The Power of Time Off
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of 37signals, advocate for taking extended breaks from work, as outlined in their book "It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work." While this practice is relatively common in many parts of the world, it’s less common in North America.
In this episode of Rework, host Kimberly Rhodes is joined by Jeff Hardy, a programmer at 37signals, as he shares his experience taking a one-month sabbatical and discusses the benefits of stepping away from work to refresh your mind.
Tune in as Jeff offers advice on establishing boundaries and disconnecting from work while on vacation to maintain a healthy work-life balance and tips for smoothly transitioning back into work after an extended absence.
[00:47] - Jeff introduces himself and how his role in product development at 37signals has evolved over the last 15 years.
[01:29] - Jeff shares why you need to be in the right mindset to avoid burnout and remain effective in your work.
[04:02] - Learn from Jeff as he shares effective strategies to disconnect from work and fully embrace your sabbatical with these helpful tips.
[06:07] - The two outcomes of extended time away from work.
[06:52] - Why Jeff ended his sabbatical during a meetup.
[07:59] - Jeff reveals the transformative power of taking a break and how it can lead to a profound shift in your perspective
[09:54] - The key to understanding (and accepting) that you are not that important.
[10:56] - The importance of perspective: learn to see your job is just a portion of your life, not your whole life.
[12:33] - Jeff shares his tips for effectively utilizing vacation time to disconnect from work and refresh your mind.
[13:46] - The ingredients you need for a successful work story.
[15:04] - Discover how taking a sabbatical can provide a much-needed break without a complete disconnect.
[15:40] - Jeff shares his key takeaways from his sabbatical and the lessons he learned about himself and his job.
[17:35] - Do you have a question for Jason and David or anyone at 37signals? Leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850, and we might answer it on an upcoming show.
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Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes. In their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson write about the importance of stepping away from work for extended periods of time. While longer breaks is a fairly common practice in many parts of the world, it’s certainly not the case for workers in North America. 37signals’ cofounders feel so strongly about the power of time off that one of the company’s benefits is a one-month paid sabbatical for all employees, every three years. This week I’m joined by Jeff Hardy, principal programmer at 37signals. Jeff recently took some time away from work and is here to talk about how taking that time made him more effective and more engaged when he returned. To get us started, Jeff, tell us a little bit about you and your role at 37signals. I understand you just celebrated an anniversary.
Jeff (00:47): Yes, I’ve, I’ve actually been, I celebrated my 15th anniversary, so yeah, I’ve worked here for 15 years
Kimberly (00:54): That’s crazy.
Jeff (00:55): The entire time I’ve been in a product role. So working on all of our products, Basecamp, Backpack, Campfire, Highrise, all of them. Um, yeah, it’s been a really varied career because we’ve done so much and we’ve started from being like really small to being like our current size, which is the biggest we’ve ever been. So my role has changed like a lot. Now I’m on a team, and we used to be just one team.
Kimberly (01:22): Do you know what employee number you are by chance?
Jeff (01:24): I think I’m maybe seven.
Kimberly (01:27): Oh, wow.
Jeff (01:27): Yeah, seven or eight.
Kimberly (01:29): That’s awesome. Well, before we dive into your time off, tell me a little bit about how work was going, how you were doing before taking this hiatus.
Jeff (01:47): Right. So you mentioned that, you know, the sabbatical program is one of our benefits and so, you know, every three years and for the past 15 years I’ve generally been doing this, and like trying to take them regularly. But it’s hard, you know, it’s hard sometimes to plan it. You tend to, um, yeah, you tend to just keep pushing it into the future because it’s never the greatest time. And the downside of that is that sometimes it sneaks up on you and you don’t realize that you need it. And so it had been over three years since my last sabbatical and I found myself just, I don’t know, I just drained, exhausted, like feeling like I didn’t have any passion to like work anymore. Like I’m still doing it. That feeling of like going through the motions and then, but not really realizing that, hey, I, I need time off.
(02:36): Like, you know, I, I just sort of thought, you know, once I get over this next hump, everything will be fine, but the hump just keeps staying there, you know? So I was in this place where I just, I was questioning, you know, is this what I want to do? Like what, why am I doing this at all, all day? Because for me, especially in at, at 37signals where I think we have so much of our work is creative, you know, like I need to be in the right mindset to do it at all, or I’m just not very effective.
