Paul Graham outlines the stark difference between the schedules of “makers” and “managers”, and how a simple meeting can affect them so differently.
While I’m not a programmer by any stretch, this compare/contrast resonates with the part of me that cherishes a large chunk of time to tackle a big project, and struggles so mightily with trying to make headway on that same project in between other commitments/distractions.
I’ve tried explaining this phenomenon to my wife on multiple occasions, and I call it a phenomenon because it really does seem to defy logic when she poses the question:
“What’s the difference between four hours in a row, and four hours broken up? Isn’t it four hours of work, regardless?”
It is, and it isn’t. The best explanation I can give is based on two closely-related concepts that I’m making up as I write this: Work Momentum and Project Reacquaintance. They are what they sound like, but for the sake of having the promised explanation, I’ll dutifully explain…
I can only assume that my concept of Work Momentum translates across disciplines, with everything from programming, to design, to manual labor having some version of what I would call “Getting In A Rhythm”. And so, to that point, I’m guessing you know what I mean. But there’s just something about the amount of time you’ve been “in” a given project that continuously improves your efficiency and productivity. Moves and gestures switch to second-nature muscle memory while the brain zeros in on the conceptual and creative. Ideas flow faster. The big picture becomes clearer as things begin falling in place. You recall the puzzle pieces you’ve already passed over when you finally reach a point where you need them, and so, of course, you know right where they are. To draw a culinary parallel, your “mis en place” is already, well, in place, and so you’re free to cook, and in the grand scheme, to create.
This leads right into Project Reacquaintance. Having your workflow interrupted for any significant period of time does you one very real disservice: It clears the proverbial “cache” of your short term memory. Unless you diligently take copious notes, or are working in a very linear, A to B-type field, when you sit back down (or whatever the position of choice may be), you will inevitably need to take a moment and get “reacquainted” with the project. This is often more involved than cracking your knuckles and saying “Now where was I?” It tends to reveal itself in more insidious, brain-fart sorts of ways. You’ll begin the slow process of digging in, moving from spot to spot, making the progress that looks to be next on the list, only to remember that you either already did that, or determined it was unnecessary and skipped over it. You’ll forget the little realizations you’ve already had – the subtle conclusions that you’ve already come to in the middle of a decision, the execution of which may have been halted. You catch yourself re-making the same mental notes and having project deja vù. Any and all of these are infuriating experiences in the moment, because it ultimately equates to wasted time. When you’re forced to walk away from a project that you’re right in the middle of, the inevitable casualties are both the extensive work your brain has done (and failed to commit to memory, thus requiring it to be re-done at some point), and, of course, your time. Which is money. Or so they say.
So the next time someone asks you whether there’s a difference between four hours in a row, and four hours broken up, you can send them my way. Just don’t let them interrupt me.