Interruption is the Enemy of Productivitywith Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Having a calendar peppered with meetings or other commitments is horrible for productivity. Most people need at least a few hours or even days of completely uninterrupted alone time in order to do their best work. On this episode Jason and David give some strategies for creating the empty space you need to be productive.
The Full Transcript
Shaun Hildner (00:01): Welcome to Rework, the podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner and as always, I am joined by 37signals co-founders and the authors of Rework, David Heinemeier Hansson, how are you?
David Heinemeier Hansson (00:12): Good, Shaun. I’m good.
Shaun Hildner (00:14): Good. And Jason Fried, how are you?
Jason Fried (00:17): Doing pretty well. Thanks, Shaun.
Shaun Hildner (00:19): Fantastic. Well, this week we’re talking about interruptions and productivity. I wanted to start by asking both of you, what times of day do you find yourself doing your most or doing your best work?
Jason Fried (00:31): For me, it’s about whenever I can get a few hours together. It’s not really morning or night or afternoon or so much like that for me. It’s a mindset actually, for me. When I look at my schedule and go, there’s nothing on it today, I do better work. If I go, oh, there’s something at 11:00, there’s something at 1:00, there’s something at 4:00, it’s harder for me to get into the zone.
Shaun Hildner (00:54): Totally.
Jason Fried (00:55): But mostly it’s when no one else is around.
David Heinemeier Hansson (00:58): Yeah. It’s the same thing. I mean, when I look at a calendar day that’s just peppered with stuff, I’m almost willing to declare defeat on that day already. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not going to get anything done today, am I? Because there are three things on here.” And those things are just going to puncture the day just enough. It’s funny. I actually, to really get into the zone I need to be bored. And it takes a little while for that boredom to build up and usually it’s actually, sometimes even a couple of hours of boredom where I don’t have anything I have to do. And then I do all the housekeeping of answering the emails and the base camp stuff and so on. And then I run out of that and then I just like said, “Huh, all right. I guess, I have to get on with the real work.”
David Heinemeier Hansson (01:44): And then I dive into this stuff that I’m actually, fired up to do. So really as this essay interruption as the enemy, it really is true. And you see the enemy coming, it’s not even like the enemy is sneaking up upon you. I can see the enemy clear as day at the beginning of the day if the calendar is full of stuff and it doesn’t even have to be that much. If I have three things on that damn calendar and it might just be half an hour there and 45 minutes here, that day is written off which is why it’s so crucially important that you have days in your calendar that are not, I was about to say free but that’s not what they are. They’re filled with the work, they’re not leaving space for the midday interruptions and the cutoffs. That’s really where it happens.
David Heinemeier Hansson (02:40): And sometimes I’ve got to say, if I’ve been in a bad streak where I’ve had several days in a row that looked crappy because the calendar was filled, it might take more than a day to get back in the other zone. I feel that all the time with either product work programming or writing, that it’s like this slow crank that has to get started up. And it sputters a bit before it gets going which is also one of the reasons that when it’s finally running, when you’re on a streak, I’ve been on these streak for writing, for example or I’ve written every day for 20 days. I’m like, “I just know that if I hit the brakes on this, if I pause for two days is not starting back up.”
Shaun Hildner (03:22): You’re not going back.
Jason Fried (03:25): I think we may have talked about this before. I’m probably, not giving away too much but we’ve been thinking about building a calendar and there’s this one feature I want to build in it as a total gag but it’s just called What If, it’s the What If feature. And you turn the What If feature on and it clears away everything on your calendar that other people put there. So any events that you’ve accepted invites for, they just go away for a minute and it’s a fantasy land thing. It’s not real but it’s called What If. It’s of course, silly but also important because that could be what your schedule is. Now, not for everybody because everybody has full control over these things, I get that. But it’s still a look at what could be and I think that’s really important because it’s, you look at a calendar, most people’s calendars are full of textous blocks as we’d like to call it. And you actually, can’t ever see what it was like or what it could be like because everything’s there and you can’t get rid of the stuff. So anyways…
Shaun Hildner (04:20): It’s too easy to say a yes to those things. I think that’s what I would want. I want a pop up that says, “You’ve said yes to the last three invites. Do you want to maybe take one out, do you want to say no this time?”
