Finance

307: Basecamp’s David Heinemeier Hansson On What A Productive Workplace Should Look Like

As we start thinking about re-opening our businesses and offices after Covid-19, many people are wondering what the new “normal” will look like.

While co-founder of Basecamp David Heinemeier Hansson doesn’t know for sure what the outcome will be, he certainly has an idea of what the new world of work should look like. As one of the biggest advocates of remote work, Hansson is hopeful that more and more companies will see the benefits of allowing employees to choose how and where they want to work.

But his vision for work doesn’t stop there. Hansson is also passionate about creating an environment where employees can protect at least a few hours of their day to accomplish deep work. This means no daily stand ups, no open calendars, and no unnecessary distractions that take away from your ability to get s*** done—an approach that’s imbued in Basecamp’s own culture.

If you’re fascinated by the topics of remote work and productivity, you don’t want to miss out on this conversation with Hansson.

If there’s any other content you’d like to see that would be valuable to you during this time, please don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]

Nathan: How did you get your job?

DHH: Sure. I got my job through an email. I sent Jason Fried my business partner now at Basecamp, an email back in 2001 on a blog post that he had made on the Signal Versus Noise Blog, which 20 years later is still the company blog Where he had asked a question about how to do something in PHP. The company was founded and Jason has been based in Chicago for the past … Since then, the 20 years. I was in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I was just a fan of the company. I sent him an email, explained how I do it. He decided it was easier to hire me than it was to learn how to programme.

We started working together, and in the beginning, we were doing consulting together. I was doing the programming, he did do the design. Then in 2003, we started working on Basecamp, our project management and team collaboration software. Released that in 2004, I’ve been working on that ever since. I ended up writing a handful of books together with Jason. The most recent is, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work and relevant to this conversation too the 2013 book Remote: Office Not Required. And I guess the other thing I’m perhaps well known for is Ruby on Rails, which is a development toolkit that’s been used by everyone from Twitter to Airbnb to GitHub, to Shopify. I’ve had a million literally other applications out there. It was extracted from Basecamp back in 2003. I continued to be involved with that development as well. So those are my two big contributions, I think Basecamp, Ruby and Rails. And then of course all our writings.

Nathan: Yeah, crazy. So look, you guys have been big proponents of remote working for a very, very, very long time. And it feels like ever since this virus hit, it is the new normal. And I think it will be very much accepted as we come out, and as restrictions lift, especially in the Western world. But I’d love to hear your take. Like, what do you think is going to be the new normal, post restrictions? And then, I’m going to go through and really drill you on how you run everything. Because we’re hybrid, we have an office. But I heard you guys are shutting down your office or I don’t know if you already have. The one that you have in I think Chicago, but what do you think the new normal is going to be?

DHH: In some ways, it’s actually hard to tell. Because obviously, the majority of office workers and creative workers have been forced to do remote work right now. And do you know what? It usually goes that whenever you’re forced to do anything, you don’t necessarily look too fondly at those in positions. You didn’t choose to get put working at home if you’re used to working in an office, maybe you’re not set up very well to work at home. Maybe you have to work from a spare bedroom that’s full of also the other stuff because that’s just how hard it has to be. Or you have to work from the kitchen counter. And you’re like, “Do you know what? I’d prefer the office.” I can totally understand that. I think a lot of people are going to have that reaction as soon as this is lifted. Thank God I can go back to the office.

At least on a practical setup space, and for a lot of people also in a social space, that work is where they get a lot of their social connections. But then, there’s also clearly going to be a group who’s going to discover the same bliss that we’ve discovered at Basecamp. It’s like, “Hey, wait a minute, having your office in your home is actually pretty sweet.” I’ve been working remotely from home for about 20 years. There’s no possible way you’re ever dragging me back into an office on a full-time basis. It’s not going to happen. And we’ve had an office at Basecamp form since the inception. And as you say, our lease is actually running out in about two months. It was a 10 year lease. We built out a very nice office in Chicago. I’ve used it several times. Before this virus, we would use it the entire company twice a year for a company meetup.

As an aside, this is one of those things that people sometimes don’t quite get when we talk glowingly about remote work. The remote work is not about never seeing your coworkers, that’s a complete misconception. It is the realisation that maybe you don’t have to see them every day. For us, our compromise has been like, “Hey, we’re going to see everyone twice a year for a week. And we’re just going to spend that time on recharging our social batteries and really getting sort of reconnected. That’s enough time to do that. But you know what? After a week like that, where I’ve been a week in the office, I’m just exhausted, right? Some of that is of course, you’re doing all the things you’re not doing all the time, but I just go like, “You know what? I couldn’t have done the things that I’ve ended up doing in my career, working from an office.” I just … that’s me. Right?

And there’s some subset of people I go so far as to argue with the majority of introverts at the very least would self classify a year and say this suits them well. So I think there’s a large group of people who are going to go like, “Do you know what? This was a great experience. I wish I could do this all the time. And hopefully, companies are going to realise that their greatest fears about remote work did not come true. A lot of managers have this misconception that if you let people work from home, all they’re going to do is sit on the couch and do their PlayStation, or they’re going to do their laundry. And they’re going to do everything except for work. Right? This is the number one concern we get. When we talk to people for the first time about remote work, people always say, “But how do you make sure that people are working?” And I’m really disappointed when I hear that because it underscores or illustrates a fundamental lack of trust in your fellow human beings.

