It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work - Book Highlights

While I was writing the book Time Off, I had this book on my desk as a source of motivation and inspiration. I also used the authors' software Basecamp to manage the writing process with our team. The title of the book summarizes a better approach to leadership and entrepreneurship. Many of us have experienced a toxic work culture. It doesn't have to be that way. Growing a company can be fun and calm and this book proves it.

These are all my curated highlights from Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson's book “It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work.”

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Sustained exhaustion is not a badge of honor, it’s a mark of stupidity.

Out of the 60, 70, or 80 hours a week many people are expected to pour into work, how many of those hours are really spent on the work itself? And how many are tossed away in meetings, lost to distraction, and withered away by inefficient business practices? The bulk of them.

The modern workplace is sick. Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Sitting in meetings all day isn’t required for success. These are all perversions of work

Your company should be your best product.

A company is like software. It has to be usable, it has to be useful. And it probably also has bugs, places where the company crashes because of bad organizational design or cultural oversights.

Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be this epic tale of cutthroat survival. Most of the time it’s way more boring than that. Less jumping over exploding cars and wild chase scenes, more laying of bricks and applying another layer of paint.

You can play with your kids and still be a successful entrepreneur. You can have a hobby. You can take care of yourself physically. You can read a book. You can watch a silly movie with your partner. You can take the time to cook a proper meal. You can go for a long walk. You can dare to be completely ordinary every now and then.

We wish everyone well. To get ours, we don’t need to take theirs.

What matters is that we have a healthy business with sound economics that work for us. Costs under control, profitable sales.

Mark Twain nailed it: “Comparison is the death of joy.” We’re with Mark.

Because at the end of the day, would you rather win an imaginary contest by throwing sand in your competitors’ faces or by simply forgetting about them and making the best damn product you know how?

Plus, there’s an even darker side to goal setting. Chasing goals often leads companies to compromise their morals, honesty, and integrity to reach those fake numbers. The best intentions slip when you’re behind. Need to improve margins by a few points? Let’s turn a blind eye to quality for a while.

Set out to do good work. Set out to be fair in your dealings with customers, employees, and reality. Leave a lasting impression with the people you touch and worry less (or not at all!) about changing the world. Chances are, you won’t, and if you do, it’s not going to be because you said you would.

Requiring discomfort—or pain—to make progress is faulty logic. NO PAIN, NO GAIN! looks good on a poster at the gym, but work and working out aren’t the same. And, frankly, you don’t need to hurt yourself to get healthier, either.

Being comfortable in your zone is essential to being calm.

One thing at a time doesn’t mean one thing, then another thing, then another thing in quick succession; it means one big thing for hours at a time or, better yet, a whole day.

Not doing something that isn’t worth doing is a wonderful way to spend your time.

A great work ethic isn’t about working whenever you’re called upon. It’s about doing what you say you’re going to do, putting in a fair day’s work, respecting the work, respecting the customer, respecting coworkers, not wasting time, not creating unnecessary work for other people, and not being a bottleneck. Work ethic is about being a fundamentally good person that others can count on and enjoy working with.

So we borrowed an idea from academia: office hours. All subject-matter experts at Basecamp now publish office hours. For some that means an open afternoon every Tuesday. For others it might be one hour a day. It’s up to each expert to decide their availability.

If you don’t own the vast majority of your own time, it’s impossible to be calm. You’ll always be stressed out, feeling robbed of the ability to actually do your job.

So take a step toward calm, and relieve people from needing to broadcast their whereabouts and status. Everyone’s status should be implicit: I’m trying to do my job, please respect my time and attention.

And if someone doesn’t get back to you quickly, it’s not because they’re ignoring you—it’s probably because they’re working. Don’t you have some other work to do while you wait? Waiting it out is just fine. The sky won’t fall, the company won’t fold. It’ll just be a calmer, cooler, more comfortable place to work. For everyone.

It’s JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) that lets you turn off the firehose of information and chatter and interruptions to actually get the right shit done. It’s JOMO that lets you catch up on what happened today as a single summary email tomorrow morning rather than with a drip-drip-drip feed throughout the day. JOMO, baby, JOMO.

At many companies these days, people treat every detail at work like there’s going to be a pop quiz. They have to know every fact, every figure, every name, every event. This is a waste of brain power and an even more egregious waste of attention.

The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families. They’re there to provide healthy, fulfilling work environments so that when workers shut their laptops at a reasonable hour, they’re the best husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children they can be.