David Heinemeier Hansson (04:32): Yeah. One tactic I’ve tried to impose on myself from time to time is to do the alternate week things. Don’t schedule anything on alternate weeks, make sure that week is empty and then you pack jam full the other week if that’s what you need to do but you have to create this empty space. It’s so much worse to be peppering all the obligations you have to other people on their schedule over your entire calendar rather than concentrated, at least for me. I’d much rather have a grueling draining 5, 6 meetings in a single day and then the rest of the week is clear. Then have those five or six things peppered over the whole week so I think that’s really important. I think the other thing we hit on in this essay is that people know this, they know that the time they get the real quote unquote “work done” is when they don’t have the interruptions.
David Heinemeier Hansson (05:29): And if that time only exists outside of work, that is where they will find it. So it’s early mornings, it’s late nights. It’s weekends. It’s a lot of the overwork that’s going on particularly, I think in our industry, that’s put and pushed into the margins because the main bulk of the working hour is just jammed full of these interruptions. And now you end up in a really insidious scenario where you can’t get work done at work, that the hours you actually, have dedicated to sit in front of your computer are eaten by the interruptions.
David Heinemeier Hansson (06:06): Now, sometimes we’re a little glib, some of these interruptions are work, coordination is work too. But for a lot of people particularly, creative people, I would find myself in that category as well when it comes to writing or programming or whatever. It’s not the nourishing work. Do you know what? I can go for three weeks just diving deep on a programming issue and come out after those three weeks and be just energized, bubbling with energy. Holy crap, that was just amazing. Do you know what if I try to do three weeks of that just filled with meetings and interruptions, I’m about ready to jump off a bridge. So I think that’s a way to just tell the difference and maybe it’s the opposite for you. This is the-
Jason Fried (06:52): Right. It could be a personality.
David Heinemeier Hansson (06:54): … yeah. I mean, if you’re a salesperson or work in another domain, it could be totally the opposite. You get energized by the interruptions and you get demotivated by the other stuff. But for the creative work where you’re diving deep, it’s more than just the time. It’s also the mental energy, it’s the motivation, it’s the… I was just about to say will to live, that’s perhaps, a little sharp sometimes but it can get there if you’re in the dread zone long enough. I’ve totally, had those where almost a month might have passed by where I’m like, “When was the last time I wrote a piece of prose I really liked? When was the last time I dove into the code? When was the last time…” And I just go, “I can’t carry on like this.” Now, Jason and I have some privilege here and the fact that we can actually, push the What If button. But even so sometimes I don’t do that enough. I don’t know, maybe Jason’s better at it than me.
Shaun Hildner (07:50): For our listeners, Jason’s shaking his head.
David Heinemeier Hansson (07:52): I know sometimes we have this, the joke is a hashtag executive life. The hashtag executive of life is how we moan to each other sometimes when it’s been too many meetings in a row.
Shaun Hildner (08:04): Oh, boohoo.
David Heinemeier Hansson (08:07): I mean, seriously. I mean, that is actually, the boohoo. And this is where I think what I’d like to believe that what we’ve created at 37signals has been special for certain people at the very least for certain moments is, we’ve had an unnatural amount of open space in people’s calendars that we’ve tried a lot of things to combat that. Now, we haven’t been successful for all the people all the time and right now I’m not sure I would pull out as the high water mark for those defenses. But just this appreciation that this stuff really matters.
Jason Fried (08:41): Can I add something to another technique? So David talks about the alternate weeks approach, another thing I do is I do what I like to call shoulders which is, I leave Monday and Friday completely open no matter what, basically. Unless there’s some incredibly rare exception. So at least I know two days a week just have nothing, really. That’s something that I find a bit easier to do than take the entire weeks off. But I would like to take the entire week off also and not off but off from scheduled events.
Shaun Hildner (09:14): Yeah. When you say have nothing it’s not like, “Well, I don’t have anything scheduled so I can now fit a bunch of stuff in, it’s so I can sit down and do the work.”
Jason Fried (09:21): Right. So I can write, I can design, I can think, all those things that take time to get into those things. And I need to know that there’s no lowering ceiling. It’s like something’s not coming at me at 11:00 AM and it’s 9:30 right now. Because when that’s the case, I just have a really hard time being expansive when the roof’s closing in, when the ceiling’s closing in.
