In “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” Paul Graham writes
There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. [. . .]
But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.
People who make things are often experiencing flow, which is sometimes called “being in the zone.” It’s a state of singular concentration familiar to writers and other makers. Managers may experience it too, but in different ways, and their flow emerges from talking to another person, or from productive meetings—but a tangible work product rarely emerges from those meetings.
In part because of the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule, we try not to bother our clients. When we write proposals, we schedule a single scoping call, which is a little bit like being interviewed by a reporter. During that call we attempt to answer the 5Ws and H—who, what, where, when, why, and how—and hash out anything unique to a particular RFP or client. We ask our clients to send any background information they might have, like old proposals or reports. And then our clients usually don’t hear from us until the first draft of the proposal is finished.
Just because we’re not noisy doesn’t mean we’re not busy, however. We’re writing during that quiet period. Writing works best when it’s relatively uninterrupted. If you’re a part-time grant writer in an organization, you may be used to phone calls and emails and crises and all manner of other distractions that hit you at least once an hour. In those conditions you’ll rarely if ever reach a consistent state of flow. These problems have scuppered more than one proposal, as we know from candid conversations with clients’s on-staff grant writers.*
We only have a single scoping call or scoping meeting because we know we’re better off writing the best proposal we can given what we know than we are attempting to call our clients every hour when we don’t know something. Our methods have been developed over decades of practice. They work.
Writing isn’t the only field with flow issues. Software famously has this problem too, because in a way every software project is a novel endeavor. Software is closer to research than to manufacturing. Once you have a manufacturing process, you can figure out the critical path, the flow of materials, and about how many widgets you can make in a given period time. That’s not true of software—or, in many cases writing. This list of famous, failed software projects should humble anyone attempting such a project.
Ensuring that a project, like a proposal, gets done on time is simply quite hard (which is part of the reason we’re in business: we solve that problem). But it can be done, and we work to do it, and one way is by ensuring that we don’t waste our clients’s time.
We don’t call ourselves artists, at least in this domain, but, as Joe Fassler says, “Great Artists Need Solitude.” Writers need solitude. The best work gets done in chunks of undisturbed time—for Neal Stephenson, those chunks need to be about four hours, which sounds pretty close to the way we write.
* People are often surprised that we get hired by organizations that have full-time grant writers already on staff. But this is actually quite common.