What’s the best use of a leader’s time?

I asked this to 1,000 managers, founders and executives from all over the world. Here’s what they said.

Time is the one constant we are all given. No one gets more or less of it than anyone else.

As leaders, it’s how we spend our time — what we choose to prioritize, and what we choose not to do at all — that reveals what’s important to us, and determines our team’s outcomes. If we want to figure out how to be an effective leader in the workplace, we must start with examining how we spend our time.

As a CEO myself, I’ve personally wrestled with this. I’ve had weeks where I’ve had fires to put out, meetings to show up to, business development calls to make, interviews to hold… Before I know it, the week is over, and I’m looking back at it thinking, “What the hell just happened? Where did my week go? Is that really where I wanted to spend my time?”

As a result, I decided to pose this question, “What’s the best use of a leader’s time?” to our online leadership community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, with 1,000 leaders from all over the world. The answers were remarkably consistent.

Based on Watercooler members’ responses, there seemed to be three areas that leaders should focus their time on…

Recruiting + Hiring

Your team’s success hinges on the people you choose to hire. Surely, this is an obvious statement — and yet we forget about our role as a leader to drive these efforts. As a leader, you should be thinking strategically about who you want to contribute to your culture and help get your company to where you want it to be. What kinds of non-negotiable values must they have? What diversity of ideas and backgrounds should they have? Then, you should actively work to attract and recruit those folks to your organization. How are you showing that you run a company worth working for (e.g., your company’s marketing, you speaking at conferences, etc.)? How often do you meet new people outside your network, to connect and passively recruit folks who may be great to work with in the future?

As a leader, you also set the standard for what matters when hiring: the skillset, the values, the experience. You say when it’s time to hire — and when it’s not. Naturally, depending on the size of your company, you may have a hiring team helping you out with this. But regardless, your voice in this process as the leader is essential. It’s too important for you not to be spending your time on it.

Considering your team’s long-term strategy, vision, and culture

Admittedly, focusing on the long-term view of the company is hard to do. Especially, when there seems to be so many immediate needs for the company to take care of…and, when we’re not so sure about the long-term view of things, ourselves! But thinking about the long-term strategy, vision, and culture of the company is critical because, well, no one else is doing it. Literally, it is no one else’s job in the company to be thinking about the long-term, be it six months, a year or two out, or ten years down the road — other than you, as the leader. In particular, considering the long-term vision is paramount, because a company’s vision is where the most fundamental source of motivation for your team is derived. If you’re not spending time designing and adjusting a long-term vision — a picture of a better place — people won’t be motivated to do work to help get the company there.

Communicating the direction to everybody all the time

Communication is the easiest thing for leaders not to do. After all, it’s quite a repeated, draining slog to keep saying the same thing over and over again. Despite this, many members of the Watercooler emphasized that you cannot communicate enough as a leader. Why? You can’t expect your team to know anything unless you communicate it. And, depending on the size of the organization, it usually takes some time for a message to sink in or a for a decision to be thoroughly explained. Knowing what’s going on and where a company is headed is how people do their best work. People can’t perform well without the context and information to do so. If you’re not constantly communicating what people should know, the context isn’t there and people can’t do their job.

These three areas are what our Watercooler members said are the best use of a leader’s time. But how about for you? Do you find yourself spending time in these areas as a leader… or not?

Sharing these three areas prompted even one member of the Watecrooler to reflect and write about how she plans her week. I encourage you to do the same.

Our capacity to improve as leaders expands when we evaluate how we spend our time.


P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Mind the gap

How to spend your time when there’s nothing left to do?

This morning something happened that reminded me of an important lesson re: time well spent.

Three of us are working on an illustration project for our forthcoming book, “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work”. In our previous books, we had an illustration per essay. This time we’re going in a different direction. Rather than an illustration per essay, we’re aiming for ~15 full page spreads spaced evenly throughout the book.

We’re going to be illustrating historical and contemporary figures with work methods that line up with our point of view on work. People who’ve done big important things without pulling all nighters, working crazy hours, or forgoing leisure for the eternal hustle.

Here’s an early example of a spread:

We like the direction, and so does our publisher. We’re going for it. So now we’re off to find interesting subjects to illustrate and feature. It’s research time. That means there’s going to be some design downtime — a gap in the project for the designers.

