Tag Archives: meeting

Maker, Manager and Consultant Schedule

Have you heard about the Maker Schedule? The idea resonated as it explained a lot about my productivity.

For the uninitiated, here are how the two types are defined.

The manager’s schedule is [where] each day [is] 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.

The Maker’s schedule, on the other hand:

[Makers] 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.

The challenge I have is that I’m neither a maker nor a manager. As a “consultant”1 I fall somewhere between the two. The variety is what makes it interesting to me. The variety is also what makes it difficult.

Sometimes I have to sit and concentrate for a large block of time. Maybe I’m sketching out an architecture, researching something, building a prototype, or debugging some code. Perhaps I’m writing a report or putting together a presentation.

On other days I have back-to-back meetings. Workshops, delivering presentations or training, and explaining the results of my research.

But the worst are days where I have an hour’s meeting followed by an hour “gap,” repeated. Technically, I’m only in meetings for half the time, but it wipes out the whole day in terms of productivity. I spend half the day either context switching or with a tranche of time that’s too small to do much useful. A few days of these meetings and I feel very busy but not very productive.

The internet is full of suggestions on how to manage your schedule correctly. Few of them work for me.

A popular suggestion is to schedule meetings together, always in the morning or late in the day, for example. But what if I have clients in India and colleagues in the US? (I do.) There can be meetings at any time, and timezones mean that I can’t reasonably move them. I do have a certain amount of latitude in terms of moving some meetings around, but there are constraints beyond my productivity. If I (an individual) am trying to set up a workshop with half-a-dozen people and they’re paying for the privilege of meeting me, I’m at a disadvantage, schedule-wise.

Another suggestion is to block out the time in my calendar. This is probably the most effective method, but it’s not without its challenges. It’s hard to ‘hold the line’ against people booking meetings. Whether it’s someone not knowing how to check your calendar (or them not caring), frequently pushing back when you have no other firm commitments can look like you’re not a “team player.”

Another reason it’s hard to keep those time blocks is that it can be hard to know how long they need to be. Consultants usually have to maximise “billable time,” which makes it hard to turn down sure-fire client-facing hours. If I block out four hours in my diary, what’s to say I won’t get stuck after an hour and have to wait for feedback? What do I then do with the remaining three hours? It’s a real optimisation and opportunity cost problem.

So what’s the answer? I wish I had the One True Way. I’m not sure that one exists. Unlike many of the other people giving advice on the internet2, I am not 100% in control of my schedule. The best I’ve been able to come up with is a combination of all of the above. I try to have meeting-free days. I try to block time where it makes sense.

To an extent, it’s my job to be flexible and available for clients. Maybe I just need to learn to live with it?

  1. I’m a “field engineer”, which means I help clients get the most out of my company’s software. ↩︎
  2. As ever, you get what you pay for. ↩︎


After university, when I first started working, I jealously noticed people leaving their desks and attending meetings. I was left sitting at my desk, bashing out code. What was going on? What exciting things were being discussed without me? Sometimes they’d come back from the meeting and ask a random question. It was all very mysterious.

A while later I started getting invited to these meetings. I found what was being discussed. I discovered the mystery.

I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to avoid them.

Of course, meetings are not inherently bad. Sharing information, collaborating, making decisions are all vital functions of a company and you need meetings to do that. So why are they often so bad? And why do I spend so much time trying to avoid them?

Meetings are a cultural artefact. Good and bad etiquette isn’t evenly distributed. The companies with the worst meetings are also, ironically, the ones with the most.

What makes a good meeting? There are lots of articles on the web about this, so I don’t want to belabour the point, but, actually, I think it’s quite simple:

  • A defined function
  • The right people
  • The right duration

Missing any one of those means that the meeting is going to be a waste for at least some of those attending.

By “a defined function,” yes, I mean an agenda. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full and formal written agenda, but all attendees should know the point of the meeting. If they don’t, maybe you do need to write it down. I encourage people to decline meetings with an unclear objective1.

The “right people” to invite to a meeting is often driven by the org chart, but this is completely the wrong metric. You need the fewest people that can meet the objective of the meeting. Don’t include someone just because they’re “important.” Don’t exclude someone because they’re too junior. Include everyone needed to share information or make a decision, or whatever the goal. But no more than that.

One thing that infuriates me is where people in a meeting have no “function.”2 Everyone should have a clearly defined role. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there.

What about duration? I see two sides to it. First, work expands to fill the time available. Don’t do that. If you set aside an hour for a meeting but it actually only takes ten minutes, quit while you’re ahead. In fact, for people that tend to take a while to get to the point, I’ll deliberately book short meetings.

Conversely, if you’ve spent an hour going around in circles without making a real decision, maybe it’s time to call it a day. Your conclusion should be the information you need to actually make a decision, the people who are going to obtain it and, hopefully, when the next meeting will be.

Talking of “an hour,” that’s my benchmark for maximum meeting length. Anything significantly longer than that suggests to me that there isn’t sufficient focus or a tight enough agenda. And, perhaps more importantly, people are just not going to focus that whole time. They’re going to drift off into a dream world or check their phone. Why have them in the room physically if they’re not present mentally?

It all sounds so simple when you put it like that and yet we’re all guilty of Doing It Wrong. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that meetings should be deliberate, just like any other corporate artefact.

  1. There are exceptions. For example, I wouldn’t decline a meeting with a client but I would seek clarification. ↩︎
  2. When Dilbert was good, there was a character called the Meeting Moth. I think we’ve all worked with people like that. ↩︎

My delicious.com bookmarks for September 8th through September 10th

  • "The Government" – "Try something. Every time somebody complains about the evils or failings of 'the government,' strike out 'the government' and see what results." (via @marcoarment)
  • People get red-dy – "The idea of a ginger festival may sound like little more than a bit of fun, but when 3,000 redheads came together for a recent gathering it became a bonding experience."
  • Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why. – "It's not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It's as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger."