Lessons Learnt

Workaholics Aren’t Heroes: Following Jason Fried’s Work-Life Balance Blueprint

It shouldn’t be a surprise to Balance the Grind readers that I’m covering Jason Fried in the latest addition to the Lesson Learnt series.

I’ve been a big fan of what Jason, David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) and the Basecamp team are doing when it comes to creating a calm company culture and advocating for healthy work-life balance.

We have all their books on the essential readings shelf, including the remote work manifesto REMOTE: Office Not Required, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, and their latest one Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters (authored by Ryan Singer, Head of Product Strategy at Basecamp).

There are countless principles that I’ve learned from Basecamp that I’ve tried to apply to my own work, life and balance, such as: prioritising deep work and less hours, embracing constraints, more asynchronous communication, writing better, and more.

Lessons Learnt is a series by Balance the Grind profiling individuals, brands or companies that inspire us. For more profiles, check them out here.

Lesson 1: Contraints can help focus and boost creativity

Back when Basecamp was still a web design agency called 37signals and the team was building the first version of the product, DHH was the sole programmer on the project, spending only 10-15 hours a week working on it.

This was also in between while juggling agency work for 37signals as well as creating the web-application framework, Ruby on Rails (which is now running on some of the largest sites in the world: Airbnb, GitHub, Shopify, Hulu).

There have been plenty of times when I’ve wanted a bigger budget or more time on a particular project, but after reading REWORK, I’ve learnt to embrace the constraints and make the most of what I had. More resources and time usually resulted in delays, overthinking and analysis paralysis, at least in my experience anyway.

Having constraints on your work can have the benefit of boosting your creativity and productivity. It forces you to focus and crystallise your goals.

Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application | Basecamp

Lesson 2: Bootstrap & learn how to make money

If you’re familiar with Jason Fried or DHH, you’ll know how much they’ve spoken out against venture capital funding. In 2019, Jason famously told Recode’s Kara Swisher: “Venture capital money kills more businesses than it helps.”

Jason’s view basically boils down to: raise lots of money, and you’ll get really good at spending it. On the other hand, bootstrap your business and you’re quickly forced to learn how to make money. And get good at making it too.

Basecamp aren’t interested in billion dollar valuation, unicorn status and endless rounds of VC funding. Instead, they’re focused on developing great products for customers, growing the company at a steady, sustainable pace, and making profitable revenue.

In fact, in Jason’s view, it’s all about profit.

Profit is the ultimate flexibility because it buys you the ultimate luxury: time. As long as you remain profitable, you can go in any direction you want and take as much time as you need.”

Lesson 3: Writing clearly is the number one skill

When recruiting for new team members, if Basecamp are trying to decide among a few candidates for a role, they’d typically hire the best writer out of the group.

As a remote company, Basecamp’s main form of communication revolves around asynchronous communication and long-form writing so being a good writer is an absolute must. It’s no wonder that Jason puts much more emphasis on the candidate’s cover letter than the resume.

“If you can’t make your points clear and concisely – if you can’t go into detail in a way that doesn’t spark more questions than you’re answering, then you’re just not going to work out well here,” Jason said on a Work and Life podcast episode with Stew Friedman.

After spending years of trying to un-do bad academic habits I picked up in high school and university, I’ve been more focused on continuing to sharpen my writing skills. Clear and concise is the goal, and that means practice. A lot more practice.

Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. great writers know how to communicate. they make things easy to understand. they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. they know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate. Writing is making a comeback all over our society. Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.

David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried | REwork

Lesson 4: Long hours don’t equal strong work ethic

The biggest lessons that I’ve learnt from people like Jason Fried, DHH, Andrew Wilkinson, and plenty others is that long hours in the office don’t equal a good work ethic.

Over the part 20 years, the Basecamp founders have built a calm company culture by focusing on 40-hour workweeks, asynchronous communication, remote work and meetings as a last resort.

As a result, their employees are productive and create good work within those 40 hours per week, instead of having their time stretched due to unnecessary conference calls, meetings that should have been emails, and constant interruptions. 40 hours of uninterrupted, deep work is undoubtedly more fruitful than 50-60 hours of 15 minute chunks of your own time.

Coming from a PR agency background, all I knew in the early days were long hours, regularly doing 8am to 6pm in the office, and checking emails out of work. While I look back on those days with fondness and appreciation as a learning experience, there’s no doubt I would have been way more productive and efficient if I had scaled back my hours and focused on priorities.

These days, it’s all about turning off notifications when I can, finding time for deep, uninterrupted work, and focusing on what’s important It’s amazing how much this has added to my productivity and enabled me to accomplish more projects.

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.


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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.