Workaholismwith Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Working long hours, putting in overtime, logging on on the weekends, have become badges of honor, but there’s a big difference between work and getting stuff done. This week Jason and David push back against this idea of workaholism.
- 01:37 - Six-week cycles (Shape Up)
- 02:46 - On Apple’s monopoly power to destroy HEY (Signal v. Noise)
- 09:10 - Oura Ring
- 10:47 - Test-driven development (Wikipedia)
- 12:50 - An Inside Look at Google’s Best Employee Perks (Inc.)
- 17:12 - Paid Time Off (Basecamp Employee Handbook)
- 24:19 - Summer Hours (Basecamp Employee Handbook)
The Full Transcript:
Shaun: [00:00:00] I’ve been having like these horrible work-related stress dreams lately. It’s been…
Jason: [00:00:05] From that?
Shaun: [00:00:06] I don’t know what’s causing it. You know, sometimes I think last night… This is gonna be really uninteresting because I hate when people describe their dreams. But you didn’t fire me, Jason, you like forced me to go work at Squarespace. And I don’t think you have that power, so. I’m not sure what happened.
Jason: [00:00:22] Interesting. Interesting.
David: [00:00:24] Funny.
Jason: [00:00:24] Hmm.
[00:00:24] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.
Shaun: [00:00:27] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Shaun Hildner.
[00:00:33] This week, we’re talking about workaholism. You know, working long hours has become a staple of the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur. 70, 80, 100 hour weeks are seen as a badge of honor. But how many of those hours are spent putting in quality meaningful work? And what happens to the actual human beings who work those hours?
[00:00:52] Well, to discuss all that, I’m joined, as always, by Basecamp co-founders and the authors of Rework, Jason Fried.
Jason: [00:00:58] Hey, Shaun.
Shaun: [00:00:59] And David Heinemeier Hansson.
David: [00:01:01] Hello.
Shaun: [00:01:03] How much do you two work per week? Or do you try to?
Jason: [00:01:07] I try to kind of limit myself to 40 hours and usually it’s a bit less. It kind of depends on the week, and also what’s going on and what kind of work needs to be done. It’s little bit tricky, too. David and I are, what, eight hours, nine hours apart right now. So sometimes there’s a weird stretch of a day. But there’s gaps in the day where I’m not doing stuff. I go take a walk or whatever.
Shaun: [00:01:28] Yeah.
Jason: [00:01:28] So it kind of depends, like, we’re just kicked off a brand new cycle of work. So the week or two leading up to that is a little bit more hectic. Then it kind of settles in a little bit. But we’ve also been doing a bunch of interviews and phone calls. And some of that can, you know, break up your day, in a way?
[00:01:45] So I think a lot of it is dependent upon how the days flow versus how many hours of work there is, because there’s always more stuff than time. There’s always more things you can do, then you have time for what do you do with that? But that’s just the reality. So what do you do with that?
[00:02:01] I mean, do you just do as much as you can handle? Or do you do as much until you know you’re tired? Like, you’ve got to put some limit on it. Otherwise, it will literally take up your whole day, because there’s more stuff to do than you have time for. So about 40 hours is enough for me. That’s how I look at it.
David: [00:02:19] I’d say the same 40 hours, as a long run average has probably been pretty accurate over the past 20 years. Because there’s certainly weeks where it’s less. And then there are weeks where it’s a bit more. But even the weeks where it’s a bit more I feel, if I hit a week where we’ve had a couple of stressful weeks over the past, let’s say year and a half. Let’s start with the HEY launch. For two weeks after Apple launched their assault, I probably worked 70 hour weeks, maybe even 80 hour weeks. Like it was literally from early morning until quite late.
[00:02:58] And if anything that was a reminder of there’s no way people do this all the time. That’s the other thing about workaholism. As we write about in the essay, so much of it is literally bullshit that people pretend to themselves and others that this is how much they work because they kind of just encapsulate the whole day. Oh, I started at seven and I ended at eight, not really counting the fact that oh, actually, maybe you did go out to dinner, or maybe you just sat and essentially browsed the internet for three hours out of that. That very, very few people can actually put in, quote unquote, “real work” for 10, 12, 14 hours a day for more than a few weeks at the most.
