The Need for Modes and Boundaries

The research is pretty clear on what makes for a maximally-productive workforce. I want to talk about boundaries & modes that protect productivity from well-intentioned mangling, and especially the worst possible thing for productivity: burnout.

Burnout is the enemy of productivity, and has gotten all too common. Working longer and longer hours, answering email at all times of day and night; these are the signs of impending productivity collapse due to burnout, and they highlight two important concepts: boundaries (the lines that separate different things) and modes (the things being separated, ex work-mode vs relax-mode). In order to maximize productivity, you need to mind the lines between the three big mode dichotomies:

  • work vs not work
  • get-it-done vs unstructured work
  • manager work vs creative work

Work vs not

A common but oft-neglected bit of advice: you need to unplug. Even “Lean In” luminary Sheryl Sandberg observed a hard “out at 5:30” rule to separate work concerns from life concerns. Incremental minutes on work past 40hrs/week may individually seem like a good idea, but collectively compromise efficiency, work product, and personal health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies show “a pattern of deteriorating performance on psychophysiological tests as well as injuries while working long hours.” Recovery from overwork saps efficiency from subsequent weeks.

Now-execution-mode vs freeform

Drawing sharp lines between “get it done” mode and less structured effort is healthy and can increase productivity. The Harvard Business Review notes that highly successful companies like 3M and Google share a best practice: specifically-budgeted 10-15% time for employees to work on their own projects. “Get it done” mode can be useful for short periods of focus, but that same focus impedes the creative thinking that produces novel, long-term products. AdSense was a product of 20% time, and produces ~25% of Google’s revenue. Sadly, the temptation to cut freeform time for more command-and-control time can be too real; that link and this one note the conflicted current state of 20% time at Google. Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; implement, respect, and enforce freeform-creative time.

Long-block vs short-block time

Paul Graham is the earliest source we know of on the difference between maker time and manager time. Basically, people who manage slice and dice their day into many short blocks; 1-on-1 with Jane, call Jim, sit in the Due Diligence meeting, etc for 30 minutes to an hour each, across an entire day. When you are a person with power and your time is scarce and expensive, this makes some sense for wringing as much value out of that time as possible.

But there are hidden consequences of this approach, with the biggest being disruption to the other paradigm of scheduling: creative work, which benefits from long, uninterrupted blocks. A manager usually has many smaller tasks with simple, clear context to work with, ex “Hey Steve, how’s it going, here is what I need from your TPS reports”. But creative work, which can include any sort of writing, art, programming, etc, is much harder to define and has more significant ramp-up and ramp-down costs. As Graham notes, adding just one meeting to the middle of a creative worker’s day can easily ruin productivity for the entire day, because it can take a long time to just get into the headspace needed to be effective.

A brief aside: creative work

Creative work is commonly the victim of misunderstanding the above boundaries, so let’s work an example to understand the important parts.

A key concept that can be unintuitive for some people, (especially managers, unfortunately): creative work is a lot like conducting an invisible orchestra. When I am working on a software problem, I have to be aware of:

1. what my relational database is up to,
2. what my web service is doing,
2. what my worker processes are doing,
3. what my message broker is doing,
4. what any client-side code is doing,
5. how all of this fits into my deployment pipeline.

Those are just the relevant actors. In order to change anything, let’s say in the web process, I have to think about:

1. what I want to be done, 
2. where I need to make changes, 
3. how these changes impact any other part of the system,
4. whether these changes push any other piece beyond what they can do, including at scale.

And then there is standard stuff like writing to match code style, test coverage, etc.

Everything is tangled together in an opaque snarl, and changing any piece can impact every other piece. Just like in conducting an orchestra, you usually cannot just double the volume or cadence of the timpani without causing a new problem: now no one can make out the flutes, or the musical phrases are out of sync, or something else. It requires substantial focus to build up the mental model in working memory, and most of your brainpower to make mental changes & reflect them in the world. Remember, all of this is invisible, without the benefit conductors get of asking the woodwinds what they think, so it is that much more difficult in addition. Obviously having a manager drop in “for just a few minutes” would blast away all of that built up mental model, and restart you from zero! Problematically, it is not just software that has so many concerns to juggle. Artists need to worry about visual hierarchy, inspiration sets, consistency of visual grammar etc; creative writers need to manage plots, themes, word choice, imagery, etc; lawyers and other technical writers need to recall interlocking precedents, argots, tropes, etc.


With these distinctions built up, we can construct more productive workflows from the start.

  • Creatives get boundaries of long, uninterrupted time blocks that are respected,
  • Managers get checkins/pull-ups etc at the sides of these blocks,
  • Approximately 80-90% of work time is dedicated to executional “get work done” mode, while the remaining 10-20% is used for worker-directed tasks plausibly believed by them to be important
  • At the end of the 8 hour day and the 40 hour week, everyone goes home and does not-work to stay energized and productive.