Maker vs. Manager: How to win the fight for your focus (by fixing your schedule)

You can break down the way most people schedule their days into two categories: Makers vs. managers.

There are people who spend most of their day managing—either other people or projects. And there are those who spend their time making—writing docs, designing logos, coding apps, etc…

At least that’s how it would look in a perfect world.

In reality, most of us spend our days frantically trying to balance making and managing. We set out to focus on something big and then end up in meetings, on calls, chasing other people for tasks, and overwhelmed with “managing”.

This causes all sorts of friction and issues–especially if you’re a designer, writer, developer, or anyone hired to dream up innovative ideas and get creative.

But here’s the thing: With a few small tweaks, you can create a schedule that gives you time to focus on what’s important and keep up with meetings, calls, emails, and “urgent” tasks.

Show me your schedule and I’ll tell you what’s important to you

Take a quick look at your calendar and tell me what you see. If there are large swaths of empty space to focus and work on whatever you want, congratulations! You’re part of a very small and exclusive club. 

The truth is that 90% of people say they don’t feel in control over how they spend their time each day. 

That’s not good.

So why do we feel so overwhelmed by our daily schedule?

In a now-famous essay, programmer and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham proposed that the issue is in how different jobs see time differently:

  • Manager’s schedule: A manager’s schedule follows the typical appointment book style with each day cut up into hour (or less) intervals. As Graham explains “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.”
  • Maker’s schedule: For people who do more heads-down, creative work, they need a schedule with larger units of free time–usually half a day at a time. As Graham writes: “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

Right away, you can see how this is a broken system. 

Managers manage makers. This means their job requires them to break up the focused time makers need to get creative. 

Maker vs. Manager: How to win the fight for your focus (by fixing your schedule) Click To Tweet

A manager can easily send you a meeting invite but makers can rarely decline by saying “Sorry! That’s in the middle of my 4-hour focus block.” 

Few of us have the levels of control and autonomy necessary to block out half a day without any calls or meetings. Instead, we end up multitasking, jumping between tasks, and fragmenting our focus. 

But as we now know, multitasking is a myth. And that sort of constant context switching only eats into our productive time. 

This isn’t to say you should religiously follow a maker’s schedule and ignore your boss (that’s probably a quick way to get fired).

But rather that both makers and managers need to find balance in their days that works for everyone. 

How to manage and make: 3 powerful strategies for balancing your time, energy, and focus

If you want to get the most out of your day, your schedule and your goals need to be aligned.

But who can “get creative” in a 15-minute slot between their mandatory lunch meeting and the hour-long call with the sales team at 1:30?

As Basecamp founder, Jason Fried, explains:

“People don’t have hours anymore. They might say they work 8–10 hours a day. But they don’t. They work 15 minutes and 20 minutes and 25 minutes and 6 minutes and maybe 45 minutes if they’re lucky. And that just seems broken to me.”

Both makers and managers need time to focus on deep work. And this requires getting strategic with how you spend your time each day, week, and month. 

The weekly breakdown: Split up your week with maker and manager schedule days

Maker schedule

The simplest way to solve the maker vs. manager debate is to just do both. But on different days.

Here’s an example: 

When Buffer’s Harrison Harnisch transitioned from an individual contributor to a technical lead, his schedule suddenly went from long periods of free time to full of typical managerial problems.

Teams from across the company started looking to him for leadership and help. This meant more “urgent tasks” that shifted his focus away from maker time.

But constantly shifting was killing the quality of both his making and managing. As Harrison writes

“Especially when working on projects that span multiple teams, there is a huge amount of context that needs to be formed in your mind before you start solving the problem. Building context can take hours, only to be lost by a random interruption.”

His solution was to split his week up. Some days were dedicated to managing tasks, while others were for heads-down coding.

Maker Schedule - Buffer

If you’re a manager who also makes big contributions to your team, this can solve a number of issues:  

  1. You go into each day knowing what your focus is. There’s no more guilt around blocking out time for focused work and ignoring emails for a few hours.
  2. Your team has clearer expectations. Meetings and calls can all be organized on specific days giving everyone more time for their maker schedule.
  3. Everyone has to think hard about what requests are truly “urgent”. 

This last point is one that few people on a manager’s schedule really recognize.

When you’re not always available, it forces people to look for other solutions.

“It is important to note that deep work time can be interrupted by things that are both urgent and important. Ignoring pager alerts would be bad for everyone! However, treating every question as urgent is likely to do more harm than good.”

The daily breakdown: Use “office hours” to contain your daily managing time

If you can’t commit to full days of making or managing try scaling the strategy down to your daily schedule.

The same way that university professors have specific times each day when they’re available for meetings, you can create “office hours” that are free blocks for managing, meetings, and random conversations. 

Let’s say you know you’re most productive and focused in the mornings.

This is prime maker time, so you’ll want to time-block out a few hours every morning for it. 

You can automatically block distractions during Maker time using FocusTime! Learn more.

This leaves your afternoons open for less focus-intensive work like emails, calls, and meetings. 

You can even choose to use office hours on just specific days, or create a recurring slot that people can book in advance using Google Calendar.

Google Calendar’s Appointment Slots are recurring events that other people can book with you! Learn more in our full Google Calendar guide.

What’s great about this scheduling strategy is it lets you get into a state of guilt-free flow each day.

As bestselling writer and designer Paul Jarvis explains:

“The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done. So grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write 5–6 articles in one fell swoop. Or I’ll spend a whole day programming websites for clients, which gets my brain into ‘code mode’.”