And I think a very disappointing kind of conception of what people like to do, this idea that people, especially in creative industries, don’t like to work. I’ve not found a programmer who do not like to write great programmes. I’ve not found a writer who doesn’t like how to write. I’ve not found a designer who doesn’t like how to design. Anyone who does sort of creative work, it’s usually harder to stop them than it is the opposite. And that’s what we found. That the challenge is not making sure that people work enough hours, it’s that they don’t work too much. And I think that this is one of those things that’s actually surprisingly difficult, especially when you pick up remote work for the first time, you don’t know when to say stop. The computer’s right there, you’re already at home. Hey, all of a sudden, before you know it, you’re sitting on the couch. It’s eight o’clock at night, you’re answering work emails. Right? Because the boundaries, they get fluid. And before you know it, the whole day just meshes together. Right?

So what we found is, we have to tell people, join Basecamp, especially the ones that aren’t used to remote work, over and over and over again. Hey, listen, eight hours is enough. 40 hours is plenty. You don’t need to work anymore. In fact, you shouldn’t work anymore. You’re not doing anyone a favour trying to put in 80 hours at Basecamp. That’s not a thing. That’s not something we’d be heavily appreciative of. We’d actually go like, “You know what? That’s not great.” You’re going to be exhausted. You’re going to be tired. You’re not going to be at your creative peak. And that’s what we want. We want your creative peak. We don’t want just the most amount of hours you can smack your butt in a office chair. That’s not a valuable thing. That’s not something you can sell. Oh, all my workers just spent eight hours sitting on our office chair. Who cares? No one cares.

What people care about is like, “Hey, is that a great product? Is that great service?” And to get that great product, to get that great service, what you need is not the most hours in the world. You need the sort of most effective hours in the world. And you don’t need that many of those, you need them together in a single string, uninterrupted time is the real measure here. It’s not the total amount of time. There are people all over the world, putting in 80 hours a week, getting barely two, three, four hours of continuous work in any given one day. And they end up with very, very little to show for it. Because again, when you do that creative work, really most work of all kinds. The magic happens when you have long stretches of uninterrupted time, that is when deep work happens. So the whole game is to optimise those long stretches of uninterrupted time, or at least you think that should be the whole game.

Well, companies are acting as though they have no interest in playing that game at all. So they dot the day with meetings, and now we’re working remotely, right? So it’s not a meeting in the meeting room, it’s a Zoom call, it’s a video conference call. And all of a sudden, you have one at 9:00, you have one at 11:30, and you have one at 2:45. Those three alone, they will shoot that day down to the point that you will get nothing done on that stack of deep creative work you should have been working on. The deep stack of creative work that would actually have been energising. That you’d be pumped up at the end of the day feeling really satisfied about a good day’s work. Do you know how many people get to the end of the day that’s just been a bunch of Zoom calls, and feel satisfied about their life and work? Closest to zero. Right?

It’s not a common occurrence. In fact, the opposite is very common, this whole idea that we’re getting exhausted by all these meetings, all of these video calls. So the new normal hopefully is that there’s an appreciation for the fact that for a large number of people, working from home works great. It works better than if they worked for an office. That, we’ve learned new ways of working and collaborating during this time. That even if you go back to the office, just dotting your day full of meetings is perhaps not great. Could we write more things up? Could we turn half the meetings into status write up since that? Man, we would have made a tremendous step forward, even for all the people who then choose to go back to the office after all. And then finally, we’re going to put to rest this misconception, that collaboration, culture building, all the other things can’t happen remotely. Of course, they can.

Our company and other companies have for, 20 years proven that to be true. And people have essentially not believed it. People, I’d say some people, right? And then now they’re going to be forced to realise that of course, they could. Because the entire world just did it. And in many cases, did it surprisingly well. When you consider all the other pressures, psychologically or otherwise, that we’re under right now, these are not exactly optimal testing circumstances. Like if you were assigning a test, like testing remote work, worked well, it did not work well, you were not going to say like, “Oh yeah, but you’ve got to do it during a global pandemic.” Right? Like, I mean, what the hell? Try to control for a significant variable here. It’s not a thing that works.

So if you account for that, I think by and large, what I’m hearing back is that it’s worked very well for a lot of people. So I hope we come out on the other side where people take account of all those things when they factor in their feelings about it, that we don’t just come out on the other side and say like, “Sheez, I hope I never have to do that again.”

Nathan: Yeah, no, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of the … I guess what people realise is possible with remote work, and what the new normal is. To be honest, we just got a new office in Melbourne, and we fitted it out as awesome. And we had this like … Forever, we’ve had work from home Thursdays, now we have a hybrid where we have a team in Melbourne, a team in New York, but then all these other people in many different countries, all around the world, like at least 15, 20 people. Right? And I said, guys, we spend so much money on this office in Melbourne. I’m going to stop work from home Thursdays. We’re going to go all-in, just go to the office. And we got to spend one day in this new office in Melbourne, and then COVID hit, and we all work remotely.

