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Jason Fried: Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work

37signals is the team behind popular collaboration apps Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack and Campfire. The company’s co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson recently published REWORK, a collection of essays on topics as diverse as progress, productivity, culture, evolution and hiring in modern business — topics highly relevant to web workers everywhere. Last month, Fried spoke at TEDxMidwest in Chicago, exploring some of the themes of REWORK in an intriguing fifteen minute talk:

Fried talks about the how absurd it that many people are most productive in trains, cafes, dens, but not in the office. One of the more salient remarks in Fried’s talk is that “people go to work and they’re basically trading in their work day for work moments“. In essence, Fried is suggesting that creative work that requires long uninterrupted stretches of focus is inherently disrupted by the distractions of modern office life.

Curiously, Fried draws parallels between sleep and work as activities that are “phase-based,” requiring prior phases to complete before being truly rested or productive; you may sleep for many hours, but interruptions will lead to more tiredness.

Fried goes on to suggest that the perceived distractions of Facebook and web surfing at work are false, with “M&Ms” (managers & meetings) making up greater, involuntary, more disruptive and expensive distractions.

The talk concludes with three recommendations from Fried:

  1. “No-talk Thursdays.” A period of “quiet time” prohibiting coworkers from talking to each other and limiting distraction.
  2. Replacing active communication, like conversation, with passive forms such as email, IM and collaboration tools.
  3. Cancel your meetings. Things will still get done!

Though I agree with Fried’s thesis that disruption is at the heart of low productivity, I’m not so sure about the general value of the closing recommendations. Email and IM can be just as disruptive as office conversations and meetings, for example, but Fried didn’t offer any insights into best practices in using those communication methods.

Nevertheless, I’m finding the essays in Fried’s book to carry some very useful insights. You can watch Fried’s TEDxMidwest talk at and learn more about Fried’s book, REWORKat 37signals. (And if you want to find out more about enabling a remote workforce to to be more productive, you should also come to our Net:Work conference in San Francisco on Dec. 9 — Ed.).

How do you manage distractions in your workplace?

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16 Responses to “Jason Fried: Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work”

  1. COMPLETELY DISAGREE with his electronic communication recommendation over conversation.
    1) Instant messaging makes everyone think they are entitled to a “drop what you’re doing” level of service even for the most mundane, non-critical tasks. 20somethings (and now 30somethings) at work can’t figure this out in my office. You sit 20 feet from me, see me on the phone with a client, take a moment to assess.

    2) A phone call or email can convey long detailed information better than an instant message. If you can’t fit your next “sentence” or paragraph into the chat window without scrolling, you failed at getting your point across in the correct medium.

    3) I can’t tell you how many times I asked someone “did you call the client” and they shrug. If the client emails you that something is time critical, “I sent a reply message” is not adequate. Indefensible. Yes, it can vary from job to job, but use your head. Call them. A quick live phone call can also establish a timetable better than an email subject of “urgent”.

    Otherwise, I agree with a lot of the general concepts. Talking to people about work is not always doing work. If you come out of a conference or meeting and people are in whisper mode or badmouthing someone, you wasted time and should have addressed it in the meeting. Complaining is not complaining if you are offering a solution.

  2. I partially agree.

    I had been working for about 1 year in really cool internet company where everybody were chatting on skype and using screen sharing tools. It’s cool when procedures of communications are well defined, coz if not you can be talking to bigger numeber of people – lets say 5 at once. This causes total distortion of any plans, coz poeple are doing 5 things at once.

    Other thing are chats – procedures are needed to communicate some information, who speaks to whom and when, coz only than you avoid situations as you would have when one person is entering into room with 15 people and shouts “WE HAVE DEFECT ON PRODUCTION !!!!!”. What happens than ? :) If there are no procedures we have chaos and everybody waiste time=money for doing sth related!

    Other problem is that when there are some hard discussions to make – motivation speech, negotiations etc – its really hard to only talk to persuade someone, to feel what this person expects from you (no body language).

    It is also really important to not to allow your employer to force you to work overtimes (coz you can, you’re at home, so what else can you do?).

    There are fiew pluses:
    1. cost of place of work for employee – much smaller, depending on a contract, who pays for equipment, licenses etc
    2. cost of travel = 0
    3. time for travel is = 0

    So I think working from home is cool, but lets say 3,max 4 days a week. You need to see these people, to talk to them, to do some “stupid” meeting, but which should be planned before and than it would be productive.

