In today’s always-on, always-connected world, it’s hard to resist the temptation to constantly grind — if you don’t, how are you ever going to meet the goals you’ve laid out for yourself? But if you ask Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp and author of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, that pursuit is all in vain.
“The reason I don’t set goals is because they’re mostly artificial. You either hit the goal and you’re happy, or you don’t hit it and you’re upset. And if you hit it, then you just set up another one,” Fried shares in the latest episode of Glassdoor’s podcast, IN PURSUIT. “I think the key is to just do the best you can, and you shouldn’t need a goal to do that. Hopefully, you’re going to do the best you can anyway.”
While it might sound counterproductive, freeing himself of artificial goals has helped Fried focus on what’s important and prioritize his time accordingly. As a result, he’s achieved something that most CEOs can only dream of: balance. Despite leading a successful web application development company of about 50 employees, Fried works eight hours a day, sleeps eight hours a night and still has time for his family — and his hobby of restoring prairie lands.
Read on below for highlights of Fried’s conversation with IN PURSUIT host and Glassdoor Editorial Director Amy Elisa Jackson, and download the episode to hear more!
Amy Elisa Jackson: When you think about your career, what has surprised you the most?
Jason Fried: Probably that I look at it as a continuation. I feel like I’ve had one job since I was 14 — I don’t look at the things I’ve done as separate. They happened at separate times and with separate people, but it’s always been the same thing for me, which is just trying to do the best work I can and trying to be fair to the people that I work with.
Amy Elisa Jackson: So, if careers aren’t this linear thing, what’s been your best detour?
Jason Fried: It was probably when I decided to start this business that I run now called Basecamp back in 1999. Before that, I had other jobs and I worked on my own as a freelancer. Then I hooked up with two other people in ’99 to start this business. It was the first time I’d ever had partners in a business — everything else had just been myself. That was the moment when I feel like I was able to do more than I could on my own, and that led to where we are today.
Amy Elisa Jackson: One of the things that I appreciate in your books and your podcast is your outlook on saying “no” and ruthlessly prioritizing. You say you don’t set goals — if that’s the case, how are you making decisions in your day-to-day life?
Jason Fried: The reason I don’t set goals is because they’re mostly artificial. You either hit the goal and you’re happy, or you don’t hit it and you’re upset. And if you hit it, then you just set up another one. It’s like, what’s the point? I think the key is to just do the best you can, and you shouldn’t need a goal to do that. Hopefully, you’re going to do the best you can anyway.
I used to jog a lot more than I do today. But when I used to jog, I remember there were some times when I wanted to hit a certain time, like, “I want to run a six-minute mile.” And you go out and you run, and you end up running a 6:07 or something. I remember being upset about that, because I didn’t get the six-minute mile that I was going for. But that’s the wrong question to ask. The right question is, “Did I enjoy the run? Did I get some fresh air? Do I feel like I exercised?” When it comes to work, it’s very similar. It’s not about “Did we hit this target?” or “Did we have X number of people sign up?” Those are just made-up numbers. It’s really about “Did we enjoy the process? Would I want to do it again this way? Was it creatively challenging? Was it fun? Did I like the people I worked with? Did I like the decisions we were making along the way? Did we learn something?” It’s more about the process and the outcome than it is about hitting targets — that’s why I don’t like setting goals.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What was the moment you learned to harness the power of “no” — when you really came to understand that you can’t do everything?
Jason Fried: I think it wasn’t really a moment. It was more of a culmination of many, many moments, primarily because what I found is the more often I said “yes,” the more often I regretted the decision down the road. It’s really easy to say “yes” to something, especially when it’s later on, because it doesn’t cost you anything right now. You think, “Yeah, I’ll do that,” and then you get around to doing it and you think, “Oh, I wish I didn’t say yes to that. I’ve got another idea now that I want to do instead. But now I can’t, because I’ve committed to that.” It’s that feeling of, “yes, later” — that’s really the dangerous version of “yes.” And I think just realizing that over and over made me recognize that “no” frees you up. You end up having more flexibility and more independence when you say “no” more frequently.