And the crazy thing is, I haven’t been as productive as I’ve ever been, working just remotely just works so well. We just kind of slipped into it where we … based on the Cloud, everything works. And now I’m thinking to myself, “You know what? I’m probably going to have to bring back work from home Thursdays, maybe do two days. I don’t know, just some kind of a mix. I’m not sure.” But for me, that’s what I’m thinking, and I’m sure many other companies would be too. Because you so much won’t affect you.

DHH: Yes. I think you’ve learned a huge, valuable thing. Not only is it possible, it’s good that actually, it works better. And I think that this is revolutionary in itself. I’d say the other thing I would pass it to anyone. We had an office in Chicago for over 10 years. We built it out very nicely. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures. Jason put in a lot of effort, making that an awesome office with a great architect. We spared a little expense making that a wonderful place. But you know what we then did? We left it up to employees to pick where they would be most productive working from. Where they would prefer to work from. Right?

Once you build out the office, that’s a sunk cost. Well, maybe your monthly lease payments are exactly some costs, but it’s not something value add like the value that comes from employees choosing on their own volition to work there. That’s when something happens. Do you know what happened at Basecamp? Out of an office that was built for let’s say 12 to 15 people working on an everyday basis, it could boost up to more. We would be 50 people there when we do our meetups. But in terms of workstations and so on, we’d have about two people on any given day. And that’s not because we don’t have anyone in Chicago. We have … I think at that point, we had about 15 people in Chicago. The other 13 on any given day, they chose to work from home. They chose they’d rather work in their home office or whatever, even though we built out this swanky super nice office for them. Right?

That tells you something about what actually is valuable to employees, what they would prefer. And I think that this is one of those things where we’ve learned and one of the reasons why we’re not going to sign up our lease again. Well, the other reason is that they want to double rent, but the first reason here is just that employees were given the choice. Where do you want to work? Where are you most productive? They chose remote work. And I think that that’s the hard challenge. When you put a lot of effort, time and prestige into a project like building out a great office, then realising that you’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it for you. I love that office too, in terms of, I love looking at it. I also love being in it. I just would never in a billion years want to spend … whatever it is, 46 weeks out of the year there. It just was not a thing.

And I think we should have that humility as managers, as leaders, as business owners to say, “Do you know what? I feel the thing that the office is really nice, but do the people who I presumably built it for feel the same?” And if they don’t, let me not punish them for the fact that they don’t feel that way, right? When you look at it, what matters to you for employees? You may like that they’re connected, they’re communicating, they’re collaborating, they’re doing great work. Right? If you can get all of those things without them going to the office, what does the office do? If you, on the other hand, impose the office on them, and all of a sudden, certain people have to suffer through perhaps long commute.

So I don’t know how it is with your office in Chicago. We definitely had several people who would have to spend like 40 minutes each way to get to the office. That was not worth it for them. 40 minutes each way is an hour and a half every day, that’s … what is that? Eight hours a week? Take it over a whole year. That’s a lot of hours, right? Like that’s hundreds of hours you could spend on something else. You could have spend it with your family. You could have spend it on a hobby. You could have spend it a billion different ways, learning new things. There’s so many other things we can do besides the commute. And that’s taking away even the point of how do you want your day to feel? For me, how I want my day to feel? I want to feel like a lot of it happens in isolation.

Again, that’s just me. I’m an introvert. The kind of work that I do relies heavily on deep work. I do programming, I do writing. I do all these other activities where I can’t have a lot of things happening around me. Then I can’t get into my soul, and I can’t get into my groove. I can’t do the kind of work that the company depends on me doing. So it’s nice to have a good office. It’s nice when people choose to go to that office, it’s also very nice when they choose not to. And I think that the evaluation of, on whether, how many days a week they should go should depend on the individual’s feeling like, “Hey, when do I want to go?” Right? Like, when am I most productive? And then you as a manager, as a boss, can just evaluate that. Like, what is the quality of the work you’ve done? That evaluation now, when people work from home, and you’ve gone like, “Hey, this is fucking great.” Right?

And I think that this is the realisation that a lot of managers are coming through. They’re like, “Oh shit, all my worst fears did not come true.” People actually turned in an even better work product. They were more engaged in the work, they made me … got those four hours of uninterrupted time for the first time in a year. There’s all this magic that can happen when we set people free to work where they want to work best for it. Now that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that there are people in this world who like to go to an office. And they like to go to it every day. And they like the energy of other people right next to them. And they want all that. That’s great. We have people like that at Basecamp too. Even if they don’t work from office, they’ll go to a coffee shop just to sit in a place that has human electricity, or they’ll go to a co-location spot. Not because they’re working with coworkers, but they want the human electricity. Right? Totally fine.

And then you just have to accept that just as much as there are people who thrive off that, the human electricity, there are people who just get shocked when they’re exposed to them. Right? I’m one of those people, I’ve worked in offices, particularly worked in open offices, that electricity fried my fucking brain. It was simply not functional. It was like I had two electrodes on my head, and there was just this constant current running through it, preventing any sort of dives into the deep zone where I really get those big leaps of work done. So I’ll stop the ranting.