[00:03:41] At least that’s what I came out of that launch week with HEY thinking. These two weeks felt like two months. And I was like, I’d rather not work than work like this all the time. Like there’s something actually, what I think perhaps we didn’t quite touch upon in the essays, there is occasionally something exhilarating about it. You kind of get a test of your stamina in an interesting way for a short term. Much the same way I like endurance racing. So you race around on racetrack for 24 hours, that’s more than you should generally be in a car, right? Like that is not a healthy doses of driving on a regular basis. But to do it once a year, there’s something really interesting in that, and I thought that was at least true for that HEY launch week.
[00:04:29] For the first three days, I was like, this is kind of exhilarating. Fun is not necessarily even the right word, but it felt meaningful. We were fighting for the survival of the business. It felt like we wanted to put in all of it. But then after three days or four days, it was almost like, yeah, it just can’t go on like this, and then it did for another week or so. And I totally felt the crash.
[00:04:51] I think it probably took at least three weeks after those two weeks before I felt human again in a sort of the baseline of like, oh, yeah, I remember this is what I used to do, like, sit down with the family and eat dinner and like, go out and kick a soccer ball or something. Like, this is things you do.
[00:05:11] Yeah. So I wouldn’t mind it as like, hey. two weeks. Well, actually I would mind two weeks. I’d say, once a year, let’s do four days that are kind of like that, right? But of course, you wouldn’t plan it like that, because then it loses all meaning, right?
Shaun: [00:05:24] Plan the crisis.
David: [00:05:25] Right? Like, let’s plan a crisis. It’s crisis month!
Jason: [00:05:30] It’s funny, my wife and I went over to some friend’s house for dinner recently. And we stayed out till 11:45. And it was like, I hadn’t done that in years. You know, we got kids and the babysitter was at the house. We’re like, oh my God, we told her we’d be home at nine, you know, like this whole thing. And it was it was exhilarating to actually kind of like, stay up that late again for a minute. But then I was wrecked the next day, because I had to get up at seven or whatever.
Shaun: [00:05:54] Sure.
Jason: [00:05:55] And, or six actually. But anyway, to David’s point, like it is it is fun to occasionally go there and you put in some extra time and you do your thing. And it is great. And especially around a launch or something really special that you’re doing or sometimes there’s some deadline. Like, for example, I don’t know, I’m making this up. But when we had to get our book to the publisher, there’s a whole chain of events that kicks off, and it needs to be to them by April 19th, or something. There’s some of that, some of that exciting stuff. But it’s unsustainable.
[00:06:28] And that’s kind of ultimately how I look at work is how do you make work sustainable over a long period of time. It’s sustainable if you do pull a couple long weeks here and there or a couple long days here and there. But it’s not sustainable if that’s all the time. It’s just simply not over the long term. It might be, some people might go, I can do that, oh for six months. And maybe you can, but I’m not in it for just six months. And I think that’s the other difference.
Shaun: [00:06:50] So what is the difference between work and getting stuff done? You say in the in the essay that you’re not getting stuff done when you’re overworking, all you’re doing is more work?
Jason: [00:07:02] Well think there’s this sense of bouncing around. And busyness. I think it’s really like you can, and people will feel this, I’m sure people listening to this will nod. It’s like you can feel busy all day. And then it’s six o’clock, and you look back and like I got nothing meaningful done today, I just was bouncing around doing stuff.
Shaun: [00:07:21] Yeah.
Jason: [00:07:21] That’s what it feels like, when you’re just kind of doing stuff and you’re not really satisfied necessarily with, you don’t have a sense of accomplishment for the day other than like just bouncing around and being busy.
[00:07:32] And I’ve had a number of days like that recently, we’ve been doing a lot of interviews, and then you have like an hour in between calls that last two hours. And it’s just sort of exhausting. And you had a long day, full day, but we didn’t really getting done today. So it’s more of a feeling than, it’s not really something you can necessarily quantify, I don’t think.
