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Episode 034

Jason Fried

Jason Fried

taking control

with Jason Fried

It's funny. Businesses are great at protecting things like money and secrets. But when it comes to their most valuable asset, their people's time, they give it away. Heck most of us agree to meetings, calls, and conversations that aren't nearly as valuable as the uninterrupted blocks of time we need to create something of importance. What's amazing is many of us have other people that can access our calendars and add meetings to it without our permission. In this episode, Jason Fried shares the importance of taking control of our time and more importantly, how to use it effectively.

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Full Transcript

Welcome to the Bureau Briefing. A podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey, everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and today, I am really happy to have with me one of the founders of Basecamp, Mr. Jason Fried. How's it going, Jason?

Jason Fried:
Good, hey, good to see you. Or, good to hear from you, I should say. I can't see you right now.

Carl Smith:
No, well, you know we could have done that, but honestly, we're still on Skype. I don't even know what's up with that. 

Jason Fried:
That works for me. 

Carl Smith:
The last time we saw each other, I think, was OwnerCamp in Montreal.

Jason Fried:
That's right.

Carl Smith:
Actually, I think that's the only time we've seen each other.

Jason Fried:
That might be true.

Carl Smith:
It was great getting to know you a little bit. I'll tell you, on the show today ... I have had one of those days where I over-committed. I just did it. It was one of those things where I was like, "This is a perfect day to talk to Jason."

I want to understand ... I've read a lot of what you've done. I've watched some of the talks that you've given. You're really so tuned in on focus and understanding that those chunks of dedicated time will get more done than three times as much time, interrupted.

Was this the way you've always been? Is this how you showed up in life?

Jason Fried:
I don't think so. I don't know, really, but I don't think so. 

I probably had some situations, I know I can recall some of them, I don't know how far it goes back, where I'd spend a week. I'd look back on a Friday and I'd go, "Man, I was really busy this week, but I got nothing done."

I'm not talking about checking off to-do's. I don't really track my work that way, so it's not about that. It's about a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction in how I spent my time during that week. It's not like I got 30% more done or 40 ... I don't really look at things that way. 

I remember feeling this way a few times. I know a lot of people feel this way. They're busy. Everyone's busy. You ask how people ... 

You know, "How you doing?"

"Oh, I'm so busy."

Carl Smith:
So busy.

Jason Fried:
Everyone's busy all the time. 

"How is it at work?"

"Oh, it's crazy at work."

Everyone's crazy and busy, yet I'm finding that very few of us are able to look back at the end of the day on Friday and go "I had a full week where I accomplished a lot and made a lot of progress."

The more I ran into that myself, I said, "This doesn't make any sense." You just look at your day and you start to figure it out. You look closely at it, like, "What am I doing that's so busy?"

Well, I'm context shifting a lot. I'm jumping between things. I have gaps of time that I try and fill in with real work. The rest of the time I'm spending on stuff that I really don't want to be doing, like meetings, or whatever it might be.

You do a little bit of analysis and have a little bit of self awareness about your day. Pretty quickly, you realize that if you don't get on top of that and you don't control your own schedule and you don't control your own time, then you can't control what you get done.

I had had enough. I don't remember when this happened. It wasn't this immediate epiphany, but I do remember, earlier in my career, feeling that way. I haven't for a long, long time, because I haven't been working that way anymore. 

It wasn't natural, but I guess maybe I was more attuned to it. I guess what I did was, I said, "This doesn't work." I think a lot of people put up with it. They assume this is the way it is, but it doesn't have to be that way. It certainly doesn't have to be that way. 

Maybe that's what was different about me, perhaps.

Carl Smith:
I can only imagine. I started a web shop. 37signals started a few years before Engine did. We were reading a lot of the signal noise stuff and trying to figure out how we could be better with what we were doing. We loved that idea of passive communication. 

We were all in the same office, but we tried, you know, your headphones were your door kind of a thing. One of the things that I remember, and this was a boss that I had before we started Engine. She came over to me and she said, "You look really crazy busy."

I was like, "Yeah, I can't figure it out."