Shaun Hildner (09:41): So yeah. I think we started getting into this. David, can you think of what strategies that 37signals has used to create that culture of, it’s not really acceptable even when we had an office, it was not really acceptable to interrupt people. And part of it is the async communication thing.
David Heinemeier Hansson (09:58): I think the async communication’s probably, the number one thing that we do, the majority of our coordination and collaboration asynchronously. So people write things up rather than invite others to a meeting about it. Now, we still have meetings at 37signals and some days I certainly, think we have perhaps, more now than what we’ve ever had. But we don’t have a lot of these like, “Oh, here’s the thing I want to present. Let me just call a meeting for that.” These impromptu meetings that just pop up. We don’t have a lot of those because that energy usually flows into asynchronous communication where you write something up and then you get people’s feedback when it fits into their schedule. And I think that is just such a key difference to companies that run on meetings first which is most companies, most creative companies run meeting first or meeting is the first tool to grab when you’re trying to do some collaboration or arrive at a position or something else.
David Heinemeier Hansson (11:00): And we like to make it the last option that this is what you do when you’ve run out of the other options, I think that’s the most important. We’ve tried other things over the years, we’ve had something called, what do we call it? Office hours. Where technical experts in particular, who were frequently peppered with questions by others in the company would reserve the time and say like, “Do you know what? I talk with others in the company on Thursdays between 9:00 and 2:00, you can book time in that slot,” that had several positive side effects. On the one hand, these experts were free to just do their own work the majority of the week.
David Heinemeier Hansson (11:38): And then the other thing was that if you actually, had to schedule time with someone and it might be a few days out, you might as well fix your own issue and not bother someone when it is something you actually, could fix but it just felt like it was easier if you’ve reached out. I think we are organizationally aware of the fact that you can over collaborate, you can over communicate that is the default state and for certain people since certain times, I think it’s also a little bit of a pathology that you fall into this trap that like, “Oh, here’s this other person who knows more about this topic than I do. So anything that comes up in this domain I should just reach out.”
Shaun Hildner (12:17): Right.
David Heinemeier Hansson (12:17): And no you shouldn’t, keep your damn hands to yourself most of the time and figure it out. Again, it’s not an argument that you can’t learn from your coworkers or whatever but then at least be considerate about how you do it. Do it asynchronously, write up your problem and you will find as many people through history have done when you try to write down what your problem is, you magically arrive at the solution before anyone else even had a chance to chime in.
Shaun Hildner (12:43): We’re going to talk a lot more next time about the impromptu meeting but I think another insidious interruption is just the shoulder tap, the chatting around the water cooler at 2:00 PM. How much of this just disappears when switching to remote work?
Jason Fried (12:59): Mm. I used to think remote work was really particularly good at protecting people’s time but I’ve come to believe that it’s just as bad, basically.
Shaun Hildner (13:10): I mean, a different bad.
Jason Fried (13:11): It’s just a different bad. It’s actually, in some ways it’s a lot easier to interrupt people. And the modern tooling that most people use which is chat and real time communication is just actually, you can be lazy and still interrupt people. If you don’t want to walk across the office to tap someone in the shoulder that’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to get up and do that.” Now, you just hit someone up, basically. I think it’s worse, I think it’s actually gotten worse. David just went into it. It’s it has to be a cultural understanding that there is no expectation of immediate response, that just because the technology to reach someone is quick and effortless, that the response doesn’t need to be commensurate, basically. You get back to people when you have time, when you want to pay attention to them, that’s plenty.
Jason Fried (13:59): But I think that the problem is of course, that’s not what tech does. And the other thing that’s interesting is that if someone in a physical space was coming up to you and you were busy, you could wave them off like, “Just give me a minute or something.” You can’t do that virtually. You have to ignore them which is one technique. You could mark your thing away if you use presence which we don’t really believe in to begin with. But it’s just too easy to reach people. People are too connected, people are too immediate and everyone is right next to you all the time, basically. I don’t think it makes it easy.
David Heinemeier Hansson (14:29): I think one area where it’s actually, even extra bad, worse is how many people you can reach with no friction. How easy is it to bother 20 people or 50 people or in large companies, 2000 people? I think there’s a lot of companies who were excited about, for example, introducing Slack or other chat tools in their organization and came to roughly regret how easy it is for a couple of individuals who all of a sudden blast 2000 people. That the etiquette about how we used these tools, what we used them for when we used them is very poorly understood compared to the fact that if you were in an office, imagine you’re in the middle of the workday there’s 200 people in this open office. You pull out your chair, you just stand on your chair and you start clapping your hands, “Hey, everyone. What’s your opinion about this?”