David: [00:07:51] This is also one of the reasons why I love when you then have one of the other days where you work for five or six hours and you go like, holy shit, I really cracked it on this one. And then there’s no greater satisfaction than closing the laptop an hour early.
Shaun: [00:08:09] Sure.
David: [00:08:08] Because that day just was a quantum leap forward. That you really dug in, that you really got those long stretches of uninterrupted time. And you had a breakthrough. And I’ve been working on some programming stuff of the last few weeks and I’ve had several days like that. And it was just like, oh, wow, yeah, this is what it’s about. This is how it’s supposed to feel like, and it’s just exhilarating.
[00:08:32] And then you can feel like, I’ve put it all in there, even though it was just six hours.
Shaun: [00:08:39] Yeah.
David: [00:08:39] And in fact, in many ways, that I’ve put in more than if I tried to stretch it out. Because over those last few weeks, I’ve also had a couple of nights where I just went like, I just want to, I just want to finish this thing, right? And then I’ll sit up until 10. And then my night will be kind of shit. Because I mean, if I work all the way up until I go to bed, usually I don’t sleep well. You kind of need some cool down time before you go to bed.
[00:09:04] So I work all the way up until I go to bed. I can’t fall asleep properly. I use this aura sleep ring. That just tells me the score next day, hey, your heart rate didn’t lower how it was supposed to. Are you feeling all right? Like it’s essentially asking you that. And then I know the next day is shot. And that’s the thing about workaholism I always found so counterproductive is that whatever you borrow today, you have to pay back tomorrow with interest. So what’s the point? If you’re settling the score over the duration of a month or a year, what good is it to push a single day or even a single week all the way to the max if it’s going to cost you all the more later?
[00:09:43] Now again, sometimes you can’t help it because it’s a crisis. And if you didn’t do the work or you didn’t put in an extra everything would burn to the ground. So you got to do it then. But if you’re doing it just out of a weird sense of accomplishment? I find that like the score often doesn’t add up. Even though I want to do it, right? There are these problems you’re sitting with. I have these programming problems all the time where I feel like, oh, I have the tiger bites tail here, I just need to. And then I’ll get to the finish line. Okay, good. But then I blew the eight hours the next day.
[00:10:13] So there’s also a great satisfaction I find in both the shutting the laptop an hour early, because the day was really good, but also leaving the work sort of just at the tip of getting there. Like, I’m getting there, I’m getting there, I’m not fully done, I’m going to close it. I actually find that that is one of the great ways of kick starting the next day.
Shaun: [00:10:30] Yeah, your next morning, yeah.
David: [00:10:32] Exactly, you’re like, you’re just eager to get into it, because you didn’t finish the thing. And in programming, there’s this technique of essentially leaving the next test unfinished or failing. So in programming, we have this thing called test-driven development where you write your tests, and then you write your code. And one of the techniques is that you write the next test for what you’re supposed to do such that there’s an unfinished piece of work directly to jump into the very next day you sit down in front of a computer.
Shaun: [00:10:58] I want to talk a little bit about company culture. As far as workaholism is concerned, and as managers, how important is it that you set the example of leaving at a reasonable time?
Jason: [00:11:13] Yeah, I think you need to be pretty careful about that. This is the old thing where people would look at like, you’re like, you don’t have to stay late. But then the boss’s car is in the parking lot or something. And so people will do what they think the other person expects of them. It’s just a natural thing. It kind of doesn’t matter what you say, it’s what you do there.
[00:11:32] We’ve had some situations, remember, we first hired someone in a high end role a few years ago, and they were sending emails on Sunday. We just told them, hey, you know, let’s not do that. And it’s, and I’ll do it by accident, too. Because it’s not that I’m working on Sunday. It’s just like, I had a moment on Sunday to write something because I didn’t write it up on Friday. And you forget that when you send something on Sunday, just because you had five minutes to hit the button, the send button, it sends a message, too. It sends the message and another message, which is like, oh, the boss or the manager or the whoever just wrote me something on Sunday, maybe I should respond on Sunday in kind.