She goes, "Why don't you go home?"

I was like, "What?"

She goes, "Yeah. It's really not going to make a difference."

Was like, "What do you mean?"

She goes, "People will call and we'll just say that you went home. Tomorrow, you can start over. Seriously, nobody's going to notice. It's not a deal."

She gave me a gift that day. Even today, I went, "I'm going to go for a walk. I'm going to get out of here." I'm in Florida. You're in Chicago, so you might not be able to go for a walk today.

It's one of those things that I just think makes such a difference. You had given that TED Talk on how we can't work at work. I think you said, "There's something about that front door at work that's like a Cuisinart to time. You just have these moments of time, you don't have these blocks of time anymore."

I'm sure I'm butchering the quote, but it was one of those things that also resonated with me. I'm curious, in your days now, what does it look like? What does Jason Fried do when he gets up in the morning? How does your day work?

Jason Fried:
My day's a little bit different every day. I go in the flow, basically. For example, lately I'm writing a new book right now. I'm getting in the swing of things with writing.

Writing, to me, is not an eight hour a day endeavor. I can't sit and write for eight hours a day. I can write for an hour and then I'll take break. I'll do something else. I'll go for a walk or whatever I'll do. Do something, whatever. 

Then, I'll get back into it and work for a little bit longer and break. I go with how I feel. The key is, is that, and this is the key for everybody who works at Basecamp, is that nobody owns your schedule. You own your schedule. So your roughly eight hours a day that you work, they're all yours. 

That gives you the flexibility to say, "Well, if I put in an hour here and take little bit of a break, I can jump back in when I'm ready." Not, "I can jump back in at 4, because I've got something from 11 to 12, then something from 12 to 1:30, and then something from 2 to 3:15."

You can jump back in and back out of your work as often as you want, because your schedule is entirely open, just for you. 

I think that's really fundamentally the way I work, which is that my days are open and I decide how I'm feeling about what I need to do. There's other things I have to do sometimes, but there are very few things that are pre-scheduled, so I go with the flow and my work day changes.

For example, we work in these six week cycles where every six weeks, we start a new set of projects. At the beginning of that cycle, I'm spending a lot of time with the teams, working through the ideas and helping people form them and shape them. Then, I kind of go away and everyone does the work and I focus on other things. My work is based on where we're at in our cycle of work, what I have to do separately, it's all over the place.

I get up around the same time. We have a two year old now, so I'm getting up at like 6, because that's when he gets up. I bounce in and out of work all day long. I am not a "all-in, work straight eight hour" kind of person. 

The difference is that when I bounce out, it's my choice to bounce out versus being forced to bounce out. That way, if am working on something really deep and I am in it for two or three hours, I have all that time to myself, without ever having any fear that anybody's going to pull me away from that work. Then when I'm ready to bounce out, I can do it myself. That, to me, is the secret.

It's funny, we just did a workshop recently. I was showing people my ... I also put this post up on our blog, I shared my calendar with everybody. It's pretty much empty. There's nothing on it. People couldn't believe that, but what was interesting was what I learned at this workshop that we gave. 

This is my own naivety and ignorance, basically, but in corporate America, nobody owns their own calendar. Everyone's calendars are visible to everybody else. You can basically request time from other people's calendars and then it sends them an invite. Basically, you almost always say yes, very few people say no. 

We're all able to pick away at each other's time all day long. To me, that is completely insane. I can't even imagine working in a situation like that, yet that's how most people work. At Basecamp, no one can see anybody's calendar and nobody can demand any time from anybody else. You have to give your time versus allowing someone else to take your time. That's a very fundamentally different way of working. 

Carl Smith:
I'm curious, have you had people use Calendly with you?

Jason Fried:

Carl Smith:
Okay. I don't know what it is about that. I apologize to anybody I know that works there, or knows them. I'm sure they're very nice people. That app is one of the rudest things to me, because it has this "Okay, I'm busy. You come here and find a time where I'll be able to meet with you later" kind of a feel.

There's another one called Mixmax, where you actually ... When you email somebody, you can say, "Hey, these are some times I have available", so they just click it, which feels a lot more comfortable.

