agency setting, most everyone leaves their email on in the background, most of the time. If you work in an open concept office, which describes most offices these days, other people’s phones are ringing, people are chit-chatting within your earshot, people are coming and going in and out of the office, and there’s not much you can do to avoid being privy to it all. There is no truly quiet space in which to do “deep work” for an extended period of time.

Deep work is a concept defined by author and computer science professor Cal Newport. Newport describes deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”

Better results, in less time. That’s valuable.

In an agency setting, the in-demand skill is not the ability to do deep work. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The ability to do deep work may be prized, but only if you can do it with multiple interruptions and distractions constantly swirling about you at all times.

Instead, the skill that gets privileged is the ability to switch tasks and juggle loads of projects at once, while giving equal time, effort, energy and attention to all of them. AND create amazing work – FAST.

Wanting 4-5 uninterrupted hours to create something excellent, in a quiet space, with no distractions, will most likely be seen as an unnecessary indulgence, if not a straight-up weakness in your ability to “produce.”

If you can’t do great work, calmly and unflappably, in this kind of distraction-rich setting, then you may not be cut out for the agency work environment.

When I binge watch Mad Men, the thing that strikes me most, beyond the massive day-drinking and the gross womanizing, is offices with doors that close. Managers have them, copywriters have them, even some of the art guys have them. It’s the one thing about that show that makes me salivate with envy.

But most workplaces aren’t like this, so there’s an inherent conflict – the writer, designer or other creative likely needs large chunks of time, without distraction, to do truly outstanding work. But this isn’t always possible. Which leads to a stress, anxiety, and the constant worry that you many not be doing your best work.

(To be clear, I’m not raking ad agencies over the coals. Many other kinds of workplace environments are also just like this, and I’ve worked in a few of them. And I’m not talking about all ad agencies, either. Some are much more humane and nurturing when it comes to providing a space for the creative person to do their best work.)

I’m an introvert, and a maker. Kind of a double whammy. Because of this, I still haven’t figured out how to handle interruptions to my work flow as well as I’d like.

Take client calls, for example.

Client calls are entirely necessary for the kind of work I do. I have onboarding calls with new clients, copy review calls, monthly check-in calls with retainer clients, and so on. Because I’m an introvert, even one, one-hour call means at least an hour afterwards to decompress and get my head back in the game for the next task. This would be impossible in a typical office setting.

One of the reasons I prize working for myself is that I can mostly dictate my schedule and the atmosphere in which I create. This ensures I can do quality work. My working environment is quiet. No ringing phones, no people coming in and out. No coworkers chatting all around me, no UPS/restaurant/FedEx delivery people asking where is this or that person, or can I sign for a package. No emails in the background, ever, when I’m working, and no freaking meetings.

Alas, I still haven’t figured out client calls.

I used to do this thing where if I had three calls in one week, I’d schedule them over 3-5 days, so I’d never have more than one call per day. This makes sense, because I’m trying to guard my time and prioritize the deep work necessary to produce excellent creative work.

And yet.

Just one call in a day often threw me off my game.

Take a recent Friday, when I had three client calls scheduled. For an introvert, this is a lot. But grouping them together in the same day made sense, I thought. Get them all out of the way in one day, rather than spread over several, which I find exhausting.

After each call, I need to decompress for a bit. So I can’t get much done, other than call, decompress, call, decompress, call, decompress, all day. Even though I scheduled my calls hours apart – at 11:00 am, at 2:30 pm, and at 6:00 pm – I’m still woefully unable to commit to anything requiring deep work for the day. The day is shot for that.

Now once a week is not that big a deal, in the scheme of things. But I think back to jobs I’ve had where pockets of time to do deep work was always in short supply, and that there, my friends – a day of constant calls, meetings, and other interruptions – is simply standard operating procedure in most workplaces.

And it is precisely why you may not be able to do the quality of work you’re capable of, if you’re a creative, a maker, and an introvert.

So, what to do?

For me, I no longer kid myself that I can do my best creative work in a typical office setting. I usually work best in solitude. I produce good work when I have time for deep work. I can’t schedule calls on days when I need space and quiet to complete an important project.

I also (mostly) no longer feel guilty when I turn off my email for hours at a time and put my phone in the next room while working on something that requires intense focus.  

It’s taken me many years to get here, but I’ve begun to value the way I do my best work enough to guard my time and prioritize my creative work, whether it’s a client project or my own writing.

Some days are better than others, of course. On the “bad” days, I’m pulled into the undertow of distraction, even when I’m working at home alone. One dip into mail, “just for 10 minutes,” often becomes two hours of wasted time.

So, you know, it’s a process.

But the important thing I’ve found, and the thing that’s really helped me, is letting go of the guilt I often felt for not being able to work well in a distraction-rich environment.  

It’s so important to know the circumstances under which you do your best creative work, and to prioritize that kind of work environment, without feeling a shred of guilt or remorse about it.