Nathan: It’s all good. This is awesome. Look from personal experience, it’s really shaking things up for me. It reminds me of the early days of starting the company. And it was some of the funniest times where it’s just me … and yeah, I love it. So I’d love to get a little bit more into the operation stuff. Like how you guys run things at Basecamp. Do you do daily stand-ups? If so, what does it look like? How often do you have meetings? You talked about deep work. How could people … we had … How do you guys structure that? Do you have deep work days? Do you have … yeah.

DHH: Yeah. Let’s get into that. There’s so much, it’s even hard to begin. But let’s start with your first question. Do we have daily stand-ups? Absolutely not. I hate the daily stand-up. And I hate the daily stand-up because it is a forced synchronous moment, where we all have to be at the same point, at the same time, to exchange status updates. You know what I like about status updates? I like to read them, skim them, or skip them. And all of those are valid options. There are days where I just don’t give a shit what anyone else is working on. Right? That day, I’m in a thing. Do you know what? I’ll touch up tomorrow? It’ll be fine. We don’t need to know what everyone does every day, all the time. Right?

So if you come to that realisation, then the second realisation you can come to is that people are verbose. When they’re just chatting and telling you what they’re doing, they’re conveying 30 seconds of information in 10 minutes of talk. It’s a very uncompressed medium to sit there, and even worse with the daily stand-up is, it’s a sequential service. Right? So you have one person going on for 5 minutes, 10 minutes talking about their shit. Then you go to the next person and the next person. And before you know it, you’ve spent an hour just letting, what, five people tell each other what they did. Do you know what? That is a waste of fucking time. The vast majority of the time.

Now, not all the time, there are patients where something comes up. That truly requires the whole group to fire their electrodes up. Right? That’s not common. It doesn’t happen all the time. And you can get those things without going through that ritual. What we do instead, because it’s not you can just do nothing. People do need to have some general understanding. What are other people working on? What are the blockers? Where can I help? All these other things. Right? At Basecamp, we use a feature in Basecamp, it’s called the automatic check-in. Every day during the workday, actually at the end of the day. We ask people what did you get done today? Right? You just write up, not an automatic compilation of the to do’s that were checked off, no a narrative. What happened today?

Like how do you capture the sum total of like, “Hey, I just spend eight hours of work. What did it happen on?” Usually people call out like, “Oh, well, I worked in this project, but I faced these problems that got a little bit stuck on this thing.” Right? Then there’s a common thread right there. Where someone else can scan through them like, “Oh shit, I just worked on that yesterday, let me chime in. I know what this is.” And you can give a pointer. Right? And it scales. The daily stand-up does not scale to 50 people. It scales to what? Five, six, seven, eight. Well, the higher you go, the more of a waste of the time it is for everyone else. And basically, we have 56 people. I can scan what 56 people worked on in five minutes. How long do you think the daily stand-up meeting would be for 56 people to tell me in their lumbering narrative that’s what we would all do verbally. We would sit there for three hours. Right?

The other thing we do is at the beginning of the week on Monday morning, we ask one question, which is; what are you going to work on this week? So by having those two questions, Monday morning, you tell the whole company, not just your team, the whole company, what are you going to work on? Or at least as we more accurately plan it, what do you plan to work on? What actually ended up happening by Friday afternoon is often radically different, but that’s why we have the daily check-ins where we ask; what did you work on? Right? So these two work in symmetry, you get to set out an agenda of what you meant to work on this week and every day or every other day. As your chime into that question, you get to tell people what you actually did. This captures about 97% of the value that is present in daily stand-ups at 5% of the cost and at 10X, the scaling potential. Right?

And when you then notice … Let’s say you notice in a check-in, someone is deeply stuck on something they did, or oftentimes you notice trends. Because the other thing that this allows you to do is, you can look back. Do you remember what you talked about three weeks ago for a daily stand-up? No, you don’t. Because no one does. Right. When you write shit down, it’s written down, you can literally scroll back and see like, “Hey, what is this person been working on for the last three weeks?” You consume out, you go from the frog perspective to the bird perspective. And all of a sudden, you start seeing a pattern. Hey, this person perhaps checked in every day about some stuff they worked on, but they didn’t really get traction. Three weeks went by, this project didn’t materially move forward. Hey, there’s a meta point for us to dive into that’s different than what would have come up just on a daily stand up.

And you have that possibility in optional ways that a manager, consumer, or a coworker, or a team leader, or anyone else who sort of cares. So it’s like, “Hey, there’s something here to dive into, to check up on.” So that’s at the individual level. Then at the team level, we have sort of a superstructure around that Basecamp runs on a six-week clock frequency, six-week cycles. Where, at the beginning of the cycle, we do a kickoff, which is essentially like, what are you going to work on this week? But at the team level, and for six weeks, what are we going to work on for the next six weeks? We go through all the projects that we hope to come through. We leave some slack for things to sort of just pop up.

But the magic moment here is that every six weeks we get to set a broad, general direction. What every team should be working on. And we get to then commit to that direction, so we don’t fucking change our mind every five seconds. That is a major disruptive factor at almost all companies. Is that shiny object syndrome, right? People running all over the place, they start saying, “Oh, let’s come up with this thing. Let’s do this thing.” No, the main trouble of the modern workplace, it’s not coming up with more shit, is to sit on your fucking hands while people do the work that you just came up with last week for them to do. Right? And this clock frequency at Basecamp allows us largely to do this. That Jason and I and other team leads, we get one shot every six weeks to tell the team what to work on. And then we throw the key away, right? We don’t get to disrupt them every five minutes.

