Jason Fried: Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work

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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 TED.com 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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