David Heinemeier Hansson (15:26): People would look at you as though you were just bananas like, “What is this person doing? Why are they asking for that much attention?” When that happens in a chat room for example, no one bats an eye. It takes very little to reach far too many people. So I think this is one of the areas that has not gotten nearly enough, funnily enough, attention is just how easy this multiplier effect comes in. When we talk about meetings, we like to say a meeting isn’t an hour. If there’s five people in that room, it’s five hours, it’s one times five. The same with a chat message. If that chat message reaches one person in a one on one, okay, that is one line. If it reaches a hundred people, it’s a hundred lines. This is one of the things. In fact, actually just this week, we took a step towards rectifying this with something we have called automatic check-ins.
David Heinemeier Hansson (16:23): We ask everyone every day, what have you worked on today? And it used to be, we just asked everyone in the company in a single stream this question and you’d get a ton of answers. Well, now there’s 70 people at the company and when you get even half of those people responding to that message, all of a sudden you have 40 things to read across departments. People doing work that you’re not involved with, you don’t need to be up to speed on. We saw that and we’re like, “Do you know what this isn’t good. We need to shrink actually, the blast radius of these information shots.” And way we did that was we carved it up and now there’s like four or five of these different buckets. We still ask the question but we’ll ask it to 10 people in the group or 20 people in the group rather than the entire company of 70.
David Heinemeier Hansson (17:09): And I think this is the same principle you can apply to a lot of these things like how many people are you writing in the beginning of email, these send all thing, like sent to the whole company. That was a thing that needed to be understood and then after, I don’t know, five years of that everyone understood, you don’t CC the whole company. That is particularly bad manners to ever do that yet we think almost nothing of CCing the entire company when it’s happening in these chat rooms. So I think carving these things up, not having huge rooms. I mean, actually these days, if you look at the main chat room we have to go to the whole company, it’s a little bit quiet and some people would go like, “Is there nothing going on here?” And you go, “Yeah. There’s tons of shit going on. It just goes on in that group of five, in that group of nine,” because anything that goes on in a group of 70, it’s a stretch off and to call that work, that’s like a party.
Shaun Hildner (18:01): Well, perfect. I think that’s going to be good for this conversation. I do want to get into some listener questions though. How does that sound?
David Heinemeier Hansson (18:09): Shoot.
Shaun Hildner (18:10): This week we have a question from PJ.
Speaker 4 (18:13): Hi. This is PJ from Singapore. My question to David and Jason is if they were to go back in time again and start Basecamp all over, how important was it to have been in the same time zone as the American and the European markets? How would Jason and David have approached Basecamp differently? Now, if they had started Basecamp all over, say from Bali, the Indonesian Island? Thanks so much.
Jason Fried (18:49): I don’t think it mattered where we were when it comes to who we were selling the product to. I don’t think we ever really thought about that. David and I worked, I think it was six or seven times zones apart for quite a while, a couple of years or something like that prior to David eventually, moving to Chicago for us to be together. But what we found was that like three, four hours overlap for us was the right amount of time to work together. But it didn’t really matter where the customers were. We just responded to customers within a day’s worth of time in terms of responding to a customer service question or something like that. And if things went down in the middle of the night or whatever, someone has to get up and deal with that. I think you could easily start the business we started from Bali or from wherever you want. It doesn’t really matter where you are, I don’t think.
David Heinemeier Hansson (19:35): That’s something I actually, hear fair bit in Europe. It’s almost like a lack of self confidence that we could do these kinds of things and I’m like, this is global software. We sell Basecamp to every country in the world except two. I think one is North Korea and the other one is some other-
Jason Fried (19:52): Iran, I think. Yeah. I think we’re in 166 countries is-
David Heinemeier Hansson (19:54): … right.
