Highly Productive Time

Time management cannot be despised. Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed, says Peter Drucker1. Everybody finds themselves with the limits of time.

While this is common sense, using time effectively and achieving high personal productivity is not easy. In a recent study of 1,500 executives around the globe by McKinsey, 48% of the respondents said the way they spend their time didn’t match their organizations’ strategic priorities.2

There is a lot of bibliography about time management, productivity and execution3. But in this post I wanted to explain a concept that I have found extremely useful for productively managing my time, and helping others manage theirs.

Manager’s Schedule and Maker’s Schedule

People in management positions usually have two types of schedules intermixed, which Paul Graham calls the Maker’s schedule and the Manager’s schedule.

The manager’s schedule follows the appointment book, where the day is cut into one hour or half hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if needed, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. This is the time for meetings, making phone calls, reviewing reports, doing follow-up tasks, answering mails and the like. Interruptions during this time may be annoying or not, but don’t have a great toll on your productivity.

There are other tasks, however, that require a longer time span and great attention. An hour for this kind of task is barely enough time to get started. This is the maker’s schedule. Knowledge workers in particular need this kind of time. It is in this kind of uninterrupted work where you find relationships between ideas, get to the root cause of a problem, or where you are able to synthesize complex reasoning in simple and clear statements. You enter a state of flow, where you produce great stuff through absolute concentration4.

Getting in this kind of flow is not easy. According to some authors, it takes between 15 minutes to half an hour to achieve this state where you are at maximum productivity. More important, any interruption will throw you out of the flow. A phone call, interruptions by coworkers, an incoming mail… And to reenter the high productivity state again you may need another half an hour.

Consequences of the Maker’s Schedule

Embracing the maker’s schedule has consequences. A consequence is that you need to explicitly allocate time for tasks that require a maker’s schedule, and try to make it interruption-free.

Interruptions can come from other people, the environment, or yourself. Start by avoiding self-distractors, things which are under your control. While working on maker’s schedule, close your Mail application, turn off your corporate or non-corporate chat program, and silence your phone. This may not be easy.

Another consequence is that if you have people on your team that require a maker’s schedule, you should try to protect their time. This means avoiding unnecessarily interrupting them. (Don’t call if a mail will suffice, don’t expect immediate answers if immediate answers are not needed, etc.) This also means they should have a place were they can work without interruptions, ideally an office with a door that can be closed. (Dilbert-style cubicles farms are probably not the most productivity environment.)

Give the Maker’s Schedule a try

If high productivity is important for you, I strongly suggest you give the maker’s schedule a try. Try to allocate at least two hours straight of uninterrupted time to a specific task, and take note of how much of uninterrupted time you effectively work.

Be warned, because entering a high productivity state does not come automagically just from fencing oneself from distractions. It requires the habit of focusing and concentrating on the task at hand. And habits take some time to sink in. The good news is that habits can be acquire by anyone, as Aristotle taught centuries ago.

  1. Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, first edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967. 

  2. McKinsey Quarterly, January 2013, Making time management the organization’s priority 

  3. The classic book on ’life management’ is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. This method is known as GTD among its followers. Leave no open loops. Collect all inputs and process them. With each input, take one of the following actions: if it can be completed in two minutes or less, do it now. If it takes more time, defer it or delegate it. If something requires more than two actions to accomplish, call it a project. If it doesn’t require an action, throw it into the trash, add it in your someday/maybe list, or store it in your reference filling system. 

  4. cfr Joel Spolsky, The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code. Do programmers have quiet working conditions? 

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