[00:12:11] And so I think one thing, we should probably be adding to Basecamp in general, and HEY, is a schedule button. We don’t really have the ability to schedule a message. Because sometimes you do a few minutes on some time, some day, and you write something up. And I wrote on Sunday, but I really want it sent Monday morning at eight. So I think that’d be something we should probably do.
[00:12:29] But this does happen. It’s just about a reminder, you just send a general reminder, like, hey, you know, let’s not send people messages on Sunday, because it sends the wrong message ultimately.
Shaun: [00:12:38] The next part about culture is I know, when I was younger, the idea of working at Google with all these amazing amenities of doing your laundry and sleeping cots and whatever else nonsense they have seemed really exciting. And you know, it took me a long time, especially reading this book, to realize how insidious that is. What is your take on these crazy office amenities?
David: [00:13:02] That they’re not free? This is what people always say, oh, there’s free lunch. Oh, there’s a free game room. Oh, there’s free snacks. They’re not free. They cost you in sense of obligation. They cost you in a sense of work is my whole life. That is the point. That is why they’re there. They’re literally not there as free snacks. They’re literally there as like, hey, could you not go out to lunch? Hey, could you not go home for dinner? Hey, could you come in on Saturdays? They’re inducements for you to work longer hours. And sometimes you can think like, okay, if you do have an office, I remember working in an office and we would have like a long night and they’d order pizza. And you’re like, yeah, do you know what, this is fair. This is good. But if you make that an institution, that that’s just something that’s happening all the time every day all day. I don’t think that’s good at all.
[00:13:53] And I think it leads to this bleeding that we address in the other point, which, work is not your family. That this idea that works subsumes all your social interactions and responsibilities, and hours really puts all your eggs in one basket. Hey, if that job doesn’t work out, what else do you have? That was 14 hours of your waking life that was being spent in those amenities at work. I don’t think that’s healthy at all. I don’t think it’s long term good.
[00:14:26] So I think that those amenities really have to be looked at no longer as free, but as fairly costly inducements to a sense of overwork, and a sense of over commitment to work that you’d be much better off avoiding.
[00:14:45] In fact, we recently stepped out of some amenities. You would, if you would say, so that we had some benefits that we had at the company, where we went do you know what these benefits are of a nature where work is encroaching on people’s personal sphere in a way we don’t feel good about. That that shouldn’t be the relationship you have with work. That work shouldn’t be paying for your food. Whether that is healthy food or not healthy food. That is just an encroachment on that separation, when that separation should be in some way stronger.
[00:15:22] And I think that this is particularly something during remote times like this with the pandemic, where it’s so easy to put even more of it in the work basket, because you can do all the other things that you wouldn’t do normally. And I think we have to be very careful with that.
[00:15:38] A natural thing we talk a lot about with remote work is usually the number one fear for managers with remote work is that people will under work. Oh, they’re going to just do PlayStation, they’re going to do the laundry, whatever. And then they are initially delighted to find out that most people actually overwork. It is harder to keep the separation between work and your own life. If you’re working from home, particularly during a pandemic, and they’ve like, oh wow, this is great. We’re getting all these other productive hours. I don’t think those are free either. It’s not free in either direction. So to have employees who are plowing way too many hours at work warps their perspective and their relationship with their employment in ways that I think you’re going to pay for in the end,
Shaun: [00:16:23] Kind of along those lines, I remember when we changed the vacation policy. And it’s one of those weird, counterintuitive things. We originally had an unlimited vacation policy. I think we just had to like, let our team know, that we were going to be out for so and so amount of days, whatever, you know. I guess you guys can talk about what you noticed, after years of having an unlimited vacation policy, were people taking enough time?
Jason: [00:16:49] This is one of those areas where we’ve definitely changed our mind on a fundamental approach to time off, which is the, you know, you try to come at it from this really sort of general standpoint, which is like take as much time as you need, you know, unlimited vacation within reason. If someone took eight months off, that’d be a problem. Everyone knows that, you know. But like, the point was, we don’t want to like count days.
Shaun: [00:17:10] Yeah.