This is the essence of the maker schedule–dedicated time to get things done. But just like the weekly schedule, you need to make sure everyone else knows when you’re available

Be clear about your schedule and then go into focus mode. There’s rarely an emergency that can’t wait until your scheduled office hours.

Use rituals and routines to switch between “work modes”

Maker ritual

Whether you break up your schedule by day or by week, there’s always going to be a bit of friction. Unfortunately, this is usually where you slip up.

As Paul Graham explains:

“One meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon.”

This is due to what’s called attention residue.

When we switch tasks or “work modes” our brain doesn’t immediately follow. Instead, we get stuck thinking about what we were just doing and find it hard to focus on the task at hand.  

So if you’re moving from a status update to working on a new feature, it takes your brain time to catch up. 

Luckily, you can prepare for these situations with routines and rituals

Routines–like your weekly or daily schedule–help your brain build habits and automatically know what to expect each day. However, rituals are actions that help you easily move between habits and “work modes”. 

Think of Maya Angelou, who only wrote in small hotel rooms. Or Jack Kerouac, who made sure to touch the ground nine times before starting his creative work. Or even Beethoven, who counted 60 coffee beans for his daily brew before getting started.

While you don’t have to go to such extremes, a simple workday ritual that helps you move into maker mode is a powerful tool. 

How to master your maker & manager schedule

These strategies will help you balance your maker and manager time. However, they all assume you’re aware of how you actually spend your time each day.

But as we’ve seen from studying hundreds of millions of hours of working time, how we say we want to spend our time and how we actually do it are rarely in sync. 

We say we want to focus on coding a new feature. But we end up checking email and Slack every 6 minutes instead. Or, we say we want to finish work at 5 and spend time with family. But actually end up working in the evenings and weekends 92% of the time

As Deep Work author, Cal Newport, writes:

“We spend much of our days on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we are doing with our time. This is a problem.

“It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, ‘What makes the most sense right now?’”

That level of self-reflection is hard. Especially when you’re bombarded with “urgent tasks” and busywork. 

But a tool like RescueTime can help coach you into being more aware of your time and protecting your focus for making and managing.

Here’s how:

1. Dig into your “core work” categories to see how much maker time you actually get

RescueTime tracks and categorizes every app, site, and document you work on during the day. This means it’s easy to dig into your “maker” time and see how much of it happens (and when). 

Start with an overview by heading to your Categories report and viewing by week or month.

This shows you how much time you spend on your maker activities like writing, designing, or coding. Pick the one you’d consider “maker time” and click on it to dig deeper.

Here you’ll see the specific apps and sites you’ve been using, how long you spent on each, and what percentage of your total time is spent on them. You can even view this report  

  1. By day to see which days you spend more time on maker work) 
  2. By the time of day to see when during the day you usually do this work) 

This gives you a great idea of what days (or time of day) might be better to schedule maker time.

2. Use “Daily Patterns” to see what gets in the way of your maker time

Now that you have a good idea of when you should schedule maker time, it’s time to protect that time. Let’s start by understanding what interrupts you when you’re focused. 

Head back to the main Categories report and then click Time of Day. 

This shows you what your daily routine usually looks like. Check out the hours where you’re working on maker work. What else is happening? 

In this example, we can see that the 11 am – 1 pm burst of maker time also contains a decent amount of communication time. 

This means I’m vulnerable to bouncing between focused maker work and emails/chat. If you wanted to, you could then look at your communication time report to see exactly what’s distracting you from your maker time.  

3. Create a custom “maker time” filter and alerts to protect your focus

We now know how much and when our maker time happens as well as what distracts us. But what about protecting our focus when we need it?

With a few simple settings, RescueTIme can help coach you back to maker time when you get distracted.  

First, we want to create a custom time filter for maker time. You do this under Tools > Advanced Filters > Add a New Time Filter. 

Time filters let you customize reports, goals, and alerts to only show up during certain hours. 

Let’s use the example of Buffer’s Harrison Harnisch again. Harrison wanted to reserve Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday as his maker time. 

By setting a time filter that only shows those days during work hours, he could more easily see how well he’s sticking to his maker time. 

Not only that, but he could also set up a custom RescueTime Alert to tell him when he’s hit his maker time goal during that time (or one for when he’s distracted by emails!)

Create a maker time alert

Make the most of your daily schedule–whether you’re a maker or a manager

Maker vs manager doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting what needs to get done each day and feeling good about it. 

If you feel like your day is out of your control, try one of these strategies to own when you’ll be making and when you’ll be managing. And if you need extra help, give RescueTime a shot. You can grab a free 2-week trial and set up your optimal schedule. 

How do you protect your “Maker” time each day? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

6 comments

  1. You know what? Right now, as I navigate being a de facto remote school supervisor, I’m pretty thrilled to squeak in 15 minute chunks of work in one bit. That said, Rescue Time really helps me keep track of the moments I do have. I’d love to hear you folks dig into helping with focus during these deeply weird times when many of us find our work spaces and schedules elooking nothing like what we’re accustomed to.

    1. Glad to hear RescueTime has been helpful, Erin! The impact of being at home more (or all the time for some of us!) is something we’re definitely looking into and will share more insights on in the near future.

    1. Hey Zain! Glad you enjoyed the content but sorry to hear it was a bit too long for you. We’re working on some short-form more tactical content that will appear inside the RescueTime app. More on that soon!

Leave a comment