Now, back to what happened this morning… The designer leading the layout charge offered to continue to explore layout concepts while we look for more subjects to feature. He wanted to tweak the layout on the right, add some more details to fill out the space, etc. We’re happy with it, but could we be even happier with it? The tweak muscle yearns to be flexed!

That’s a perfectly natural reaction. Certainly there’s always room for improvement. And there is always more to explore. Always.

Always is the problem.

The always option is where you turn time well spent into time wasted. That time could be used on other projects that need attention, rather than projects that desire attention. The layout above is perfectly fine — it doesn’t need tweaking now. The designer may desire to tweak, because designers love to design! There’s a tendency to keep pushing the thing you’re on because you’re already in the middle of it. Natural. But it’s on us to inject a sense of enough so we don’t sink good time into something that doesn’t need it. Going from 99% to 100% is expensive. I’d rather we spend that 1% going from 0% nothing to 1% something (or 50% on the fence to 51% conviction) on something else.

So I gently reminded him that we’re all good here. He did great work, the layout looks great, and there’s even a risk of fucking up a good thing (it’s always easier to fuck up a good thing than to fix a bad thing). There’s more to do elsewhere, and his time would be better spent on those things.

He agreed. We’ll come back to the layouts once we have new subjects to illustrate and design. And maybe then we’ll see a different way forward once we have more examples in front of us. Now isn’t the right time to continue to tweak. Let’s wait to see if new ideas pop up via new work that has to be done rather than revisiting what we’ve already done.

Give 40, Take 0

A manager’s job is to protect their team’s time and attention.

Companies love to protect. They protect their brand with trademarks, their data and trade secrets with rules and policies, and their money with budgets, CFOs, and investments.

Companies protect a lot of things, yet many of them are guilty of one glaring omission. Too often, there’s something they leave wide open and vulnerable: their employees’ time.

Companies spend their employees’ time and attention as if there were an infinite supply of both. As if they cost nothing. Yet workers’ time and attention are the most precious resources we have.

Employees are under siege for their time and attention. They are sliced up by an overabundance of meetings, physical distractions in open workspaces, virtual distractions on their phones, and the expectation they’re available to anyone, anytime, for anything that’s needed.

If companies spent money as recklessly as they spend time, they’d be going out of business. And you can bet they’d find a way to put an end to that. But where’s their responsibility when it comes to the clock?

Time and attention are best spent in large blocks — large bills, if you will, not spare coins and small change. Yet what filters down to staff are just scraps of time in which they’re expected to do a wonderful, thorough job. No wonder people are working longer hours, late nights, and weekends. Where else can they find the uninterrupted time?

Think about it: When was the last time you had four straight hours to yourself at work, four hours not chopped up by meetings or discussion or conversation? You probably can’t remember. Or, if you can, it was probably on a plane or that one time you accidentally left your phone on your nightstand.

Many CEOs think being an enlightened, competitive company means you’re always on. Available all the time, for anyone. I believe that’s a dangerous, frivolous mindset. It causes people to burn out and resent work. It can even lead to their leaving.

As a business owner, I’ve come to realize that protecting my employees’ time and attention is one of the most important things I can do.

For example, we don’t have status meetings at Basecamp. We all know these meetings — one person talks for a bit and shares some plans, and then the next person does the same thing. They’re a waste of time. Why? While it seems efficient to get everyone together at the same time, it isn’t: Eight people in a room for an hour doesn’t cost one hour; it costs eight hours.

Instead, we ask people to write updates daily or weekly on Basecamp for others to read when they have a free moment. This saves dozens of hours a week, and affords people larger blocks of uninterrupted time. Meetings tend to break time into “before” and “after.” Get rid of those meetings and people suddenly have a good stretch of time to immerse themselves in their work.

I believe 40 hours a week is plenty to get great work done if you actually give people 40 hours a week to do it. Having them come in for 40 but giving them only 12 to themselves is like stealing 28 hours a week from someone. At Basecamp, we’ve made significant strides toward making sure 40 hours means 40 hours.

Remember, when you hire someone, you don’t own that person. When you think about a workweek as “company time,” you’re turning it into something the company owns. But really, it’s not company time — it’s the employee’s, to do work for the company. The company is paying people for their time, not to borrow the company’s time. It may sound like semantics, but it actually requires a pretty radical shift in thinking.