It's the same thing. I think it's what you're saying. With Calendly, it feels like I have to say yes and give up some of my time, whereas with Mixmax, it's almost like I'm saying, "Hey, you know what? Here's some times I have. I'll give them to you."

Jason Fried:
Right. Oh, I see. Yeah, it's a different way of looking at that. I just think that time ... If people thought of time ... Here's the thing. 

Businesses love to protect things. They protect intellectual property. They have lawyers and trademarks and copyrights, and they're very aggressive about that. 

They protect their money. People have budgets. They have CFO's. There's limits on spending and all these things. 

They're very good at protecting secrets. There's NDA's and whatnot. 

Yet, they don't protect their employees' time. They spend and allow people to take time as if it's free and unlimited. In fact, it is the most limited thing that we all have. Even more limited than time is attention, which is a subset of time.

It's as if we can all dip into each other's bank accounts and start pulling money out of each other's accounts. No one would think that would be normal anywhere, but that's how time works at most companies. That, to me, is a recipe for basically what we've been talking about, which is feeling busy all the time, but not actually feeling like you're making any progress.

Carl Smith:
I saw John Lennon. He was being interviewed by Dick Cavett. This obviously was in the 70's. Dick Cavett asked John Lennon how much time he spent reading critics' reviews of things that he did and stuff like that. He said he generally didn't. Sometimes stuff would come across his desk, or whatever, but he didn't really pay much attention to it.

Dick Cavett asked him why. Lennon said, "You know, when I'm deciding what I'm going to do every day, I ask myself, 'Will this matter when I'm dead?' If whatever it is doesn't matter, if it's not going to make any kind of a change in the world when I'm gone, then I generally just don't do it."

Jason Fried:
That's a guy who had some pretty good priorities, probably, with his time.

Carl Smith:
Yeah, for sure.

Jason Fried:
Granted, I'm sure there were days he had to sit in a meeting with the record label about a cover. Sometimes you have to do some of those things. Of course, that's a given. That's just life, at some level. 

The rest of the time you've really got to protect. You've really, really, really got to protect it like it's a limited resource. It is a limited resource. That's how I work. I protect my time. That's how we're set up at our company, is to protect everybody's time and look for the things that take people's time away and get rid of those things.

Turning everything into real time conversations that don't need to be real time. That's very distracting. Office environments where everyone's talking out loud and there's a lot of physical distraction, we eliminate that kind of stuff. 

We don't have meetings at our company. We don't have any scheduled meetings. We cut those things out and people have basically the whole day to themselves to work with their team, or themselves, or however they want. They coordinate that themselves. They're in control of it.

Carl Smith:
When you're working with everyone, everything's just completely passive.

Jason Fried:
No, not completely, but mostly.

The way we work is, in Basecamp 3, you can chat, you can instant message and you can also post messages and post comments on anything. 

Basically, the way we think about it is this. You use chat for things that don't matter, meaning that if someone else doesn't see it, it doesn't matter.

Carl Smith:

Jason Fried:
It's like your thing you just said, if you go home, it's not going to matter, kind of like today.

You might ask a random question in there. You might ask someone if they know where something is in there. You don't really care who sees it. You don't really care who gives you the answer, as long as you get something. That's fine for chat. 

But, anything that's important, anything that needs to be discussed or debated, anything that needs to be considered, anything that other people absolutely need to see, you post a message or you post a comment in a ... 

These are basically asynchronous methods of communication, where people are given a notification, but the expectation is not immediate reply. The expectation is, "At some point, I need you to get it back to me, but I need to know that you've seen this."

We do a lot of conversations. Sometimes, they take two or three days. Some people might go, "Well, why not just do it right now, it would take ten minutes?" Well, because, you can say that about everything.

If you say that about everything, you're constantly chatting all day, helping each other. No one has any time to do anything else. Unless something is a real crisis, or emergency, or absolutely needs to be handled right now, most of those things happen asynchronously.

However, one on one communication, we do a lot of that in real time. Like instant messaging with Basecamp, or whatever. In Basecamp they're called pings. 