Hopefully, that six weeks agenda is a good agenda. That at the end of it, when we get to the end, we’re going to be pleased. We’re going to be like, “If the team gets all this shit done, fucking thumbs up. That’s great. That’s wonderful.” Right? We do this work them over six weeks. And at the end of it, we do the other thing. We do the balance. It’s just like a double ledger. We do the kickoff. What are we going to work on? At the end, we call it the heartbeat. We do a heartbeat. What did we work on? So all of these structures have these two opposing forces. People get to say what they wanted to work on, but then they also have to report what they actually accomplished. Right?

Sometimes, these two things don’t match at all and it’s fine. Because things came up, they were really important and they dealt with those issues as they came up other times. These two things don’t fit and it’s not fine. You worked on shit that wasn’t important. We said what the important things were, now we’re at the end of it. You didn’t work on it. What did you work on instead? Let me see. So this is what you work on. You know what? That’s just not more important. These were not emergencies. These were not catastrophes you had to put out, we need to calibrate here.

And that’s the feedback loop you get. You have a feedback loop that runs on a weekly basis with an individual. You have a feedback loop that runs on a six-week cycle for a whole team. And these feedback loops, they’re pretty good at adjusting performance and behaviour. That if people keep sort of being out of sync, you go like, “All right, let’s clean the gears. Let’s fix the offsets so things are gelling again …” And same thing at a team level, and then even larger. Jason and I can sit on a company level like, “Is the sum total of all the teams that we have, is that accomplishing? Are we moving forward with the things we should be moving forward with?”

When we look back on say the last three cycles, when we look back every quarter, was this quarter well spent, or could we have spend it a different way? This is a lot. Then what we do with at these bi-yearly meetups, every six months, we really take stock that the big initiatives like, Oh, we want to launch a new product. We want to do a major new thing, we want duh duh duh. Did they kind of solve? And I think that’s how you build a reporting guidance and steering structure together. You start with the tiny piece. You start with one day. If you keep spending each individual day, well, you will spend a week well. If you keep spending weeks well, you’ll spend a month well. If you keep spending your months well, you spend a quarter well. Right? It all …

You can’t start from the other end. You can’t start from like, Oh, let’s try to spend a year well. You know what? That doesn’t work. Yearly plans, all the shit. It has no meaning. Unless you start focusing on the individual days first, spend those well, sizzle those fucking days. How do we make a beautiful, crisp, single day? Right? If you focus on that, you start focusing on things like how do people spend an hour, right? Do they get the hours continuously together? If they don’t, they waste the dates really quickly. Then one day wasted, what’s one day wasted, right? Well, that’s how your project ended up late. It’s how everything ended up delayed because it got there one day at a time, nothing ever gets delayed three months at a time. No, it gets delayed one fucking day at a time.

So, you got to have to focus on the micro-level first. Then you get to build on it, and then you build on it. Then you build on it. And all of a sudden you have a relatively well-oiled machine that sets an agenda for what they want to accomplish. It’s roughly that or something better. And before you know it, like, “Hey, here’s a productive organisation that gets the things done. It needs to get down to be competitive in the marketplace, to please its customers, to have happy employees, to have all the things we all want.

Because I think that the core realisation here is just things go together. Employees do their best work when they’re motivated. When they’re motivated, when they do good work, when did they get to do good work? When they have the time to do it and the clear instructions to do it, right? So this is all interconnected systems. You can’t do good work if you’re not trusting your employees. If you’re not giving them the time to actually do that good work, and it doesn’t matter how brilliant or talented individuals those are. If you give them an hour here and an hour there, they’re going to accomplish nothing.

Nathan: Yeah, no, I love it. When you talk a lot about good work, one thing I learned from you guys was just this concept of, if somebody works at Basecamp, they have the opportunity … or your goal is for them to do the best work of their career. And I actually immediately stole that off you guys. And that’s something I’m really passionate about if somebody works at Foundr, let’s talk about that. Like, just from a deep work perspective, because I think that’s really, really important. Did you learn about deep work from Cal Newport, his book, or has that always been a concept for you guys or? Because I think that’s super important on a daily level. How do you get at least three, four hours of solid deep work in every day?

DHH: So Cal Newport’s book was great. And for me, it determined me. I don’t … been working like that. I had realised for myself that like, “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t get anything done this week.” And I would sort of analyse that. Why didn’t I get anything done this week? Why did I … this is at the end of the Friday, and I looked back on the week, and I’m like, “I can barely pick out two valuable things I got done.” Usually, when I do that sort of postmortem analysis on a week, I can pinpoint it to the fact, Oh shit, I didn’t get any continuous time. I kept getting interrupted.

I’ll look at it a particularly bad week in the calendar, and I’ll see it pepper. Right? I’ll see a day that has something in the morning, something in the afternoon, and something at the end of the day, and I’ll go like, Oh yeah, of course, that day was a write-off. Of course, I can’t get any deep work done. Then I’ll think back on like, Oh shit, this week felt amazing. Holy shit, I got a lot done. I’ll look at my calendar. Do you know what I see? Fucking blank space, nothing. Like someone was telling me on Twitter, the new Nirvana, it’s not inbox zero, it’s calendar zero. Right? This idea that we wiped the calendar clean, not such that it is empty, but such that it is full of the work that matters most. And this is one of those key rants we have about talent Tetris.

