Book Review: It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work

I use Ruby on Rails at work and I follow DHH (one of the book’s coauthors) on Twitter, so I was already aware of Basecamp’s philosophy when it comes to the workplace. However, most of my understanding of that philosophy was picked up in bits and pieces of Tweets. My intention with picking up It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work was to gain a deeper understanding of the perspective that drives Jason Fried and DHH’s relentless aggression against the typical ethos of the tech industry, specifically long hours at work, constant communication, and permeation of the truism that success means you just worked harder than everyone else.

Jason and DHH have really given teeth to their argument by building a successful company founded on the principles discussed in the book. Sure, Basecamp is a subscription software company and the type of work required probably lends itself a bit more leniency when it comes to work/life balance and eschewing traditional office settings. However, that doesn’t prevent other, more traditional workplaces from adopting the basic mindset employed by Jason and DHH: we can set proper boundaries between work and life, we can be more respectful of both our own time and the time of others, and we can still achieve satisfaction and success without sacrificing everything.

This book was halfway between a preachy feel-good business book and a technical manual. Each chapter was short, with the longest only a few pages, and each paragraph a small chunk of information that could exist independent of the chapter’s context. It felt like DHH and Jason wrote down two hundred or so small axioms and then categorized them into small, digestible chapters. This format was in that it lowered the barrier of entry to employ some of these tactics; there was no grand master plan that needed to be put into motion or no requirement to institute an overarching change of course. Rather, step-by-step, point-by-point, small-decision-by-small-decision, the reader could begin to adopt these practices in their daily work. There were of course some company-level thoughts, but an employee with any effect on his or her company culture could take the pragmatic examples explained in this book and apply them.

Ultimately, this book is all about creating quality time for work to get done, separating work and life, and being respectful of people and their time. That’s something I can certainly buy into.

My notes while reading this book:

Curb Your Ambition

  • Your Company is a Product
    • You iterate
    • There a bugs
    • Work toward improving
  • Bury the Hustle
    • You aren’t more worthy in your defeat or victory because you sacrificed everything
  • No goals
    • Goals are artificial targets
    • Every quarter there are new goals - there is no end
    • Goals can encourage companies to compromise their morals
  • Comfy’s cool
    • Discomfort is the human response to a questionable or bad situation
    • Constant residence outside of our comfort zone numbs our ability to be ourselves

Defend Your Time

  • 8’s Enough, 40’s plenty
    • Our days are long but feel like they go by fast because they’re sliced up into a dozen smaller bits
    • We reduce our day to just a couple of hours because of meetings, conference calls, and other distractions
  • Protectionism
    • Time and attention are best spent in “large bills” not spare coins and small change
    • Partial attention is barely any attention at all
    • We work weekends and nights because it’s the only uninterrupted time
  • The quality of an hour
    • Great chapter
    • It’s hard to be effective with fractured hours, but it’s easy to be stressed out
    • And between all those context switches and attempts at multitasking, you have to add buffer time
    • Look At your hours. If they’re a bunch of fractions, who or what is doing the division?
  • The outwork myth
    • 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 days 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 doesn’t happen at work
    • Ever notice how much work you get done on a plane or a train? It’s in these moments-the moments far away from work, way outside the office-when it is the easiest to get work done. Interruption/free zones.
  • Calendar Tetris
    • Shared work calendars allows anyone to reach into your time and plant their flag. It’s optimized to be filled in by anyone who simply feels like it

Feed Your Culture

  • We’re not family
    • The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families
  • They’ll do as you do
    • Bosses need to set examples for culture, such as sticking to reasonable working hours
    • Workaholism is a contagious disease
  • The trust battery
    • The trust battery is a summary of all interactions to date. A 10% charge equals a 90% chance an interaction will go south
    • The worst thing you can do is pretend that interpersonal feelings don’t matter. That work should “just be about work”. That’s just ignorant. Humans are humans whether they’re at work or at home
  • Don’t be the last to know
    • A boss needs to hear where they and the organization are falling short
    • No “what can we do even better?”, but hard ones like “What’s something nobody dares to talk about?” Or “Are you afraid of anything at work?”
    • Questions like “what advice would you give before we start on the big website redesign project?”
    • You’ll never get the whole story, but if you build trust you’ll get more and more
    • The higher you go in an organization, the less you’ll know what it’s really like
  • The owners word weighs a ton
    • An owner unknowingly scattering people’s attention is a common cause of the question “whys everyone work so much but nothing’s getting done?”
    • It takes great restraint as the leader of an organization not to keep lobbing ideas at everyone else
  • Don’t negotiate salaries
    • Pay everyone at each role and level the same
    • Just make people comfortable. It leads to stability of the team which is leads to better outcomes
  • Library rules
    • For open offices, try to have “library rules” for certain days
  • Calm Goodbyes
    • Explain the reasoning when people leave
    • A dismissal opens a vacuum, which will be filled with rumors and anxiety if you don’t fill it

Dissect Your Process

  • The New Normal & Bad habits beat good intentions
    • You can’t push habit change to later - start the habits you want to eventually form now
    • Small changes can cascade into the new normal quick. Culture is what you do
  • Commitment, not consensus
    • Someone in charge has to make the final call. Even if others would prefer a different decision. People can disagree, but commit.
    • Companies waste an enormous amount of time and energy trying to convince everyone to agree before moving forward on something. Instead, they should allow everyone to be heard and then turn the decision over to one person to make the final call.
    • The final decision should be explained clearly to everyone involved
  • Narrow as you go
    • Work required to finish a project should be dwindling over time, not expanding
    • Always keeping the door open to radical changes only invites chaos and second-guessing
    • Accept that better ideas aren’t necessarily better if they arrive after the train has left the station
  • Worst practices
    • Best practices imply that there’s a single answer to whatever question you’re facing
    • Every beat practice should come with a reminder to reconsider
  • Three’s company
    • Teams of three are perfect. More than that, communication goes down and management goes up
    • There’s a wedge, a sharp point - a decision can be made
  • Stick with it
    • Don’t pull people off of projects
    • Give ideas a little time to settle before enacting them to ensure they’re right

Mind Your Business

  • Promise not to promise
    • Promises pile up like debt, and they accrue interest too
    • Even it’s time to do the work, you realize just how expensive that yes really was
  • Startups are easy, startups are hard
    • The easiest day is day one
    • Hiring people and managing personalities
    • When launching, you were all offense. Now you have to worry about playing defense too
    • Costs balloon as you grow
    • Day one, every startup is in business. Day one thousand, only a fraction remain standing

“A calm company is a choice”