This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Inc. Magazine. If you like it please let me know by clicking the ❤️ button below!

Wait, other people can take your time?

My calendar to start the year

If your time is for the taking, you’re working at a crazy company.

A few weeks ago I shared what my calendar looked like. It struck a nerve. Tons of talk around it.

And then a few days later we hosted a “The Basecamp Way to Work” workshop at our office (here’s a retrospective from someone who attended). During these 5-hour workshops we go deep and typically answer over 100 questions from the audience.

A question about my calendar came up. And as we were getting into it, I asked the questioner a question back about how scheduling works at their company. It was at that moment I learned how blissfully naive I am about the insanity that goes on in most companies.

To be clear: I’m glad I’m blissfully naive about it. I could never work the way a lot of people are forced to work.

As many people know — and as I didn’t — in most companies people don’t really control their own time. Everyone can see everyone else’s calendar, and people can pick away at each other’s time.

“Ah, an opening! Let me grab it before someone else does!”

“There’s a gap… Fill it!”

“Someone blocked out 4 hours to themselves? Oh good! That means they’re available and not stuck in meetings… I can hit them up then.”

You can see everyone else’s schedule? That makes any spare time, any free time, any unclaimed time like seams of gold stuck between rock in the quary. Mine it!

What. The. Fuck. This is not OK, but apparently it’s oh so normal.

This — THIS — may be the reason so many companies are so fucked up. Why so many people are driven to work late nights, weekends, etc. Why life has to fit into work’s leftovers. When people don’t control their own time, of course someone else will push you to the limit. It doesn’t cost them anything, but it costs you everything.

Imagine if anyone could just take some money out of your bank account when they needed it. Time’s more valuable than money, yet that’s exactly what people are doing with other people’s time.

Yes, I know you can decline an invitation, but what % are declined? Slim!

No thank you

At Basecamp, we don’t share calendars. Everyone controls their own calendar, and no one can see anyone else’s calendar. You can’t claim time on anyone else’s calendar, either. Other people’s time isn’t for you — it’s for them. You can’t take it, chip away at it, or block it off. Everyone’s in control of their time. They can give it to you, but you can’t take it from them.

It’s not a special privilege for ownership or the CEO. Everyone controls their own days at Basecamp. Time isn’t a commodity we trade. No one can turn your day into theirs.

“Whatever it takes”

How often have you heard that one? “Whatever it takes”.

It’s an iceberg. Steer clear.

What starts out as an innocent turn of words, is actually a veiled attack on reasonable expectations. And when expectations aren’t reasonable, all bets are off. And when all bets are off, you’re usually the loser.

Whatever it takes means you’ll probably be working at 10pm on Wednesday.

Whatever it takes means whenever I need you you better be available.

Whatever it takes means sloppy work in service of just delivering something.

Whatever it takes means the absence of no, and once no’s out the door you’ve given up one of the most powerful tools you have.

Whatever it takes means if you won’t do it, I’ll find someone else who will [endure the abuse].

Whatever it takes is a threat to your friends and family time.

Whatever it takes is doing something “at all costs”. When you stop discussing costs you’re in deep.

Whatever it takes is a slippery slope.

Whatever it takes is the opposite of calm, paced, and fair.

Certainly there are exceptions, but whatever it takes is rarely as nice as it sounds. Be leery, be weary, be aware. Remember what’s behind the veil.

What my calendar looks like

Free, clear, and calm

Whenever I’m at a coffee shop, and I walk by people with their laptops open to their calendar, I’ll often see something like this:

via Google Images

Or this…

via Google Images

Or a game of calendar Tetris like this…

via Google Images

What?? I can’t identify with this level of busy.

Here’s my actual calendar for January and the first couple weeks of February, 2017:

My calendar as of Jan 9, 2017

I always leave Monday’s open, and only pop something on there that’s casual or spontaneous. Like today I’m going to over to a friend’s office to check out their new space.

Fridays are for nothing, too. That way if something has to happen that week for sure, I can always pop it on Friday.

And other than that, maybe one or two things on a given day. Mostly nothing. Mostly open so I can make decisions about my day that day, not days or weeks before. This lets me make the best use of my time when I know how I want to use that time. When’s that? At that exact moment.