A lot of companies, they have open calendars. Anyone could see anyone else’s calendar and they can book time at their leisure. Or at least there’s a performer sort of do you accept this event? And of course everyone accepts any event from a coworker because no one wants to be rude. Right? But what’d you end up with when, anyone could see anyone else’s calendar, and anyone to take anyone else’s time that they do? They take each other’s time in ways that are not at all optimal for those individuals to do the great deep work that ultimately leads to the sense of like, “I’m doing the best work of my career.” You can’t have that if your fucking calendar’s a buffet that anyone could just go up and grab whatever they want whenever they want on their schedule and whatever else happens. Right? So at Basecamp, we don’t have shared calendars.

Nathan: No shared calendars?

DHH: Yes. No shared calendars. It is a pain in the ass to schedule a meeting with someone else because it’s a completely manual fucking process. So what we go through, it’s usually like, “Hey, we want to have a video call about something, right? There’s four participants. We go through the arduous manual motions of negotiation. Hey, can you do Friday at 10:00? Nah, I’ve got something else there. What about Monday at 9:00? Right? You go through that a couple of times you’d go like, “Man, this is such a fucking drag.” And we go, “Good. This should suck.” Having to schedule a meeting with four participants should suck because you will do it far less when it sucks. And you will only do it when it really truly matters.

Now it’s not to say that you should never have meetings you’d never have. Because you should, there are times for it. Those times are just a tiny, tiny percentage of probably the current amount of meetings that you have. I’d probably go as far as to say that the scheduled meeting is probably the number one way that people destroy others ability to have and do good work. Again, it’s not a blanket statement. It is crucial to have timely short individual meetings at certain times. It’s like spices, right? Just that little bit makes all the difference for the dish. But if you fucking dump into the whole jar, it’s going to ruin the dish. Right? And I think most companies, they dump into whole jar. They think more meetings means more collaboration means better work. No, it does not.

So at Basecamp, no shared calendar, we all have our own individual calendars. And that leads to a whole shit-load of fewer meetings. On any given week, I would say on a good week, sometimes, I put things a little bit on the edge just to sort of ram home the point here. But a good week in terms of purely from a productivity individual contributor perspective, a good week for me is zero meetings. I have those all the time. All the time, do I go through an entire week with nothing scheduled on my agenda in terms of company meetings, those week meetings or weeks are great for productivity.

Now, if that was how I spent 52 weeks out of the year, things would start to fall apart. There’s reasons why we have one on ones, there’s reasons as to why we catch up. And occasionally, you need to replenish those social connections. That is totally valid, totally good. It just doesn’t have to be five times a day. Right? Or if in my case, even five times a week, if I have five meetings in a given week, I go like, Holy shit, that was a tough one. And I think I’ve heard from executives all the time. He was like, “What are you talking about? I had eight meetings today. They’re just … they go back to back. And that’s just how I roll.” And I go like, “I would not want your job. I would literally fucking quit. I would rather not work than work like that. Send me out with a shovel and dig some ditches somewhere.” Again, hyperbolic here.

But this idea that time is valuable, time needs to be protected, time is compounding in its value. So if you get one hour, plus one hour and you get them individually, not worth much. You put them together, and you have two hours fucking magic. It’s exponential. You take three individual hours, You put those together, again, exponential. Four hours, holy shit now you can make a huge massive leap. Now you can get that hard feature done. Now you can get that tough essay just perfect. You could do all sorts of creative, big leaps that you really want to do. Which again, to come back to this fact, it’s not even about productivity. It’s about human health and happiness.

People who look back upon a week and think that was a great week’s worth. Do you know what they are? They’re happy content people, Not just happy content workers, happy content humans. And that is what we ultimately want. Right? If you spent so much time at work, even if for us that’s 40 hours a week, It’s an enormous amount of time. I need to look back on those 40 hours and think well of them. Because otherwise, I’m going to look back upon that quarter, I’m going to look back upon that year. In my case, now I’m going to look back upon those two decades, that better fucking count. We don’t have that many, right? Like how many productive decades do you get? Four or five if you’re lucky, they pass quickly. And you have to be able to look back with satisfaction. You did good work with good people and it mattered.

Nathan: Yeah, no, I love that perspective. So huge focus on deep work. No recurring meetings?

DHH: We have some recurrent intentions, I’ll say. Not a lot of recurrent meetings in terms of like, Oh, it’s always Thursday at 8:00. We don’t really have those. We have the six-week clock frequency. I try to meet with all my direct reports, at least once every six weeks. And usually, it’s what we call cool-down. So we’ll do six weeks of work, sort of highly focused work that we set out to do and we time-box it. And it’s like you’re working, you’re running, you’re trying to get things done. And then after that, we do two weeks of cool-down. In cool-down, we look back upon the work that we did. We maybe tie up a few loose ends. We’ve plan the next work we’re going to do. And we do sort of the coordination. I’ll meet with all the team leads that reports to me, we’ll talk about the work that happened, that cycle. We’ll talk about the work that needs to happen in the next cycle. And that’s our main time when we sync up.