That's okay. It's more about, the problem is when you get groups involved, because when you say one thing and seven people hear it and are expected to respond immediately, you've created an enormous splash. You got a lot of people wet, basically. Did you need to, is the question. 

That's how we think about things like that.

Carl Smith:
Then you've taken that time away from the multiplier. That's what you're saying with the splash, right? It's like, you've pulled people out of their focus. It may not even impact them, but it's totally taken that away from them.

Jason Fried:
Yeah, and the biggest problem with the chat style communication there is that, whatever tool you use, it doesn't even matter. What you'll have is you'll have a room name, or a channel name in a general sense, might be the name of a project, or it might be programmers, or whatever it is.

There's an unread indicator next to it and either is a dot or a number. Here's the thing, that tells you nothing. If it says 23 next to some room or channel, right-

Carl Smith:

Jason Fried:
What does that mean? It means there's 23 lines that you haven't seen. It doesn't mean these are important. It doesn't mean you need to read them. What is basically means is, "Hey, you. Stop what you're doing. Read everything that you missed to find out if anything was worth reading at all." 

That is bankrupt, in my opinion. The fact that ... You don't even know if it's worth seeing and the only way to find out is to read it all to decide if it was worth reading at all? 

If you think about, if you say one thing and seven people, their notification counters go up and there's no context around the conversation, you really are creating big splashes and getting people wet all day long. People are talking more and more and more.

There's this feeling that the more you communicate, the better you're collaborating. I don't believe that to be true, either. I think there's an epidemic of over-communication, and over-collaboration, and everything being escalated to right now, that's causing people a lot of anxiety and problems. 

I think that this is at the root of a lot of the things we're dealing with right now.

Carl Smith:
This is interesting. I'm curious, with you saying that. What's your take on the concept of agile teams where the teams are all working together? Is that collaboration too much or is does it depend on the way that they execute?

Jason Fried:
I think it depends on a few things. The size of a team, I think, is important. 

For example, our teams are never really bigger than three, no matter what we're working on. We try and break the problem down to a size that three people can handle it, or two.

The reason that's important, we found, is that three people, or two people, it's very easy to communicate with two or three people. There's not a lot of wasted communication. There's not a lot of additional management required. There's not a lot of rehashing and going over things with people who weren't there.

Sometimes, if you're on a team of six or seven, only four are available. Four do something, then you have to rehash it to the other three that weren't there.

I think team size is a big factor here. When you keep teams really small, then they can work pretty tightly together. Everyone's pretty much on the same page, automatically. You don't really have to do much to keep people on the same page when there's only two or three people working together.

It's only when the teams get bigger, or when you're cross departments and you've got a lot of different people interfacing about something, where everything gets really hard. Then people feel like there needs to be a lot more communication, but that causes its own problems and its own waves and ripples.

I think keeping the teams as small as you possibly can. The discipline then is to break down the work into nuggets that can be attacked by teams of two or three, versus trying to take on big, hairy problems and go, "Oh, my god, this is so big. We need 12 people to do it."

You go, "No, no, there's actually maybe five or six separate projects here, if we break them down into small pieces, that we can do incrementally, one at a time, and make progress one at a time with teams of three or maybe have two teams of three working on two things at once. But not 12 people trying to work on 12 things at once." 

That's kind of the-

Carl Smith:
Definitely. I think it's also easier for us, mentally, to grasp those few things than the monster, right?

Jason Fried:

Carl Smith:
Mark Hurst ... The first to-do app I ever used was Good Todo, which was Goo Todo at the time, because he couldn't afford the web address Good Todo.

Jason Fried:
I remember that. Yep.

Carl Smith:
I loved it because I was email based and I could forward things to the future, based on days. I could make sure I only had so many things during the day.

Now, I have a to-don't list. Every morning, I get up and I say, "These are the dangers of the day for me. I need to make sure I don't do these things." It seems to free me up.

Jason Fried:
Let me actually share one other quick thing about that, which is cool. When I tell people this, they're often surprised by it, maybe, so it's a good thing to share. 

