Living Bimodally

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I have been long aware of Paul Graham’s writing on the Maker’s Schedule versus the Manager’s Schedule. Particularly:

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. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

Having a good understanding of my work and energy patterns, I know that meetings drain me and when I have meetings in the middle of my day. I have hard time getting back into a focused mindset. I also know that I am prone to considerable procrastination when I know that I have meetings later in the work day. I might spend the whole morning goofing off if I have a meeting at 11.

These things are not good. Given the amount and complexity of the work that I need to do to complete a major project, being on a maker’s schedule is critical. The work that I need to do requires significant effort and focus, so applying the principles laid out in Cal Newport’sDeep Work is an effort worth pursuing. After reading Deep Work, I needed to figure out how I could spend more time in the flow-like state, doing the hard work. Part of that process has involved understanding which mode of deep work would work best for me.

Jeremy Duvall summarizes the deep work modes that Newport lays out:

  • Monastic — This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. (Think seclusion somewhere)
  • Bimodal — This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.
  • Rhythmic — This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.
  • Journalistic — in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.

I am a using the Journalistic mode to accomplish the writing necessary for my Master’s classes, so I thought it would be the same for my work project. The problem is that meetings were completely productivity sapping. Going into the Monastic mode is appealing, but not very conducive to have a job that requires regular client and co-worker interaction. The Rhythmic mode sounds nice, but when there could be a crisis that meets me at the door when I walk in at eight, it makes forming a habit difficult. That leaves me one mode: Bimodal.

The past three weeks of work have been done in the Bimodal mode. I have blocked two days on my calendar and will not allow anything to be added on Wednesdays and Fridays, those days are for focused work. That leaves Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Monday is triage and planning, getting ready for my week. That leaves Tuesdays and Thursdays are for meetings, lots of meetings. In some cases, every hour being blocked for a different meeting and keeping me moving across campus. I am completely worn out after meeting days.

The great thing is that even after a day full of back to back meetings, the next day’s focus activities are still highly productive. I am no longer wasting large stretches of the day mindlessly surfing, waiting for the next meeting to start. In fact, I have to remind myself to eat, drink and take breaks, because I get so deep “in the zone” that the distractions of basic functions feel incredibly disruptive.

In addition to shifting the mode of work, I am working to eliminate shallow work, and when I have to group it together. This means removing Safari and email from my phone. I have ways of looking things up, but the friction that comes with it means that I am not wasting time looking up needless things. It also means checking email twice on meeting days, and once on focus days. This limited email schedule means that I have a lot of email to process, but it makes me more ruthless in deleting and responding.

I am also not allowing people to have open access to my calendar. I need to keep myself available on meeting days for my team and my boss, but not allowing people to just drop random calendar invites on my calendar is a very different habit. I am using Calendly to allow people to schedule specified blocks of time, ensuring that my meeting days, while busy are not completely overwhelming.

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Working bimodally has taken some getting used to, both by me and my coworkers, but the results have spoken for themselves, I have produced more quality work, and continued to keep the understood commitments of working in a large organization.

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