Kimberly (03:04): Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I mean, everything you’re describing just sounds like typical burnout that everybody in life has at some point. And most people I think, feel like that and then you’re like, well, I just need to go look for a new job, not that I just need to take a break.
Jeff (03:19): Exactly. And I started to think like that. Like I started to think like, it’s me. Maybe I need a different line of work. Maybe I, I I, I didn’t even know, like, that’s a funny thing too, but like, not knowing what you need, but knowing that you can’t keep doing what you’re doing. And that’s where this like sabbatical is such a good outlet, I suppose. Now it’s, there’s sometimes where you’ve, like, ideally you’ve, you’ve planned on the sabbatical, but at least in my case, and this isn’t always normal, this was sort of like a, an emergency sabbatical in that sense, like me realizing that like, man, I’m in a bad way. And then that being available to do. Now, that there are other outlets of course, but it, it just worked that, hey, I was due for a sabbatical and that was the time to do it.
Kimberly (04:02): Well, tell me this, because I would imagine, and maybe this Jeff isn’t true of your most recent sabbatical, but sabbaticals in the past, anytime that you’ve taken extended time off, I would imagine that it’s a little hard at first to just step away and unwind and not like check in on what things are happening. Like did you have that experience or was it easy just to be like, Nope, I’m taking a break and I’m, it’s a clean slate, I don’t need to even know what’s happening at the company?
Jeff (04:28): Yeah, no, I, I, I had a really hard time disconnecting and that’s why I think that there’s a difference between a sabbatical and a vacation. For me at least, it’s really time dependent. Like, there’s like a minimum of two weeks where I’m just going to be running through all the same things in my brain that I was before I left, as if those pathways are well worn and I, I can’t just shut them down. And so I just sort of have to wait it out. It’s like a kind of detoxing, right? You’re like, it’s, you just gotta get it out of your system. And so I’ve found, um, in the past that where I’ve, there was one sabbatical I took where midway through the sabbatical we had a meetup and this was when we still had an office in Chicago. And so we all traveled to Chicago and I thought, well, you know, it’s the meetup, it’s mostly a social thing.
(05:11): I, I should, you know, break my sabbatical in the middle and go to the meetup and then go home. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that wrecked it, right? Like that, that I wasn’t away from work long enough. It was really just like two, two week vacations back to back, which wasn’t enough to like excise the sort of work thoughts from my brain. And so I, I, I knew this time going in that like, no, like I, I, I really, it’s gonna take time and I’m just gonna like, you know, let the thoughts come and then let them fade away. But I, I think that’s key, like time is key for, for some people. I, I bet there are others who can just shut down right away, but no, not me.
Kimberly (05:49): Yeah, I think I would probably be the same way. Okay. So with this time, like what do you, what do you do with time off? I’m someone who personally has never taken longer than a week vacation at a time in my life. So the concept of having an extended period of time off is like foreign. Like it’s foreign language. Like what do you do?
Well, I think the, the thing is, yeah, it’s that it’s not that you’re doing nothing, it’s that now all the things you’re doing are on your schedule, you know what I mean? You don’t have like work obligations,
Kimberly (06:52): Yeah. One of your sabbaticals, you came back to a meetup in the middle, the most recent break you took from work, if I’m not mistaken, you kind of broke your sabbatical at of Meetup, is that right? In Amsterdam, that was like your first foray back.
Jeff (07:07): Yeah, exactly. So I had taken, one of the things about this sabbatical is that I had taken like an indefinite amount of time. Like I wasn’t sure when I left exactly when I would be back, but the meetup was like right around the right time. But I didn’t wanna commit to like buying a ticket and actually guaranteeing I would be there cause it was like too far in advance. I was prepared that like, you know, maybe it’ll take longer than I think. And so about, you know, a few weeks in, I, I was already starting to feel better and so I was like, yeah, I, I definitely wanna go to the meetup. And it felt like it was a good way to sort of end it because I get to see everybody in person. And the key is that it’s not like during the sabbatical. So it, it was like a nice way to ease back into work, you know, seeing everybody in person, getting to talk to them in person. Um, and then it was a smooth transition in that sense.
