The Hidden Cost of Meetings for Programmers

Posted February 8, 2024 · 3 min read

Have you ever considered why the concept of meetings is met with hesitation by many programmers? Paul Graham provided insightful perspectives on this in his 2009 essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” revealing it all comes down to the way we manage and value our time based on our individual roles and responsibilities.

Meetings: A Challenge for Programmers

In the realm of work, we generally encounter two distinct approaches to organizing our day: the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. Managers tend to divide their day into hourly segments, moving from one task to another, creating a rhythm of short, distinct intervals throughout their day. Makers, particularly programmers, however, thrive by utilizing longer stretches of time. Where a manager might have a day broken up into eight neat hour-long blocks, the maker might be working within two four-hour blocks. This necessity stems from the unique requirements of coding, where entering the mental zone crucial for productivity cannot be squeezed into a mere hour.

Consider the analogy of navigating a complex maze versus strolling down a straightforward path. For programmers, engaging with thousands of lines of code is akin to navigating an elaborate maze, filled with endless turns that demand continuous, thoughtful decision-making. This process is far from the linear, clear-cut task of simply typing or reading. Achieving an intimate understanding of the code—to know where you've been, where you are, and where you're heading—requires substantial time and immersion. This depth of engagement can't be achieved if you're merely dropped into the middle of a maze. An hour hardly scratches the surface of a complex project, much less allows for reaching a truly productive state of mind.

How a Single Meeting Can Disrupt an Entire Day

Paul Graham perfectly captures the disruptive effect of meetings on the rhythm of a maker's day. It's not just the time taken up by the meeting itself; it's how it divides your day into smaller, less productive segments. Simply the knowledge or anticipation of a meeting later in the day can be enough to stop you from even starting bigger, more complex projects in the morning, knowing that your productivity will be interrupted later in the afternoon and you’ll again need to consume the overhead time necessary to re-immerse yourself in your codebase. Much like being startled awake by a smoke alarm during a restful REM sleep, returning to that deeply focused mental state does not happen instantaneously. Your mind requires time to recalibrate and dive back into the depths of concentration, and to re-immerse yourself into the neatly chaotic web of code.

Understanding the Cost

To understand the true cost, it's essential for those in management to grasp the broader impact of inviting a maker to a meeting. Beyond the immediate hour spent away from their work, it's the ripple effect on the maker's flow and overall productivity that's at stake. Achieving peak productivity requires long, uninterrupted periods of focus—time that is undiluted by the looming distraction of an upcoming meeting.

Looking Ahead

Graham suggests there might be a shift towards more maker-friendly scheduling, with strategies like setting specific office hours for meetings to minimize disruption, specifically at the start of a work week, earlier in the day, to minimize impact on productivity. This could be a game-changer for those of us who thrive on large, uninterrupted blocks of time to work. Additionally, it encourages us to reassess the necessity of meetings. Often, the content of hour-long discussions could be effectively communicated through a few concise paragraphs in an email. This alternative format allows makers to absorb the information when it least interferes with their peak productivity and creative flow.

Final Thoughts

Paul Graham's exploration of the maker vs. manager schedule is a crucial read for anyone wanting to understand the productivity challenges faced by programmers. It's not about opposing meetings for the sake of it; it's about recognizing the profound impact they have on the maker’s ability to create and innovate. As we move forward, finding a balance that respects both schedules could lead to more productive, effective teams.

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