Sometimes we also just, Hey, shoot the shit and we connect and you should have good social relations. And that’s worth it in and of itself. You know what? Once every six weeks for most teams, most of the time, it’s sufficient. Occasionally, we’ll do more than that. If it’s a new hire, we do way more than that. I just had someone new come on recently, we were doing it every two weeks. We would do something. Then every two weeks started to feel too frequent. We would start doing it every three weeks. And then at the end, we ended up on a six-week cycle where we’d sync up mainly just once every six weeks.

That’s about as specific as it gets. We’ve had at times with this, we’re working on a new email service called Hey, H-E-Y.com. We’re getting towards the closing time here. We’re getting too much crunch time and we’ve had … One thing that perhaps the closest thing we can call to a standing meeting where Jason, Jonah’s … Jason, my business partner, Jonah’s one of the product managers and lead designers. Once a week, we would meet up, we’d do a walkthrough for about an hour of the product. Like, Hey, what’s the new things coming up. Even I say that that’s a standing meeting, we hadn’t actually done it last week, and we haven’t done this week yet, but generally speaking, there was an intention of doing it, but it’s a temporary thing. We will disband this thing as soon as we sort of get that launched and so on and so forth. And we go long stretches where we have none of the swords, none of the standing meetings. And it’s fine. Seriously, it’s fine.

Nathan: And what about one-on-ones? How often?

DHH: One-on-ones for me, I kind of … that’s the ones I do once every six weeks, roughly speaking.

Nathan: Once every six weeks, one-on-ones with the direct reports?

DHH: Correct. Now that doesn’t mean we do not speak at all in six weeks between, of course, we do. Not on video chat necessarily, I’ll chat to your question. We’ll talk on a to-do item. You’ll write something up. But the vast majority of our interaction is written and it’s asynchronous, right? I have a direct report. They have an issue. They’ll write something up. For all of my direct reports, I have a Basecamp project for them, just them and I. And perhaps, sometimes Jason, perhaps sometimes Andrea, our Head of People Ops where we deal with management issues. And we deal with them asynchronously. We don’t have to call a meeting about everything. The vast majority of times that people call a meeting, you could have written that shit down.

Like there’s a great … I tweeted out a YouTube video. It was called, Put It In An Email. You should search that on YouTube. And it’s a great … It’s this guy with a banjo basically going through all the cases where you could just have put it in a fucking email. And there’s so much of that where we end up calling a meeting when we really just want to tell someone something. That’s not a meeting, that’s an email or in our case, the Basecamp message or a to-do item, or something else like that. And then we reserved the meetings for when we’ve tried to be asynchronous, and it’s not gelling. We’re like, “We’re too far apart. This is really contentious issue …” Usually, it’s because there’s sticky human elements involved here. Right? And we’ll go like, “Okay, fine. We’ll throw in the towel. We’ll get on a call.” But 80% of the time, we don’t need to do that. You can write things down. You can have someone read it whenever is suitable for them.

That’s the other thing, ASP is fucking poison. And most people eat a pill or 15 every day. Right? They think everything needs to happen right now. So few things need to happen right now, if the service is down, okay ASP. If whatever, the house is burning, ASP, Right? Like these are true emergencies. You need to deal with them right then. Some discussion about some snag you’ve hit on a project, no, it’s not ASP. Write it down. I’ll check it out later today. Or maybe tomorrow I’ll chime in. It’ll be fine. Right? This is how you create those bubbles of protection around your time. You can’t do all of the normal stuff that everyone does all the time, and then also think there’s just going to be magic time leftover for deep work. No, you got to put specific habits, specific principles, and practises, and protections in place.

But for this to happen, it does not happen by itself. And this is one of those things where with the remote work stuff, people often take it for granted. They think like, Oh, what do you mean remote work? It’s just like working from home, right? Like as though there’s nothing to learn, as though there’s nothing to adopt your habits, or things to get into. There is … it’s not rocket science. I believe everyone can learn this way of working, but there are some tricks. There are some tips. That’s what we’ve been trying to write and teach people about for the past 20 years. But again, it’s not hard or at least it’s not hard to understand. What is always hard is change. What is always hard is giving things up, right? If you’re a manager, you’re used to seeing people in their office chairs, at their best. It’s hard not to be able to see them physically. There’s just some lizard-brain stuff that’s really hard to dig out of your skull and get rid of, or change, or re-programme. But if you put in to work, if you put in the effort, you’ll very much realise that it’s worth it.

Nathan: Yeah, no, I agree 110%. So look, we have to work towards wrapping up. Just want to get really clear on this deep workpiece. Because I think that’s some serious gold for people and it’s a really incredible concept. So how often … Do you do deep work every day, or what’s your goal in terms of time spans? Do you aim for three to four hours? Monday to Friday? What is it? Just to give people a basis.

DHH: Yes. So for me, I’m a Manager at Basecamp. I’m an Executive at Basecamp. I have a lot of hats. I have a lot of responsibilities. But I try to get three plus. If I get four hours of deep work done in a day, I’m really happy. Now that’s the other part of it. It’s a complete illusion that anyone can get eight hours of deep work done each and every day, all the time. Even if that’s all they spend their time at, no, they can not. Human brains are not configured to produce eight hours of fucking creative gold, five days a week, cannot happen, does not happen. Freaks of nature if you ever see it. And even when you do see it these are sprints, not marathons, no one can put in eight hours of deep creative work every day for a whole year, just that doesn’t happen.