Kimberly (07:59): Well, let’s talk about the transition. I would think when you take time off and don’t think about work for any period of time, it’s kind of hard to come back.
Jeff (08:10): Yeah, maybe you would think so, but that’s the thing is that you get refreshed, right? I don’t wanna use the word bored, it’s not like I was like bored in what I was doing, but like, there’s a certain
Kimberly (08:20): I mean, it’s just burnout, I feel like.
(09:04): And we usually, weekends aren’t quite enough. Vacations are almost not quite enough and they’re not like real life, but taking like an extended period where you’re just like, like, you’re not doing anything really except not working, like not doing the job. It gives you a different perspective, right? That you, I don’t know that you can get elsewhere and usually you need bigger life circumstances, like you’ve lost your job or there’s some other thing that’s resulted in you being out of work for an extended period. It’s quite the luxury to, you know, to be able to have this and, and come back. You, you, I will say this I did try to pretend and I think it’s useful to like pretend that you quit your job. Like you, you have to let it go. You can’t keep thinking like it’s there. You have to imagine that you’re done. It’s not your concern anymore.
Kimberly (09:54): So when you were taking time off, were you, and this is the most recent break, any sabbatical you’ve taken, I mean, you’ve been with the company for 15 years. Are you checking notifications? Are you like looking at email? I feel like I would have that, um, I don’t know, I’d wanna just like peek in to see what’s happening.
Jeff (10:12): Yeah, you will. That pull is natural and so you, you do things like I uninstall the Basecamp app from my phone. Yeah, you have to, I uninstall it from my desktop. Like, and you just, it’s good to, the other good thing is that it’s a reminder of that you’re not that important. Like it, I, I can disappear and everything still happens. Everything still gets done. Everybody is fine. And I think that’s the other thing, like realizing like, I don’t need to check in. I need to prove to myself that I don’t need to check in. Like, look, I’m not gonna check in and everything’s gonna be fine. So that’s also sort of the relief when you come back is like realizing that like, hey, I, I had an inflated sense of self importance. And it’s good to be reminded that like the company runs without you.
Kimberly (10:56): Well, and I also think like Jason and David would say, at the end of the day, it’s a job. Yes, we want you to like your job, but at the end of the day it’s just a portion of your life.
Jeff (11:05): Exactly. Yeah, it is. That’s the other good thing that it reminds you of taking extended period. It is, it’s just that like, it is just work. Yeah. It perspective is the word, right? And then you’re, you’re making like a choice to come back. Like if you were having second thoughts about whether this is the job for you, like that’s a good time to contemplate it. You’re choosing to come back as like a reaffirmation of your choice. Like that this is good, this is what I wanna do.
Kimberly (11:30): Yeah. Okay. So Jeff, I do have a question for you. Obviously not every company has this extended time off benefit. I mean, we know that it’s quite a luxury to have that, but I think there’s so many people who are probably listening who might not even be taking all their vacation time. You know, I feel like there’s probably some statistic about how many people roll over days or don’t use it at all. What advice would you have for someone who’s listening who maybe isn’t just getting away from their job at all?
Jeff (11:58): I mean, I think it’s hard, and I think that I have this problem too. And um, we have lots of vacation time at 37signals. I don’t know what my track record is for using it up. I think that that’s the key though, you know, is to like plan it out and like make it regular. Like when this is, I do try to do this to use my vacation time to plan it on the calendar because I won’t in the spur of the moment be like, you know what, next week’s a good time to take off. Like, that just won’t happen. So I have to plan it out in advance, make sure I’m using up those days and I see it come up on the calendar and I’m like, oh, I’m off work that week. Like, it’s not like a decision I have to make in the moment.