If you, as the boss, want employees to take vacations, you have to take a vacation. If you want them to stay home when they’re sick, you can’t come into the office sniffling. If you don’t want them to feel guilty for taking their kids to Legoland on the weekend, post some pictures of yourself there with yours. Workaholism is a contagious disease. You can’t stop the spread if you’re the one bringing it into the office. Disseminate some calm instead.

Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes?

In the long run, work is not more important than sleep.

Résumés aren’t work. Résumés may list the work they’ve done, but we all know that they are exaggerated and often bullshit. Beyond that—even if their résumé is perfectly accurate—a list of work is not the work itself. Don’t just take their word for it. Take their work for it.

The skills and experience needed to get traction in one place are often totally different somewhere else.

We’ve found that nurturing untapped potential is far more exhilarating than finding someone who’s already at their peak. We hired many of our best people not because of who they were but because of who they could become.

Where you live has nothing to do with the quality of your work, and it’s the quality of your work that we’re paying you for. What difference does it make that your bed is in Boston, Barcelona, or Bangladesh?

That’s why we look at benefits as a way to help people get away from work and lead healthier, more interesting lives. Benefits that actually benefit them, not the company. Although the company clearly benefits, too, from having healthier, more interesting, well-rested workers.

Not a single benefit aimed at trapping people at the office. Not a single benefit that would make someone prefer to be at work rather than at home. Not a single benefit that puts work ahead of life. Instead, plenty of reasons to close the laptop at a reasonable time so that there’s time to learn, cook, work out, and live life with family and friends.

Employers aren’t entitled to anyone’s nights, weekends, or vacations. That’s life time. True emergencies are an exception, but those should only happen once or twice a year max. When companies act like they own all of their employees’ time, they breed a culture of neurotic exhaustion. Everyone needs a chance to truly get away and reboot. If they’re denied that, especially during sanctioned vacation time, they’re going to return tired and resentful. And don’t try to justify fakecations by saying “But you can take as much as you want!” In our industry, it’s become common practice to offer “unlimited vacation days.” It sounds so appealing! But peel back the label and it’s a pretty rotten practice. Unlimited vacation is a stressful benefit because it’s not truly unlimited. Can someone really take five months off? No. Three? No. Two? One? Maybe? Is it weeks or months? Who’s to know for sure? Ambiguity breeds anxiety.

Time off isn’t much of a benefit if it can be taken right back. That’s more like a shitty loan with terrible terms. Plus interest. And worries. Screw that.

At Basecamp, we don’t dread the deadline, we embrace it. Our deadlines remain fixed and fair. They are fundamental to our process—and making progress. If it’s due on November 20, then it’s due on November 20. The date won’t move up and the date won’t move back. What’s variable is the scope of the problem—the work itself. But only on the downside. You can’t fix a deadline and then add more work to it. That’s not fair. Our projects can only get smaller over time,

We don’t want reactions. We don’t want first impressions. We don’t want knee-jerks. We want considered feedback. Read it over. Read it twice, three times even. Sleep on it. Take your time to gather and present your thoughts—just like the person who pitched the original idea took their time to gather and present theirs. That’s how you go deep on an idea.

Give it a try sometime. Don’t meet, write. Don’t react, consider.

But stressed out we are not. And if we’re feeling frenzied for any reason, we delay the release until we’ve calmed down.

You don’t have to let something slide for long before it becomes the new normal. Culture is what culture does. Culture isn’t what you intend it to be. It’s not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It’s what you do. So do better.

When calm starts early, calm becomes the habit. But if you start crazy, it’ll define you. You have to keep asking yourself if the way you’re working today is the way you’d want to work in 10, 20, or 30 years. If not, now is the time to make a change, not “later.” Later is where excuses live. Later is where good intentions go to die. Later is a broken back and a bent spirit. Later says “all-nighters are temporary until we’ve got this figured out.” Unlikely. Make the change now.

Today we ship things when they’re ready rather than when they’re coordinated. If it’s ready for the web, ship it! iOS will catch up when they’re ready. Or if iOS is first, Android will get there when they’re ready. The same is true for the web. Customers get the value when it’s ready wherever, not when it’s ready everywhere. So don’t tie more knots, cut more ties. The fewer bonds, the better.

Throwing away a bunch of work, simply because of the way you worked on it, is a morale gut punch. But that’s what happens when your work is filled with dependencies.

Good decisions don’t so much need consensus as they need commitment.

What’s especially important in disagree-and-commit situations is that the final decision should be explained clearly to everyone involved. It’s not just decide and go, it’s decide, explain, and go.

Knowing when to embrace Good Enough is what gives you the opportunity to be truly excellent when you need to be.