But do you know what? You don’t need to, if you get … I like between three and four. Three and four to me feels very realistic. It feels very accomplishable. And when I get three or four, I look back upon the day and think like, “Do you know what? That was great.” But it does have to happen continuously. So there are days where it doesn’t happen. And okay, Not all days are a waste because I spent it in an interrupt mode. Maybe I need to put out some fires, I need to respond to things, I just had a bunch of other shit on my plate. But the next day, I tried it like, “All right, let’s do it better. Let’s try to get back into it.”

So for me, my personal rhythm is I usually show up to my desk at nine o’clock when I’m dropping off my kid. Now I’m not dropping off my kids. So it’s 8:30. I spend until lunch on Twitter, reading things, responding to things, writing things, emails, all the things. And then for me, I’m on the West Coast, in the US. The later part of the day is quieter, like more of the company has logged off or whatever. So from like, let’s say 1:30 until 4:30, or 5:00, that’s usually when I get my deep creative work done. And it’s enough, it’s fine. And it leads me … Well, one of the things I keep thinking about is this came with ..

People always ask, “Well, yeah, that’s all good and fine. Now you work eight hours a day, work 40 hours a week. But in the beginning …” Right? And then they inferred that in the beginning I was working 80 hours a week. I’m like, “Sorry to disappoint. But it was the opposite.” When we started Basecamp, I worked 10 hours a week. You know why? Because I was in fucking school and I had other things to do. So I was billing Jason for 10 hours a week. We created Basecamp on 10 hours per week. Right? So when I look at 40, I go like, “Jesus, what am I going to spend all this time on?” And if I just get … the thing that I very quickly realised that the difference between 10 hours a week and 40 hours a week, it’s not 4X. You do not get four times as much work done in 40 hours a week, as you do in 10 hours a week.

Because things have a way of filtering, the most important work, you’ll get it done in the first 10 hours. Right? The next slice of important work you get in the next 10 hours. And by the time you get to between hour 30 and 40, do you know what? It’s almost optional. And we’ve found over the summers … usually, things have been a little different in pandemic times here. But usually over the summer, we work four-day weeks. So we work Monday through Thursday and then we take Fridays off for about three months. I think it’s three or four months. We take Fridays off. We get a little less done some of the time, but it’s not a big … it’s not proportionate. It’s not like we get 20% less done. No, absolutely not.

And this is because there is this factor. That the first 10 hours, are way more valuable than the last 10 hours. And that’s before we even start getting into the nonsense that is people claiming to be working 80 hours, which I think 80 doesn’t work, total bullshit, and people are liars anyway. You can look up these studies when people say there’s this logarithmic curve. When people say they’ve worked beyond 50 hours, there’s all these studies showing that they’re basically liars. Right? People who claim to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week when you analyse how the time is actually spent is because they’re factoring in things like going to lunch or dinner or whatever else, some of the bullshit that doesn’t actually count as work.

Anyway, put that aside. Just this idea that is the quorum the matter if I just get between 15 to 20 hours of deep work a week, that would be an amazing week. Might mean I look back upon that, and fuck it’s your ship left and right, and pull requests merged, and beautiful code written. That would be Epic. Right? A lot of people do not get anywhere near 15 to 20 hours of deep work done a week or they get it done in these tiny chunks that are essentially worthless.

Nathan: Yeah. No, I agree. So do you schedule in your calendar?

DHH: No, because I try to keep my calendar … My basic calendar is an empty day, it’s not a fucking empty day. An empty day is deep workday. Right? So my default operation is that, it is deep work day every day. And it’s the impositions that I put on the calendar. It’s like, “Oh shit. Now I blew up this day. I have three things on the calendar. This day is a write-off.” I mean, it’s not a write-off. It’s not like any of these things are not important. It’s just that I sure as shit wouldn’t want to do this every day. I have three things on my calendar every day. I mean, then I’d retire.

Nathan: All right. Awesome. Well, look, I’m mindful of your time man. We work towards wrapping up. Last question; where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?

DHH: My work basecamp.com. This is my life’s work. 20 years of effort. My new work Hey. H-E-Y.com. It’s a new email service and a set of integrated email clients, a whole new take on email. We’re hopefully launching it soon. We were going to launch it in April, then the world blew up, and then we couldn’t launch it in April. And then for me personally, with all sorts of warning stickers, explicit. Like how they used to put them on CD covers warning explicit content. My Twitter feed @dhh is a stream of conscience that is unfortunately very rarely edited for either clarity, or purpose, or suitability for publishing. So that’s a fire hose of bullshit and rants and what I’m thinking right now. And then my personal website, which has everything else I’m working on dhh.dk.

Nathan: Awesome. Look, I enjoy following you on Twitter. Your rants and everything you got going on man, I know you’re going crazy on the Bezos stuff. We won’t even go there. That’s a whole other conversation. But look, thanks so much for your time. Sorry, we went over. But look, really appreciate it.

DHH: I enjoyed it as always. Thank you so much.

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