  3. Hi,
    I think that it is nothing really new that email, office conversations and meetings often are disruptive. So i totally agree that each meeting you attend should be chosen under the 2 aspects:
    A) does it really help to solve my current work items
    B) does the meeting potentially produce decisions which will have an Impact on my work/Job.

    If neither of both is true you should nof attend the Meeting.

    But i also want to point out that most meetings i attend are not well prepared and thats why they fail to result in either a) or b). And additionally most of the meetings produce lots of results but these results are

    A) not written down transparently for every attendee or person which is involved
    B) decisions are not communicated transparently
    C) actions are not followed up upon consequenty enough

    Its Not the questions of tools here, but of reasonably project management. But a Tool like can help.


  4. I have to agree with Brett and say I can’t see myself not talking for a whole afternoon. Also, I find it funny that forbiddening Facebook or Twitter is compared to comunism, but not being alowed to talk for half of day or so is OK…
    Seriously, the only thing I disagree with is meetings. Meetings are indeed useless and time consuming because people tend to talk much and do little.
    I think people need a place to go to. It doesn’t necesarelly need to be an office, but if you work from home, sleep home, eat home, pretty much do everything home… I think in time you will become quite unproductive because of the repeated scenery.

  5. Hi,

    Well I think it’s nothing really amazingly new that meetings are part of the problem. I want to point out that one could understand the issue much more general, like every form of …say collaborative “event” like Meetings, short chats etc. candisturb your daily process ofwork. I want to add that you have Chokes very restrictive which meetings you actually join and most of them you can avoid. But for the important meetings you should spend definitely more effort on preparation of the Meeting. One tool I wanna mention for this is which is perfect for preparing, conductign and following up on meetings

  6. I work from home fulltime now, and my company gets tons more hours of work from me (I’m an editor) than when I worked in an office. The last straw for me was hearing a nearby colleague describe her gestational-diabetes diet to a friend over the phone for an hour and a half, then dial up another friend and start again. Complaining never worked; the rude feel they have a right to their rudeness. I put a business case together, centered on cost savings (no cube, LAN, phone, etc.) and was approved. Been telecommuting for more than five years now, happily and productively. The main thing is to be responsive to communications and maintain a level of presence in the consciousness of colleagues (and especially, of course, superiors). But the quiet and solitude empower great gobs of work, no longer controlled by the rude.

  7. I’m a freelance who generally works from his home office. When I do go into a client’s to work inhouse I’m always shocked by how little actual work gets done. What really hits me is how much time is wasted in meetings. As a freelancer I’m interested in getting the job done and moving on to my next project or relaxing. If you are paid a salary your interest is not always in being the most productive with your time.

  8. I agree with the sentiments in some ways, long periods with no distractions are needed for certain types of work, but these can be achieved in the office as easily as working from home. On the flip side of this, it’s easy to have as many, if not more distractions at home. It’s all about self control and management of your own tasks – I wouldn’t advocate a ‘no talk day’ – isn’t that just an excuse to avoid communicating?
    As someone who works from home a reasonable amount and keeps fairly irregular hours generally, going to the office is like touching base, feeling like part of a team, communicating and sharing ideas face-to-face. If we all want to only deal with each other by email or IM – I’m out – maybe if everyone in business is introverted and 23 year old nerds that would be better, but we aren’t!

  9. I really resonated with the ideas delivered in 37signals’ first book (ebook). They made a lot of sense and my own personal experiences led me to agree with a lot of what they were saying. I followed their svn blog for quite some time.

    But lately, their attitude is starting to rub me the wrong way. A lot of what they say is still accurate, and useful, and it’s good to have an opinion, or be moderately opinionated. But they appear to be convinced that absolutely everything they say is correct, and any disagreement thereof is just blind ignorance. That is a myopic, infallible attitude very much like the attitudes they’re railing against.

    And ‘no talk thursdays’ – what am I, a kid in school again? That’s just dictatorial – another characteristic of that infallible, opinionated, we’re always right attitude.

  10. I like the advice in his book and use some of it in my own work, but the reality is that the suggestions he makes only work with self-directed employees. There is a reason employers bring most workers in to an office because most will not work if you leave them to their work at home or at cafes. An employer that wants to foster this type of culture has to be very careful when screening new employees.

  11. Like you, Imran, I don’t buy into everything that Jason Fried says, but I have to say that ReWork was one of the best quick business reads for me in the last year or so.

    …certainly enough stuff to make me think again about how we do stuff!

    Appreciate the reminder.