(12:33): So I think that’s the advice I would give. Like even if you don’t have like a regular sabbatical program, take the vacation days you do get and establish some regularity with them. You know, plan them out in advance. Have something to look forward to, you know, like, Hey, I’m gonna work and then I get some time off. And I think it’s also useful to like, when you have that time off to literally try to do nothing. Like don’t try to cram in a bunch of stuff that you’re gonna do in lieu of work. Don’t try to like catch up on work certainly, but just, you know, let yourself have nothing to do and see what happens because really you’re trying to clear your mind, you know, and, and you’ll know it when like that voice in your head quiets down. At least for me it’s very loud. And so then when I finally realized like, hey, I’m not hearing that call of work anymore, then I’m like, okay, like now, you know, now you’re making progress.
Kimberly (13:24): Yeah, I mean I’ve even had plenty of friends who change jobs and go from one job to another with no break in between, you know, or maybe I’m gonna take five days in between two ginormous jobs. Seems like if you don’t have this kind of sabbatical benefit, that could be a nice break if you can, you know, if you can make that work for yourself financially.
Jeff (13:46): Yeah, and I’m, that’s the thing, this isn’t available to everyone. Like, you know, it, it’s not always gonna be the case for you, just get to take some time off of work. I do think that it’s, especially at 37signals because we’re, we’re a software company. There’s a big like engineering component to what we do, but we’re also, we see ourselves more on the art end of that spectrum. Like we don’t just do it because, well, we don’t have to. That’s the other thing. We don’t have to do it. And we do it because we want to and because we’re passionate about it, we like it if those ingredients aren’t there, like where’s the spark? You know, like, and so you kind of with that kind of work, you, you, it’s not the kind of thing that you can do on demand necessarily, or if you try to, you burn people out. Right? So that’s the thing, like maybe that’s the story. Like how do you, how do you do this without having burning people out and giving them short careers?
Kimberly (14:41): And I think there is some, I mean, we’re gonna have to fact check this, but there is some stat about software and tech jobs, like three years being the turnaround time. Like people get in and out of jobs constantly and I’m sure part of it is just like I’m worn out, like I am burned out, so I’m gonna take a pause by going somewhere else, but not really taking that pause.
Jeff (15:04): No, I I think that’s totally true. That is the common outlet. So like here you get to a point where you’re feeling burned out, you don’t know what, you know, you need a change, but you’re not quite sure, you have the sabbatical outlet and I think other places you’re like, well, it’s time to move on. Like it’s time to try somewhere else, you know? And, and that’s tough, right? Like how do you do that? That’s really risky to do. You might decide that you can’t take that risk. So yeah, it’s, it’s a nice thing. It’s a really nice thing to have and I think it is part of why people have stayed at 37signals so long. You don’t have to go somewhere else in order to create a break for yourself.
Kimberly (15:40): Yeah. Okay. My last question I’m gonna ask you before you wrap is tell me some of the words adjectives, like the feelings you had coming back after this pause and this rest. What are some of those like emotions or feelings that make it all worth it?
I really missed everyone. I realized that I missed the interactions with the people on my team. Like I missed, you know, the, the, the weekly programmer calls we would have and just like knowing what was going on in, in people’s lives and like, that’s why it was so nice to see people in person like coming back. Um, and I realized that, you know, like the things I like most about the work are like the process, like the journey, like the working with other people to figure stuff out, you know, and like we don’t know what we’re doing. Right?
Kimberly (16:38): Yeah. And what’s so funny is like, I would imagine, I guess I’ve been in this situation before, it’s like the same meeting that you’re excited about because you’re well rested is a meeting you dreaded when you were exhausted. You know, it’s the exact same interaction, but it’s like the head space that you’re coming to that interaction with.
Yeah, exactly. Like it, it’s all about that perspective. When I took a break, I just, I could see I I, my vision was cloudy. Like I, I just couldn’t, yeah. I wasn’t getting the enjoyment out of it that I normally get. And then without that, well, I don’t know then it’s just a job. Right? I think that’s the key distinction. Like I, I can’t really work a job
Kimberly (17:35): Yeah. Jeff, this has been delightful and I hope everyone who is listening who has a team, especially if like high performing individuals who have stressful jobs, you’re glomming on to this. Everyone needs a break, especially if you’re trying to retain people. That’s what I would say. Jeff, thanks for joining us. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37 signals.com/podcast. And if you have a specific question for Jason or David or anyone at 37signals about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 and we just might answer your question on an upcoming show.