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How your schedule can make or break you: Makers vs Managers

How your schedule can make or break you: Makers vs Managers

In 1965, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to his wife Jane about his daily writing habits, which was published in the book: Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.

“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teaching or preparing. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.”

On the other side is Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors. Musk designs his daily routine with the kind of precision you’d expect from a bona fide rocket scientist. From 7 a.m. to 12 noon, Musk is busy with emails, phone calls, and strategy sessions with his management team. A working lunch is followed by a walk around the factory floor. The evening hours between 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. are family time. Then it’s more emails and meetings. Finally, Musk clocks off around 1 a.m., grabbing six hours of sleep before waking up and doing it all over again!

We hear so many such stories every day. These probably aren’t the first. Routines of famous CEOS and creatives are constantly being rubbed into our faces in an attempt to make us productive. But just how accurate are they? 

The numerous articles we have all read about the schedules and routines of successful people like these often miss the point. Getting up at 5:30 am does not make someone an acclaimed novelist, any more than being flooded by a deluge of emails and calls.

What we can learn from reading about the schedules of people we admire is not what time to set our alarms or how many cups of coffee to drink, but that different types of work require different types of schedules. The two wildly different workdays of Musk and Vonnegut illustrate the concept of maker and manager schedules.

The concept of schedules of Makers vs. Managers was first introduced by Paul Graham in an essay for YC. 

How are they different?

The Manager’s Schedule

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.

The Maker’s Schedule

The 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. 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 in 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.

Sometimes, one meeting can 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.

Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.

The Hybrid Schedule and how to implement it

Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.

Our case is an unusual one. Nearly all investors, including all VCs I know, operate on the manager’s schedule. But Y Combinator runs on the maker’s schedule. RTM and Trevor and I do because we always have, and Jessica does too, mostly, because she’s gotten into sync with us.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there start to be more companies like us. I suspect founders may increasingly be able to resist, or at least postpone, turning into managers, just as a few decades ago they started to be able to resist switching from jeans to suits.

How do we manage to advise so many startups on the maker’s schedule? By using the classic device for simulating the manager’s schedule within the maker’s: office hours. Several times a week I set aside a chunk of time to meet founders we’ve funded. These chunks of time are at the end of my working day, and I wrote a signup program that ensures all the appointments within a given set of office hours are clustered at the end. Because they come at the end of my day these meetings are never an interruption. (Unless their working day ends at the same time as mine, the meeting presumably interrupts theirs, but since they made the appointment it must be worth it to them.) During busy periods, office hours sometimes get long enough that they compress the day, but they never interrupt it.

When we were working on our own startup, back in the 90s, I evolved another trick for partitioning the day. I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day because at night no one could interrupt me. Then I’d sleep till about 11 am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called “business stuff.” I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect, I had two workdays each day, one on the manager’s schedule and one on the maker’s.

When you’re operating on the manager’s schedule you can do something you’d never want to do on the maker’s: you can have speculative meetings. You can meet someone just to get to know one another. If you have an empty slot in your schedule, why not? Maybe it will turn out you can help one another in some way.

Business people in Silicon Valley (and the whole world, for that matter) have speculative meetings all the time. They’re effectively free if you’re on the manager’s schedule. They’re so common that there’s a distinctive language for proposing them: saying that you want to “grab a coffee,” for example.

Speculative meetings are terribly costly if you’re on the maker’s schedule, though. Which puts us in something of a bind. Everyone assumes that, like other investors, we run on the manager’s schedule. So they introduce us to someone they think we ought to meet or send us an email proposing we grab a coffee. At this point we have two options, neither of them good: we can meet with them, and lose half a day’s work, or we can try to avoid meeting them, and probably offend them.

Till recently we weren’t clear in our own minds about the source of the problem. We just took it for granted that we had to either blow our schedules or offend people. But now that I’ve realized what’s going on, perhaps there’s a third option: to write something explaining the two types of schedule. Maybe eventually, if the conflict between the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule starts to be more widely understood, it will become less of a problem.

Those of us on the maker’s schedule are willing to compromise. We know we have to have a number of meetings. All we ask from those on the manager’s schedule is that they understand the cost.

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