It’s hard to do, and I’m still working on it. There are certain things I still say “yes” to that I wish I didn’t, or there are opportunities that I take on where I think, “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.” But that’s fine. I’m not perfect and I’m not going to be perfect at this. It’s just a matter of being more on the side of right than not over time.
If you’re walking down the street and you trip, you don’t start back from the beginning of the street — you just keep going.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I love that. I’m trying to learn how to say “no” to more in my life, not just personally but also professionally. How have you shifted the notion at Basecamp that it’s not a bad thing to say “no”?
Jason Fried: At Basecamp, everyone is pretty dedicated to the work that they’re doing and they’re not often pulled away from it by other events. In a lot of office settings, people are constantly being pulled off their work to do something else — they’re told to do this project, but then there’s some other thing that comes up. Then it becomes this culture of “yes” all the time because you’re changing all the time. We’re pretty focused for about six weeks at a time on the project that we need to do. And during that time, unless there’s an emergency, you’re focused on that work and you’re expected to say “no” to everything else.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What part of your personal life has most impacted your professional life?
Jason Fried: Over the last five years, I’ve had two kids: one four and a half, and one 10 months. That’s been the biggest impact because it forced me to remember how much time I have at work, how much time I need to stay away from work, how important sleep is and all these other things that come up in life when you have other real, serious responsibilities. I think it made me a better manager of my own time and someone who’s more protective of time away from work, and also time at night to sleep.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I read Arianna Huffington’s book, which is all about the sleep revolution, but that’s juxtaposed with hustle culture. How do you balance those two popular trends right now?
Jason Fried: Yeah, I’m not a fan at all of the hustle and grind culture. I think it sends a terrible message and forms the wrong habits. It’s unsustainable over the long-term. A big part of that is because people are busier than they’ve ever been, but they’re not getting more work done. We’re more distracted these days. For me, my workday is eight hours — that’s it. I don’t need to work longer than that because I have a full eight hours essentially to myself every day to do the work I need to do, and that’s plenty of time.
We wrote about this in our book, but I had this experience recently where my family went over to Amsterdam for three weeks and we were flying there from Chicago direct. The flight’s about eight hours. You’re on this plane and you look at your watch and you think, “We’re probably close to being there, right?” And then you see, “Oh no, it’s only been four hours.” You realize eight hours is an incredibly long amount of time. It’s plenty of time to do a great amount of work well and then stop. So, this idea that you have to hustle and work 10, 12, 14 hour days, I don’t understand it. First of all, you can’t do it well. There are diminishing returns after about eight hours anyway, and you’re probably also not sleeping very well, so you’re in this manic mode of denial where you think you’re kicking ass, but you’re absolutely not.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How can people detox from the hustle culture? I feel like it’s almost a drug.
Jason Fried: Yeah, it is a drug. It is addictive, which is why so many people do it and keep doing it. I think a good thing is to keep extremely good track of the time you’re putting into things every week, and then look back on that the following week and go, “Were those good days?” My guess is that you’re going to find that you’re bouncing around between all sorts of things all day long, meetings and phone calls and meetings and phone calls and 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there. I think sometimes you have to step back, because if you’re just in the zone and doing it all the time, you don’t really realize how messy it probably is. I think what you’ll see is that your time is a mess, and then you can start to figure out how to group these things. Maybe if I have a bunch of phone calls, let me do them in succession over two hours in the morning so I’m not doing them 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there.
The other thing I would do is encourage you to take some vacations and get the hell away from work for a while. If you find yourself unable to leave work, you’ve got a problem. It’s a little bit different if you’re working on your own and only on your own. Then if you’re away, your business shuts down. But that’s probably healthy for 10 days or two weeks here and there. I would encourage people to get a little bit of perspective and get away from work. And then when you come back, you might see things a little bit differently. If you’re hustling all the time, you feel like the world’s going to end if I leave. But that’s a little bit too self-important — things are going to be just fine without you, typically.
We have this tendency to judge past decisions based on what we know now, but that’s not when they were made.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s easy to say as a CEO, but is it feasible for the average person who clocks in and clocks out to ascribe to some of these anti-hustle life theories?