If I don't get something done the previous day, it does not automatically become something I look at the next day. I always start my days with nothing to do, basically. Rather than continue to roll things over ... 

If you keep rolling things over, you're basically always behind. You're always trying to climb this hill that you've created for yourself previously. Very rarely, do you reconsider those things. You're like, "Well, I just didn't get it done, so I need to do it."

I tend to basically start my days fresh. If something was really important, I'll know I have to do it anyway. It will come back into my frame of reference, and frame of view, for the day. I don't roll things over.

I think when you wake up in the morning, if you already have this daunting list of things you didn't do yesterday, you're actually going to feel frazzled and behind. That's a bad way to start the day. 

That's a little ... I mean, it's not really a trick, it's just I kind of ignore stuff that I didn't finish, unless you think I have to get it done.

Carl Smith:
I think that's great. Also, I've had, in my own experience where, if I delayed something three or four times, I just try to remove it. Or I wasn't ready to work on it yet. There was something I had to figure out. 

A great example, in the physical world, of what you just described, again, at this agency I worked at, my boss one day came back from vacation. She had been gone for two weeks and her inbox was ridiculous. Just all this stuff. She picked it up and just put it in the trash.

I said, "What was that?"

She goes, "The important stuff will come back. It always does."

Jason Fried:
Totally true.

Carl Smith:
I tell people, it's like, "When you go on vacation, either turn off your email server, or automatically have everything go into a folder to delete, because you're not going to go through those 500 emails and do anything of value.

Jason Fried:

Just last week I did that. I do this, every once in a while, where I just basically declare email bankruptcy and I archive everything.

Look, yeah, in some ways, it's irresponsible because there's probably things in there I needed to do, but I wasn't going to do them anyway, clearly. Otherwise, I would have.

At some point, I am putting some of the burden on someone else to get back to me on something I owed them. I recognize that that's imperfect and unfair at some level, but you also have to, at some point, recognize that it's not better the other way either, which is lying to yourself that you're going to ever get back to that thing from four weeks ago that you didn't finish. 

Now you've got 120 things in your inbox. You're not going to do it anyway, so don't make yourself feel better. The way to make yourself feel better is to be honest about it and to go back to zero and reset. That's the best way I've found to deal with something like that. 

Carl Smith:
I totally agree.

We're running out of time for the show, but I did want to ask you, you say you've got a two year old now. I know you've said in the past that you don't ... I think you might have put this in a Medium post, that you don't really have goals. You don't think that way. 

I'm curious, do you ever have a vision of where you want to end up? You've got a family now and things are moving forward. I'm just curious, how do you see the future?

Jason Fried:
It's weird, I don't think that way, really. I mean, I want my kid to be happy and healthy and do whatever he wants to do. All the stuff parents want for their kids. I want all of that, but I don't really think too much about it. Mostly because there's very little I can really control.

The future is ... It's unknown. It's vast. It's hard to control things that are unknown and vast.  Generally, in any world.

What I can basically do is, I can control today and how I'm feeling, and my expectations and my responses to things I have to deal with. Maybe I can think about a few days out. I have a declining sense of specificity or accuracy about anything beyond a few days or a few weeks anyway, because I don't find that it's worth putting that much energy into that.

I'd rather put the energy into today, into the next few days. Business wise, I want to stay in business. That's what I want. I want to stay in business and continue to enjoy what I do, work with great people, do things our way. 

That could take a million different forms. It's more about, I should say, the principles that matter to me, more so than the specifics of how something might look one day.

I didn't know, really quickly, when I first started this software stuff, I was in high school, I think. I made this music organizer for myself. This is before the internet. I put this up on AOL, some people downloaded it and paid me $20 for it. I go, "Oh, my god, I can make money making this stuff that I like."

That turned into me getting into graphic design, which turned into me going to school and doing some stuff on the side. I started doing some website design in college because the internet just started hitting. I took a job with a guy in San Diego and worked there for a while. I quit after four months, realizing I don't like to work for other people. I moved back to Chicago and started working on my own, doing freelance work. I picked up some contracts. I picked up some stuff. I realized I didn't want to work just on my own, so I hired somebody.

