For all of us working inside the tech industry, our work days are shaped by our calendars. Weeks full of stand ups, one to ones, reviews, retros, interviews, and others have become the standard at a lot of companies.
While this might work well for managerial roles, where the primary work is to talk to and coordinate people, it’s a problem for everyone working as an individual contributor, or “IC”, such as engineers or designers like myself. And that is because our actual work happens inbetween those meetings.
To us, meetings are interruptions. They often represent the time in which we can’t work. Especially if they’re scattered across the day, requiring a lot of context switching and leaving little time inbetween to get back into the flow, which is where we’re the most productive and creative. Paul Graham describes this as the difference between the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule.
However, meetings often make up a big part of our day, so much so that I often feel like I can only get actual work done afterwork.
A design problem
I think part of the problem comes from fundamental flaws in the way our calendars are designed.
One of the main problems is that calendars are empty by default, giving everyone a free canvas to fill up. Once meetings have been scheduled, they are displayed as highlighted slots of time dedicated to a clear purpose, leaving everything around them looking as if that person has nothing to do.
The calendars we use are based on the idea that meetings are the primary work, and every free hour inbetween is only waiting to be booked. They’re designed for managers.
So what if we turn this around to better reflect how the time of an IC is actually spent? What if calendars we’re filled with focus time by default, and meetings were displayed as interruptions?
Instead of adding a block of time on top of an empty canvas, creating a meeting would look like cutting a hole into an already existing element, which represents our focus time.
Some people already put hours long blockers into their calendars to avoid getting disrupted. But if we established focus time as the default, we could build on top of that.
We could, for example, visualise that the interruption is not limited to the meeting time itself. Meetings often require some time beforehand to prepare and get ready, and it always takes a while to get back into a state of deep, focussed work afterwards.
Additionaly, the required length for a period of focus time could have a defined minimum, because if you only have 30 min between two meetings, you likely won't make an effort to start anything meaningful inbetween.
This is how all of these ideas would work together in action:
Such subtle indicators could better show the person scheduling the meeting the actual impact it has on the other persons work day.
This could help the creator of the meeting to optimise the other persons amount of focus time by scheduling a session close to an existing one so they only have to get back into focus mode once, and the amount of context switching is kept at a minimum.
Let's focus more
In order to think ourselves deeply into a project, we need uninterrupted focus for an extended period of time. A one hour slot in the morning and one in the afternoon is not the same for our brains as a single two hour slot. We need time to let our minds wander to come up with great ideas.
Our calendars should be aware of that and allow us to take back some control over how we structure our day using powerful design mechanisms, like good defaults. And since this could have a direct impact on the productivity and output of a company, and is thus backed up by an economic incentive, we might see companies putting a stronger focus on that in the future. Maybe this blog post can help raise awareness a little bit or inspire someone somewhere to build a better calendar.
This article originated as a twitter thread that got quite some traction, which is why I decided to go a bit deeper in this blog entry.
What do you think? Let's discuss!
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