Jason Fried (19:55): … current [inaudible 00:19:56]. We sell basically around the world and have done so since day one. No one who signs up for Basecamp right the seconds while we’re talking, there’s just a bunch of people signing up for Basecamp. Do they care that I’m in Copenhagen and Jason is near Los Angeles? No, they don’t care about that at all. And I think it’s in your head a lot of the times that like, "Oh, I can’t do that if I’m not like the place where it’s happening. I think actually, for us it was a benefit. It was a gift that we were not in quote, unquote, “the place where it was happening”. We were not in Silicon Valley, we were in Chicago and Copenhagen at the time, not exactly hopping hubs of entrepreneurship or startups or technology or software. And it provided us with just enough space to go our own way, think our own thoughts, be original first principles in our approach. I’d say that’s a gift. I’d say, curse BU who have to start your startup in Silicon Valley these days.
Shaun Hildner (20:57): How important is that overlap when you’re starting out though? You mentioned you had three or six hours overlap between you and David, would it even have been possible if you were in Chicago and someone was in Sydney?
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:09): No.
Jason Fried (21:10): It’s hard.
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:12): The short answer is no. You cannot do this work without having some real time collaboration.
Jason Fried (21:19): Which is also why I think people who outsource typically there was this historic US firms would outsource to India to get more developers. The problem is that software is not a throw over the fence, I mean, it can be but it can’t be like a throw over the fence, wait 24 hours kind of thing. It has to be an iterative thing where you go back and forth and look at something together and use it together and play with it together. If you don’t have the together time, you’re really going to be missing out on a lot. You don’t need eight hours of it but you probably need, I’d say a minimum of three, four’s probably, better. But Chicago and Sydney just wouldn’t have worked.
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:54): We’ve tried it. We actually, had someone in Australia for a while who was on the team when they had to do collaboration. It was not easy and it required great sacrifice on their end to be up at ungodly hours to make it happen. And we’ve even had it on other ends where someone in Europe were working too early in the day for someone in the US and that wasn’t working right either. You need the overlap but I would actually, go as too far as to say that it’s actually, better if you only have three or four hours of overlap rather than eight. I would prefer in most cases, I think we actually, got a lot done with the Copenhagen, Chicago situation. Some days we got more done than the Chicago, Chicago situation.
Shaun Hildner (22:36): So are you sort of forced to have that exactly extra time?
David Heinemeier Hansson (22:39): Exactly. No, you’re forced the alone time that’s the magic.
Shaun Hildner (22:42): Right, the focus time.
David Heinemeier Hansson (22:42): The magic is you’re just granted by virtue of time zones three or four hours of alone time. And then you have all the collaboration to show the work and go over the work together and then there’s someone on the other hand. In fact, we had this a little bit when, even in the US so I was on the West Coast for a while, Jason was in Chicago and just those two hours that was actually, a real benefit. So I’d actually, say like in the US there’s an ideal where if you can have someone on the East Coast and someone on the West Coast, you get a little bit of that bonus separation. That’s better than being in the same place at the same time.
Shaun Hildner (23:17): Well, fantastic. I do have to say that if you’re trying to produce a podcast, you want your guests to be as close to the same time zone as possible just for scheduling reasons. But that’s neither here nor there. Thank you, PJ. If you have any questions to put to Jason or David, leave us a voicemail at 708- 628-7850 or better yet record a voice memo on your phone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. And that’ll do it for this week’s episode. We are taking a break for the summer, I need a vacation and I’d like to spend some time banking new episodes. So I’ll be on a more regular release schedule. When we come back in the fall. In the meantime, I’ll be releasing a couple bonus shows to tide you over but have a great summer and I’ll be back in September with the ever popular meetings or toxic episode. For now. I want to say thank you for joining me. Jason Fried?
Jason Fried (24:09): Thanks, Shaun Hildner.
Shaun Hildner (24:11): And thank you, David Heinemeier Hansson.
David Heinemeier Hansson (24:14): Thanks, man.
Shaun Hildner (24:15): I’ll see you guys next time.
David Heinemeier Hansson (24:16): Bye. [inaudible 00:24:18].
Shaun Hildner (24:28): Rework is a production of 37signals. Our theme music is by Clipart. We’re on the web at rework.fm where you can find show notes and transcripts for this and every episode of Rework. We’re also on Twitter @Reworkpodcast. As I said, we’re taking a short break for the summer and I’ll be back in September with brand new episodes. If you like the show, I’d really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Overcast or wherever you’re listening to this.