Jason: [00:17:10] You only had three weeks, but you took 3.2 weeks or something, it’s like, then there’s a problem. We don’t want to get into that. So it’s like, let’s just be just be reasonable. I think what we found, though, is that people take less vacation when they have unlimited vacation runway, because people are naturally concerned. They don’t know. There’s anxiety around like, well, how much is too much? And maybe I should probably err on the side of fewer days off just to be sure, because there obviously is some upper limit. And gosh, am I getting close to it?
[00:17:40] And it turns out, that’s what happens, is that people end up taking less time off. So we decided ultimately, to get very boring about this and say, all right, I forget exactly what it is. Is it three weeks? I don’t even remember.
Shaun: [00:17:49] I can’t remember, either.
Jason: [00:17:51] Yeah, whatever it is, or like this is you know, this is what it is now and hey, look, if you need an extra few days, it’s fine. But like, basically, please, everyone take at least this amount of time off every year. Plus, there’s paid time off and personal days and mental health days and a bunch of other things as well. But it just made more sense. And ultimately, then people are like, ah, I know, I know what I can do now. I know what the bounds are, I know what the limits are, I can operate within those limits. This takes a burden off of me to have to be the one, the arbiter of good taste in terms of how many days I should take on or off.
[00:18:24] So that was that was one of the things where getting more specific, and ultimately getting a little bit more corporate, in a sense, actually takes the pressure off and makes more sense long term.
Shaun: [00:18:34] And have you noticed a difference? Are people taking the time off that you would expect?
David: [00:18:38] Absolutely. I’ve seen it exactly stated in the sense of, I gotta take a vacation, because these are my days. And that’s exactly the right impulse, that you’re getting closer towards the end of the year. And you start thinking like how am I going to get these days spent? And then you’re now going, well, I should take a vacation. And that’s the other thing where we talk about you think perhaps in some ways, if you were this conniving boss and you’re like, hahaha, I can actually get people to take less vacation if I just say they have unlimited and they will think that they have unlimited and they’ll think it’s their own fault for taking too little.
Shaun: [00:19:13] Twirls moustache.
David: [00:19:14] Exactly, right? And that’s not good for you. Someone who works an entire year and does not take any vacation that is not a healthy employee who’s going to be a long term in a good place, because humans need time off. So you’re actually doing yourself a disservice even if you think you’re somehow cajoling more hours out of people by doing this. That this sustainable approach, as we talked about at the beginning, why Jason and I have ended up working personally a long term average of about 40 hours a week, is because that’s sustainable over two decades.
[00:19:50] What’s sustainable for employees as well. You know what? That includes a significant amount of vacation that gets used. And if they’re not using it, you’re going to pay for it in the end. We’re all going to pay for it. The individual is going to pay for it, the team is going to pay for it, the company’s going to pay for it because people get wound too tight. And eventually they’re going to snap in some ways. The work isn’t getting done right, or they suffer from burnout, or they suffer from all these other aspects of simply working all the time with no breaks.
[00:20:22] And that’s true, I think, even if you are quite good at keeping it at the 40 hours. You get some new perspective, I think, for both Jason and I, many of the big breakthroughs we’ve had in terms of company strategy or culture have come from a long break. Like Jason will take three weeks off and come home and like, oh, listen, we got to talk. Or I’ll take some time off and the same thing will happen. That the first week, you’re still in the work mode, right. And then the second week is where new perspectives open up, because you’re away from work. And you would not have had those perspectives otherwise, this is the only gateway to accessing those kinds of new insights. And those insights are incredibly valuable.
Shaun: [00:21:04] One of the most fantastic things I’ve noticed working at Basecamp for a decade or so, is that you’ve created some, I don’t know how, you’ve created sort of a culture that people feel comfortable being able to ask for a break because of burnout. I see this in our company check-ins all the time, you know what, I need a week, I’ve been pushing too hard. I know I’m not going to be doing my best work. How do you create that sort of culture? Because I don’t think that’s common.
Jason: [00:21:31] Yeah, well, I think one thing we’ve done, we’ve tried to do, at least, is be on the lookout for people who need that break and suggest it to them, and remind them that that it’s available. There’s some times when someone’s just, or there’s maybe something going on at home that you that you have heard about. And you’re like, hey, you know, why don’t you just take some time off, get that straight or whatever. And I think at some point, the more you sort of suggest that to some people, the more the message gets out that like this is an option.
