• Design Interrupted: Design-time Versus Meeting-time

    Ever see sleep histograms like the one pictured below? There are levels of sleep, and the deeper you go, the better the sleep you’re getting. But it takes time for you to get to the sweet spot of REM sleep and achieve quality sleep. And if the neighbor’s dog barks (or, in my household, your toddler yells “mama!”) and you wake up, the whole process has to start over. The same, it seems, goes for design.

    An article I read a while back caused me to reflect on how we scheduled meetings at Adaptive Path and how that might affect my colleagues’ ability to achieve quality design work. In the article, Y-Combinator advisor Paul Graham, describes the differences between a “maker’s schedule” and a “manager’s schedule”.

    Essentially, Graham describes a “manager’s schedule” as hour-based and centered around switching tasks. Your calendar rules your day. He says “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.”

    Graham continues by saying that “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.” He explains that disruptions to the flow can be disastrous for solving difficult problems.

    I am definitely guilty of booking check-ins that work for my “manager’s schedule” moreso than our teams’ “maker’s schedule.” I try to keep them flexible—weekly 30-min meetings that can be skipped if they are pushing toward a deadline or moved around as needed. But the meetings still break up the design day, and some days the teams might barely get into really deep design work where they have the time and focus to understand and solve hard problems before they’d have to attend a meeting.

    Every year or so, someone seems to ask the group to articulate the purpose of a particular meeting. To remind us who it serves, to ask us if the format is right for the topic and group, to discuss ways we can make sure it continues to be relevant. This happened last year. We used to have two hour-long staff meetings per week, one for sales and one for the practice. After a bit of discussion–yes, at a meeting–about what these meetings were designed to accomplish—we decided to combine them into one weekly meeting where we focused on consulting discussions regarding current projects and potential work one week, and practice-related topics the next. It’s been working well. And everyone appreciates the meeting-free hour.

    Another meeting overhaul happened about a year and a half ago. We used to have monthly all-day company meetings that included rowdy debates on provocative topics, updates on financials, project status reports and sharing from teams, sales, events, HR, etc. We’ve cut that time back to 90 minutes (with breakfast!) keeping it very focused, while making sure it remains an opportunity to simply come together in the same place at the same time.

    We don’t agree that meetings are toxic. Meetings are necessary. Just not all of them. At Adaptive Path, being transparent about our business is a huge part of our culture. We know we need to make room for discussions about where we’re headed, the kind of work we want to do and how we want to go about getting it done.Talking about these things is essential and can’t effectively be conducted over email.

    But, we can continue to push it even further! We need to stay conscious of giving teams even more unbroken time to be in maker mode and work deeper into the zone where they can tackle the tough problems and generate elegant solutions. And just this week, another round of poking holes in our meeting schedule has flared up, which again reminded me of Graham’s article.

    So I say by all means, meet! Just please make sure you leave the space for designers and project teams to dream deeply and for long periods of time. It’s good for the makers, it’s good for the business!

    Thanks to Brandon Schauer for his contributions and quick diagramming skills.

    There are 8 thoughts on this idea

    1. Michael Hartmann


      Thanks for the article and mentioning Paul Graham’s one. I’d even say that certain people can work only in one of those modes and thus should choose their job accordingly to get the best result. Some people aren’t just “made” for diving deep into something (or may have never tried) and should be managers. Others can create really nice work but only if you give them the time.

      In addition to better meeting schedules, we should minimize all distractions: phone, email (turn off that notification!), and if possible set your chat status to “unavailible”.


    2. Barry McGibbon

      It always amazes me that we hire people to be creative, then mess around with their day and stifle their creativity.

      Over many years I’ve seen lots of ways to improve this situation and only two have been really effective:

      1. have a quiet room — no phones, computers, talk, etc. – to give time for thinking — that’s what you hire them for!

      2. schedule project meetings mid-week; allows time at the start to catch-up on the urgent tasks, and gives enough days to complete those for a deadline. Monday and Fridays meetings usually mean week-end working


    3. Joerka Deen

      Interruptions is a scary fact of organizations. To be truly productive you like to be in a state of flow. Contact with others is what inspires and helps to understand. It’s a dilemma. I agree that formal meetings shouldn’t interrupt. Balancing individual contact needs against individual isolation hold the dilemma. Part of the solution might be organizing team flow. Like improvising jazz musicians. In flow in interaction.

    4. Kim Lenox

      Hi Laura,

      Someone shared your post on Twitter. I really like your approach and happy to hear everyone is working together to allow for deeper design-time at AP. This is something my team struggles with too (plus 2 locations added to the mix).

      I saw this article http://www.spring.org.uk/2012/02/whats-the-best-time-of-day-to-be-creative.php and thought it would be interesting to layer this datapoint over your current approach to see if there’s any way to refine supporting design-time.

    5. Vinay Nayak K

      Hi Laura,
      Very apt and contextual. I have two diverging views:
      1. Yes, I agree that “interruptions” are bad. We have seen “productivity” of team going down significantly when there are umpteen interruptions. Planned interrupts are OK but adhoc are difficult to digest, sometimes very frustrating.

      2. However, is it not interesting that, it is a challenge and sometimes I have seen excellent “designers” who are very comfortable with context switch. They can easily switch from one subject to another and still shown the same productivity instead of interruptions.

      Dont we desire to have such “designers” in our teams who are flexible enough?


    6. Laura Kirkwood

      Thank you, everyone, for your comments and suggestions!

      Kim, thanks for sharing this article. There was also this (not?) helpful article in life-hacker suggesting that sleepiness, or being slightly buzzed, might help with creativity… http://lifehac.kr/AcyvqV


    7. Paul Michelman


      I thought you’d like to know that your excellent post was mentioned in today’s issue of HBR’s Morning Advantage, our daily curation newsletter. Drop me an email if you’d like me to send you a copy.

      Best regards,
      Paul Michelman
      Harvard Business Review

    8. thinkpad

      btw Paul Graham isn’t just an adviser at YC…he was the founder

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