I don’t want to say no to something that comes up today at 2:30 because I agreed to something 3 weeks ago at 2:30. Yes, occasionally that happens, but I want to design that situation to be an outlier rather than the norm.

What do I do with all that empty space? My job! I design, I write, I think, I work!

I know some people love being appointment-busy and scheduling everything out precisely — that’s just not me, and never has been. Different strokes for different folks for sure.

80 hours now, 40 hours later?

Probably not. Habits die hard.

When I talk about 40 hours being plenty of time to get great work done, I’ll often get pushback from people starting new businesses.

“40 hours may be fine when you’ve been in business for 10 years, but when you’re starting something new you have to bust your ass for as long as it takes. If it takes 80 hour weeks, then it takes 80 hours weeks.”

I’m calling bullshit.

First, this defense often comes from people who haven’t run a previous business for 10 years. So they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re imagining a future of leisure — that once a business is sailing, it just keeps going. It’ll just get easier, right?

It actually gets harder. Staying in business is harder than starting a business. If it wasn’t, there’d be a whole heck of a lot more companies out there. But most barely last a few years.

The second argument is that there’s simply more work to do when you’re just getting started. Not true. There’s actually not more work to do when you’re just getting started. It’s just different work. The work changes, it doesn’t go away.

Established businesses have to do everything startups have to do, but they also have more customers to keep happy, more staff to manage (which means more personalities to manage), more expenses to cover, more competition to fend off, more legacy to drag along and navigate around, more mass to maneuver.

More mouths to feed is always harder than fewer mouths to feed.

Ask anyone with a big business if they’d like to be even bigger, or if they long for the days when they were a little smaller. Most will opt for smaller. Fewer demands, more flexibility, easier decision making, less overall organizational complexity.

So people who get used to working 80 hours don’t cut back. Until life cuts them down. Relationships falter, friends go missing, family is a quick kiss as you’re sprinting out the door, and life happens in the margins.

The habits you form early on carry with you. If you think success requires 80 hours when you get started, you’ll hold on to that mentality. You don’t get used to working 40 when you attribute your success to 80. It’s just not how habits work. We continue doing what we get used to.

When you say “whatever it takes” you’ll always be able to find work to fill whatever space you’ll give it. It isn’t hard to fill 80 hours and convince yourself it’s all required time. As Parkinson’s law accurately states, “work expands to fill the time available”.

Instead of whatever it takes, it’s time to start thinking about what it doesn’t take. There’s so much manufactured busyness in those 80 hours that the real gains come from cutting things out, not adding in more.

Ask people in their 30s or 40s who are still putting in long hours why they haven’t been able to cut back. See what they say. Ask them why a few times and get to the root of it.

Most of the habits we form were formed when we were children. When we didn’t have a chance to reflect on what we were doing and set the correct course. As adults starting business we have the capacity to consider the consequences. We should know better. We can do better.

Don’t buy into the myth of a lot now so you can do a little later. It just doesn’t work that way.

What’s an hour?

When 15 + 15 + 15 + 15 does not equal 60

Remember the first time someone asked you what’s heavier — a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? You probably fell for it. I sure did.

A pound is a pound! Duh!

But the same thing doesn’t apply with an hour. Every hour may be 60 minutes total, but that’s where the similarities end.

Take this big rock and this pile of crushed stone.

Lets assume the crushed stone was the big rock. The same weight, same total mass, same color, same material. They started out as the same thing.

What are your hours like? A pile of pebbles — fragmented, shattered, a collection of short work moments? Or are your hours like a big rock — solid, whole, uninterrupted?

Do you have 60 minutes? Or do you have 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 5 minutes, and 5 minutes?

Look at the tools you use, the expectations you set (or live by at work), the schedule you’re required to keep. Are they giving you more big rocks, or more pebbles?

I recently spoke to 600+ people at the Lean Startup conference. I asked “Who here can remember having 4 continuous hours to themselves at work any time in the last 5 years?” Maybe 20 or 30 people raised their hand. Out of 600+. That’s tragic. That signals brokenness all over the place. And it’s getting worse, not better. The state of that art is fucked.

A few years ago I gave a TED talk about a related topic.

It hasn’t gotten better since then. It’s far worse. Now it’s not just meetings and managers, but it’s chat, notifications, presence, and always-on expectations. These are negative influences on your own time. They’re making pebbles out of your stones.