[00:21:59] I think it’s hard, though, for people to naturally decide to do that because there’s a sense that if I do that I’m taking more time, again, more time than I’m supposed to, or it’s not fair, or I’m gonna get in trouble or whatever. So I do think it comes down to making the suggestion and being on the lookout for people who need some space need some time.
[00:22:18] That’s historically how I’ve tried to deal with people that I work with closely. You can kind of get a sense that they need some space and some time for some something that happens.
[00:22:26] I think Andrea might do that occasionally, as well. We’ve had some situations where people are sort of feeling some burnout. You can get a sense of some burnout symptoms are beginning to develop, and you kind of want to head that off, even though it’s already, you’re already noticing the symptoms. So you’re not really that ahead of it, but you’re more ahead of it than maybe it would be three more weeks and mentioning something to them.
[00:22:46] And I think the other thing is like recognizing that there’s no real rule here, it’s just, it doesn’t take vacation time away. You know, it’s not like you’re losing time you’re using up other time. This is this is special time, that one of might need. Anyway, that’s my impression. I don’t know if David has a different sense from people on his team, but.
David: [00:23:04] It’s funny, because this was actually the origin of the sabbatical arrangement we have.
Jason: [00:23:09] Yeah.
David: [00:23:09] Where every three years, you can take a month that doesn’t count as part of your vacation, but it’s just a month you take away from work to get really away from work, for a substantial amount of time. And that arose out of a specific situation with an employee at the time who really needed a long break. And the person who got that break and came back, and was much better for it. And we thought like, wow, that worked surprisingly well. I remember in the situation thinking, you know what, I don’t know, I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Like, let’s try this thing. And then we tried that thing. And it worked quite well. It doesn’t solve everything for everyone. Nothing does.
[00:23:51] But then we instituted as this benefit that everyone would have and would be on a fixed schedule system, such that you wouldn’t have to think about oh, am I supposed to do it? Am I not supposed to? it’s just like every three years, you should take a month off. And people started doing that. And the feedback I think we’ve gotten, I think we’ve probably gotten more positive feedback on that single benefit at Basecamp than almost anything else I can remember.
[00:24:15] I mean, Fridays off during the summer is perhaps also pretty high up on the list there. But the sabbatical idea really provides a rejuvenation. And what’s interesting here too, is some of it is culturally specific to certain countries, that in the US, the idea of taking a month off is usually associated with getting laid off, perhaps because that’s the only time you have a month to just take off. Versus, in Europe, for example, it’s not that uncommon. In fact, it’s very common that people will take a month off for summer holidays in a straight go, right? Much of Europe actually shuts down during the month of August.
[00:24:53] Some of it is different in different environments, but in the US in particular, I think this idea of just taking off full month off, and it’s not counting your vacation. And it’s not because, necessarily, that you, quote unquote “need” need it. It’s just really healthy. And we’ve had wonderful results for that I’d actually say of any of the benefits that we kind of have on our list that I wish that more companies would adopt. That one is right up there.
Jason: [00:25:21] Yeah.
David: [00:25:21] And I would contribute it as a key factor for a fair number of people who’ve been with Basecamp for a long time, that the only way a lot of other employees, particularly in tech, get to take a month off is by quitting or getting laid off.
Shaun: [00:25:36] Well, fantastic. I think this is a pretty good place to stop.
[00:25:40] Next week, we’re talking about the final chapter in the first section of the book, which is called “Enough With Entrepreneurs.” So a little bit more of a revisitation of our conversation about the importance of language. And, as always, thank you for being here. David Heinemeier Hansson.
David: [00:25:53] Thank you.
Shaun: [00:25:54] And Jason Fried.
Jason: [00:25:56] Thanks, Shaun.
Shaun: [00:25:57] We’ll see you next week.
[00:25:59] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.
Shaun: [00:26:05] Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clipart. You can always find us on the web at rework.fm and on Twitter at @reworkpodcast. If you’re following along with us, crack open your copy of Rework the book and flip to the chapter titled, “Enough with Entrepreneurs.”