Time is fashionable again.
From Narayan Murthy’s infamous and often misquoted remark on the 70-hour workweek to this TikTok video about the drudgery of the daily 9-5, social media platforms are aghast at how other humans look at time.
What’s really baffling is how much that the entire discourse around time is really about how much we care about input instead of output.
Quality of work is rarely spoken about.
But the reality is that thing that binds time together is our calendar. It’s a temporal guide-map.
How we split our weeks into days, days into hours, and hours into endless meetings, tells us a lot about who we are.
“The 10-minute reminder before an event sends an alarm to the body and mind, somehow.” says Ahmed Zain, a Bengaluru resident who specialises in product marketing.
But it doesn’t define what we do.
I’ve had a rocky relationship with my calendar. And schedules. But let’s start from the start.
A Brief History of (My) Time
It’s easy to forget that before the pandemic began, we didn’t really colour code our temporal guide-maps the way we do now. Calendars were something you’d get as a return gift from your dad’s best friends factory opening during Diwali.
During 2019, I started working at one of India’s largest hospitality companies.
But in 2020, as remote work became the new normal (remember that phrase?), calendars weren’t just a way to map out your day.
It became a form of communication. Samiksha Jain, a media analyst from Mumbai working at a research firm says: “It's important for people who work with you, who spend so much time communicating with you, to also have a sense of how your day looks. Communication becomes more empathetic.”
The calendar was like this added layer of communication. And some organisations respected it when you blocked out a day, with no questions asked.
Another interesting use of the calendar was how it became a nifty replacement of the to-do list.
Unlike the static to-do list, the calendar allowed me to have a visual representation of what my tasks for the day looked like, and how much time they took. Even for Samiksha, it helped her block time (and thus, mindspace) for something as basic as lunch.
Thus, the calendar became this all-encompassing tool for productivity.
But for some, like me, it also became the subject of envy.
The Maker’s Schedule vs. The Manager’s Schedule
A couple of months ago, while interviewing Rashmi Sharma of Coca-Cola for a show I host, she told me about a rather interesting concept: the maker’s schedule vs. the manager’s schedule. After some digging, I found out that none other than Paul Graham of Y Combinator had written an essay around this, way back in 2009.
Simply put, the manager’s schedule is one which is filled to the brim with meetings, hour-to-hour, from one appointment to the other.
I’ll let Paul tell you how one is different from the other:
“When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.”
Not all employees need to splice their time neatly into blocks. Creativity requires discipline, yes, but it requires flow.
If you especially have those ‘creative type’ people working at your organisation, it makes sense for them to take control over the time, and not litter it with meetings. Deadlines are obviously important, but how you live before the deadline should be up to you. If you can handle the self imposed time-blocking, that is.
To find out more, I spoke to Siddharth G., a freelancer-turned-production house founder, who has seen this shift happen first hand. When he was working as a freelance video editor, he was on a loosely-defined maker’s schedule.
“My schedule didn’t have any structure at all. Deadlines mattered, that’s it. Which meant that if the deadline was at 9AM Monday, you’d see me guzzling RedBulls on Sunday at 3AM.” But ever since he’s expanded into starting his own production house, things have started to look different.
“It’s important for me to block out time now and solutionise with my team. I’ve created templates that help them build better. There’s more structure, which is required for the production house to grow. But all of that only happens because I know to edit. I still sleep late, but there’s a peace of mind that there are a few people working on the project and not just, all alone.”
Naturally, he urges all managers to know the craft of the maker. A general who hasn’t been a soldier isn’t much of a general at all.
But while Siddharth’s points make sense to a certain extent, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible for the CEO of a large organisation to have first-hand practice, or even know the skillsets of their myriad of colleagues.
Independence is a lonely thing
After quitting my full-time job and going independent in April, time moved slow. I fondly remembered how the once-mundane ‘daily stand-up’ and ‘all-hands’ meetings started to make sense, all at once. It was a way of syncing calendars together, even if it was for a few hours, to tell your colleagues: “My time is mine. Your time is yours. But this little block of blue is ours.”
But since I was working alone, none of that took place. My calendar felt barren. I felt lost. And envious of others who had something to work towards. I tried filling up my calendar with random chores just so that I felt better about myself. I wasn’t the only one feeling this, though. Here’s Ahmed again:
“When I recently lost my job, my calendar was wiped out leaving big blank spaces. I didn’t think this empty calendar somehow would make me feel hollow and empty. I suddenly felt directionless.
For the first few days, I just didn’t know what to do with my time. On one hand, I thought this is the much deserved break I needed and on the other, I realised how I just didn’t know how to take a break.”
As it turns out though, some needed more ‘free time’ than others. The maker’s schedule, while inherently freeing in its nature, could also be a trap. Which is something that Ahmed inadvertently fell into, after having lost his job.
When I asked Siddharth for his final thoughts, on whether he prefers the maker’s schedule vs. the manager’s schedule, he said:
“Sure I miss the maker’s life, but I know that it’s important for me to follow the manager’s schedule if I want to scale up things. It's my responsibility to do regular, or even irregular check-ins sometimes. ”
Samiksha, the analyst from Mumbai, also chipped in. “I’m really not envious of what my reporting manager’s schedule looks like. It’s quite punishing to be honest. I like the siloed approach of working on one project at a time, and not getting on too many last-minute meetings.” As for me, well, I’ve made peace with the fact that there are some days when I don't have any meetings. I’ve also made a truce with days when I have back-to-back recordings. And I’ve tried to not feel envious of how others are filling their days.
Organisations also need to be cognisant of their employees’ relationship with time. Too many meetings might end up frustrating employees, but having directionless days might be a cause of concern too. There isn’t really a one-size fits all approach here.
Burnout, as you’d know, is not always caused by too much work, but also inadequate social support.
I’d love to go on more about this, but my calendar tells me that I’ve an hour-long nap coming up in the next 10 minutes…