If fragmented time was seen as the disease it is, it would be labeled an epidemic. No wonder people are putting in 80 hours just to manage to sweep up 30 good ones.

Time is the most precious thing there is, yet we split it up and give it away like there’s an endless supply. And whatever time you do have, you have even less attention.

So… Guard your big rocks. Hoard them. Protect them. Don’t let the job crush them into smaller and smaller pieces. And if you’re a manager, team lead, or owner of a business, make it a top responsibility to protect and preserve your people’s time and attention. Treat it as the most precious resource there is. Because it is.

I’ve come to realize one of my top jobs at Basecamp is to create an environment — and a product — that doesn’t steal people’s time and attention. I want people to have as much of their time to themselves as possible. The company should not encroach.

Dig this story? Think it would be helpful to others? Please tap that heart below. It helps other people see the story, and it helps me know if you’d like to see write more about this topic. Thanks! -Jason

Life as an impatient programmer

Gavin Belson insults my spirit animal — “the insolent and cocksure hare.”

I have to admit — patience has never been one of my strengths. My parents tell me over and over, “Try to be more patient!”

It’s never quite stuck.

I get why they harp on me. Impatience is by definition pretty negative sounding:

1. having or showing a tendency to be quickly irritated or provoked.

But is being impatient always such a bad thing? Consider the alternate definition:

2. restlessly eager

“Restlessly eager”. I love that!

Said a different way, it means you’re enthusiastic, dedicated, and ambitious. You just have a little trouble directing all that energy.

But what if you could harness all that enthusiasm?

The positive results of impatience

It may sound strange, but being impatient has helped shape my programming career in a positive way.

If you’re like me, being impatient can help you become…

  • A better programmer. You won’t wait for someone else to fix a bug or an annoyance. You’ll create that app you need because it doesn’t exist yet. You’ll build systems and shortcuts for your daily work. This process of constantly building, learning, and tweaking keeps you sharp.
  • A well rounded professional. You won’t stay in dead end jobs that don’t challenge you. You’ll want to learn new things. You’ll want to improve stuff as fast as you can. This builds an arsenal of rich experiences that you can carry forward forever.
  • A better student. You’ll be an efficient learner. You’ll learn the stuff that matters and ignore the fluff. You’ll develop systems to learn faster and smarter. You’ll focus and work hard because there’s nothing worse than wasting time.
  • A better teacher. You’ll have spent so much time learning, you’ll already be a great teacher. You know what matters and what doesn’t. You’ve experienced success and failure in a wide variety of situations. You’ll want to pass on these experiences onto others.

Hey, being impatient doesn’t sound so bad after all!

Harness your impatience

I know, I’m making it sound like being impatient is all roses and it’s the key to success.

Of course it’s not that simple. Harnessing your impatience into positive energy is easier said than done. I’ve fucked up plenty because of my impatience.

Over the years I’ve found that, like many things, balance is the key. Not everything can be the ire of your impatience.

Try to pick your battles. Try not to get worked up about minor bullshit. Try to direct that energy at the important stuff.

Ask yourself lots of questions. When do you get impatient? When did you turn that energy into a success? When did you fail? What’s worth spending that valuable energy on? Who on your team can help keep you in check?

If you can answer those questions, you’ll be on your way toward harnessing your impatience.

You’re lucky. Not everyone is blessed with impatience. It’s a powerful motivator and a great source of energy. Use it to your advantage!

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Warren Buffet on scheduling meetings

photo by Michael Prince for Forbes

I recently heard about Warren Buffet’s approach to scheduling meetings. I can’t confirm this is true (I’ve never met him), but I hear from a reputable source that he usually doesn’t set up meetings more than a day in advance.

If someone wants to see him, they are told to call and set up the meeting when they can see him tomorrow. So if you want to meet with him next Friday, you call next Thursday and say “Can I see Mr. Buffet tomorrow?”

I love the simplicity of the rule: I can see you today if you asked me yesterday, but I can’t fill up my schedule any further in advance. This way he can determine how he wants to spend his time within the context of the next 24 hours instead of booking things weeks or months in the future. Now his schedule is relevant instead of prescient.

I’m sure many people will say “well, he’s Warren Buffet so he can do that”. Yes he’s Warren Buffet, but no one granted him the power to do that or say that. He decided that.