Rather than put endless effort into every detail, we put lots of effort into separating what really matters from what sort of matters from what doesn’t matter at all. The act of separation should be your highest-quality endeavor. It’s easy to say “Everything has to be great,” but anyone can do that. The challenge lies in figuring out where you can be just kinda okay or even downright weak.

When we spend six weeks on something, the first week or two is for clarifying unknowns and validating assumptions. This is the time when the concept needs to hit reality and either bounce if it’s sound or shatter if it’s not. That’s why we quickly begin prototyping as soon as we can in those first two weeks. We’re often looking at something real within a day or two. Nothing tells the truth like actually experiencing the idea in real life. That’s the first time we know if what we had in our heads is actually going to work or not.

But if you actually want to make progress, you have to narrow as you go.

After the initial dust settles, the work required to finish a project should be dwindling over time, not expanding. The deadline should be comfortably approaching, not scarily arriving. Remember: Deadlines, not dreadlines.

If it’s never enough, then it’ll always be crazy at work.

Whatever it takes is an iceberg. Steer clear lest it literally sink your ship. Just ask Edward Smith, the captain of the Titanic, who gave orders to do whatever it took to get to New York faster than expected to break a record. You probably know how that turned out.

Here’s what we do. Rather than demand whatever it takes, we ask, What will it take? That’s an invitation to a conversation. One where we can discuss strategy, make tradeoffs, make cuts, come up with a simpler approach all together, or even decide it’s not worth it after all. Questions bring options, decrees burn them.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Nearly all product work at Basecamp is done by teams of three people. It’s our magic number. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s one or two rather than four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chop problems down until they can be carried across the finish line by teams of three.

Three people can talk directly with one another without introducing hearsay. And it’s a lot easier to coordinate three people’s schedules than four or more.

Happiness is shipping: finishing good work, sending it off, and then moving on to the next idea.

So give it five minutes, keep your energy focused on finishing what you’re working on now, and then decide what to do next once you’re done and ready to take on new work.

No is easier to do, yes is easier to say. No is no to one thing. Yes is no to a thousand things. No is a precision instrument, a surgeon’s scalpel, a laser beam focused on one point. Yes is a blunt object, a club, a fisherman’s net that catches everything indiscriminately. No is specific. Yes is general.

We’ve certainly had our share of good fortune and luck, but we’ve also intentionally never gotten ahead of ourselves. We’ve always kept our costs in check and never made a move that would push us back from black to red. Why? Because crazy’s in the red. Calm’s in the black.

Until you’re running a profitable business, you’re always almost out of business. You’re racing the runway. Fretting about whether you’ll take off in time. Worrying about how to make payroll at the last moment if you don’t. Talk about a pressurized environment!

Without profit, something is always on fire. When companies talk about burn rates, two things are burning: money and people. One you’re burning up, one you’re burning out.

Second, we wanted to build Basecamp for small businesses like ourselves: members of the Fortune 5,000,000. And not just build software for them, but really help them. To be honest, we don’t really give a shit about the Fortune 500. The corporate behemoths are much more likely to be set in stone, unable to change. With the Fortune 5,000,000 we have a real shot at making a real impact. That’s more satisfying work.

Becoming a calm company is all about making decisions about who you are

Real answers are only uncovered when someone’s motivated enough to buy your product and use it in their own natural environment—and of their own volition. Anything else is a simulation, and simulated situations give you simulated answers. Shipping real products gives you real answers.

So do your best and put it out there. You can iterate from there on real insights and real answers from real customers who really do need your product. Launch and learn.

Promises pile up like debt, and they accrue interest, too. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off and the worse the regret. When it’s time to do the work, you realize just how expensive that yes really was.

Do you think your customers are going to care? They just want a good product at a great price. Few will have the time or empathy for a sob story about what the competition did or didn’t do.

But, really, unless you’ve patented it, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Besides, copying does more harm to the copier than to the copied. When someone copies you, they are copying a moment in time. They don’t know the thinking that went into getting you to that moment in time, and they won’t know the thinking that’ll help you have a million more moments in time. They’re stuck with what you left behind. So, really, chill out. Accept the mild frustration for a moment and then let it go.

It’s taken us a long time and a number of missteps to learn this core truth about selling: Sell new customers on the new thing and let old customers keep whatever they already have. This is the way to keep the peace and maintain the calm.

Ultimately, startups are easy, stayups are hard. Keeping the show running for the long term is a lot harder than walking onstage for the first time. On day one, every startup in the world is in business. On day one thousand, only a fraction remain standing. That’s reality. So pace yourself. Don’t burn out early thinking the hard part is behind you.

Cutting back when times are great is the luxury of a calm, profitable, and independent company.

A business is a collection of choices. Every day is a new chance to make a new choice, a different choice.