Jason Fried: We can only do what our environment allows us to do. If I was an employee somewhere and it was hustle, hustle, hustle, it’d be very hard. But the thing is, like you said, I’m the CEO of this company. There are lots of CEOs at lots of companies who are technically more successful than us that are working 90-, 100- and 120-hour weeks. So, it’s not about reaching a point where you can do this — it’s about making a decision to do this. Now, to your point about people who don’t have control over the way or the place they work, I think what’s important is just recognizing what you are in control of. So, for example, if you don’t like being interrupted all day long by your coworkers, then maybe you shouldn’t interrupt them. Maybe you can control that. Maybe next time you have a question, you look it up yourself versus trying to ask someone for that answer. Be the change you wish to see and have a little bit of influence. You’ve just got to figure out what influence you have and what you can control and do the best you can. Of course, it’s unfair of me to suggest that somebody who doesn’t have control over the way a company works try to change that company. It’s probably not going to happen, but you might be able to change yourself, change a single coworker, change a small team that you’re on. That’s the kind of change you should start with, and then see where that goes from there.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What has been one of your biggest career mistakes?
Jason Fried: This is going to sound not true, but I don’t have any, in that I just don’t think that way. Certainly, there are things we’ve done that we could’ve done better, but I just don’t ever feel like I should walk anything back in terms of what decisions we’ve made at work. And hey, look, we’re doing pretty good right now. So whatever happened before was actually okay.
A number of years ago, I was in this shop with a person who collected Navajo rugs. These rugs are very geometric, so the patterns are rectangles and triangles and squiggles — they’re very pattern-based. And you could spot these errors in the pattern here and there. I asked the collector, “Why is that error in here? Why didn’t they fix that?” And his take was that they didn’t actually see it as a mistake that needed to be corrected. It was just something that happened and they just kept going. It’s kind of like if you’re walking down the street and you trip, you don’t start back from the beginning of the street — you just keep going.
Amy Elisa Jackson: In American culture, there’s this idea that a mistake is the end of the world and that everyone is going to see it and judge you for it. But maybe the mistake either was supposed to happen, or wasn’t really a mistake.
Jason Fried: A lot of decisions are based on the best information you have at the time. And maybe if you look back on it, you go, “Oh, that wasn’t a great decision.” But perhaps it was a great decision, or the only realistic decision, given what you knew at the time. We have this tendency to judge past decisions based on what we know now, but that’s not when they were made. And further, a mistake to me is just a moment in time and you can’t go back in time. So, what are you going to do? Just ruminate over this bad decision your whole life? It’s a moment in time, so move on and make better ones moving forward. That’s how I try to look at it.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Jason, as we wrap up, tell me — when have you felt most in control of your career?
Jason Fried: It was actually earlier in my career when it was just me — when I was just freelancing and I wasn’t responsible for other people’s mortgages. I wasn’t responsible for other people’s families and putting food on their tables. While it’s very enjoyable to run a company of our size and our influence, there’s a lot of responsibility that goes into it, and the decisions we make affect a lot of people. I’ve always found that the fewer people my decisions affect, the easier they are. The implications are broader and wider and deeper today than they were when it was just me.
That’s not to say that I’m not really pleased with where I am today. I am, and I’m really enjoying it, but there’s just more pressure. The thing about business and work is that it never gets easier. A lot of founders think, “It’s going to get easier. We’re only three people now, but once I hire a hundred people, everything’s going to be easier.” Well, it only gets harder because you have to deal with people and personalities and politics. We’re human beings, and we’re complicated — the more of them around, the more complicated it gets, which is one of the reasons why we want to keep our company as small as we possibly can.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Lastly, Jason, what are you still in pursuit of?
Jason Fried: I don’t feel like I’m in pursuit of anything. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in pursuit of anything. I just want to try to be the best person I can be, do the best job I can do and be the fairest person I can be. Maybe fairness in all respects is something I would say I’m aiming towards, but as far as pursuing and achieving, I’ve never really looked at things that way. It’s similar to the goal discussion. If you’re pursuing something and you get to it, well, then what? Do you have to pick something else? If you don’t, then are you done with life? Why set yourself up for those moments? I’d just rather try to continually do the best I can and see where things go.