Everything's just a layer. Everything layers up. I feel like today, Basecamp, the company I'm running with 50 people and 120,000 paying companies, who pay for Basecamp, and this thing, is the same exact company that I started when I was 16, selling music software to 50 people on AOL for 20 bucks a pop.

It's just one long continuum. It's not a series of changes. That's just how I look at things. Everything leads to something else and all I can control is how I'm feeling about those things and my expectations of those things.

Things unfold and you deal. That's how I've always been. I don't know if it's the right way to be, it's just how it works for me.

Carl Smith:
Jason, I have to say thank you for that, because, seriously, that feels so much better than trying to set goals with metrics and all of this type of stuff and feel like you got close or you didn't. Instead, looking at it, saying, "Where am I in position to succeed today? Let's move forward towards that."

And, at the end, say, "Did I move closer to a state that I really, really like?"

That feels so much better to me.

Jason Fried:
Yeah. Can I actually add one more quick thing about that, too?

Carl Smith:

Jason Fried:
This is a interesting little anecdote. We're working on this new book and one of the things we're ... This book's called "The Calm Company" and it's all about how to be calm. We're pushing really hard against "it's crazy at work" and busy-ness and busy-ness, right?

We're writing this series of initial chapters called "Diagnosis", which is all the things that crazy companies do. 

One of them is, they have this thing, which we actually almost mistakenly got into, which is BHAGs. Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Carl Smith:
Oh man, I set one this year. I set one this year.

Jason Fried:
Right, so I think a lot of people set these Big Hairy Audacious Goals. We had done this too, about a year ago. I actually think this is maybe one of the worst things you can do. This is my current opinion. 

Basically, it's artificial. Let's just face it. The goal is essentially artificial. You make it up. 

You're like, "By the end of the year, or whatever, we should have ... " I'm making this up now. "We should have, you know ... Today, we have 10 clients. We want to have 20 clients by the end of the year. We want to do five million this year, instead of 3 million last year."

We set these goal posts that are totally arbitrary, then you bust your ass to get there. You don't know if it's actually going to make you happy. What it does is, it stresses the hell out of you, if you don't get there and if you're not getting there. It's like, why do we do this to ourselves? What's the point of this?

We had set one a few years ago. Last year, actually, I think it was. Halfway through, we're like, "Why did we even set this? 

Then you're like, "Well, you're supposed to, I guess. Right? You're supposed ... " Who said that? 

Anyway, we're pushing hard against goals, basically. Big Hairy Audacious Goals. It's okay to have like, "We want to get this project done in four weeks." That's fine. That's reasonable. But, these big, hairy numbers, or growth targets, or whatever, they're all fake. 

They're all fake, unless there's some true absolute requirement for you to really hit those things, for whatever reason. Like if you have a bank loan and you need to whatever or it's going to be recalled. I get that. That's a different story, but most of these things are fake.

To work your ass off toward something fake, that's a recipe for crazy. 

So, anyway, yeah.

Carl Smith:
No, I think that's great. Although, speaking of crazy, I think Tim Ferriss is a bit crazy, but I will say that the one thing about Tim Ferriss, to me, was this concept that, "Why are you wasting all this time now for something in the future, when you can just have the time now?"

Jason Fried:
It's deferred living. Yeah, I think that's the one thing I take away from him the most, which is, this notion, deferred living, is crazy, because who knows, man? You might be dead in a year. 

Carl Smith:

Jason Fried:
Who knows, right? Who knows anything? 

Yeah, I'm on board with that thinking for sure. 

Carl Smith:
Thank you so much for being on The Bureau Briefing today, Jason. This was awesome. Seriously, it was something I need today. You've woken me up inside to realize I was starting to fall into the artificial trappings of trying to be successful, so thank you for breaking me out of that.

Jason Fried:
You bet, Carl. It's always fun to break people out of that, because I have to do it myself, from time to time, also. We all fall into the trap.

Carl Smith:
Everybody listening, thank you so much. We'll be back next week. Until then, be good, and hey, don't worry about the BHAGs, just have a good day.

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