A podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. Hosted by Kimberly Rhodes, the Rework podcast features the co-founders of 37signals (the makers of Basecamp and Hey), Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson sharing their unique perspective on business and entrepreneurship.
Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I'm your host, Kimberly Rhodes. I'd be willing to bet that most people listening would say that time is a scarce resource, that there just aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. And they often feel like they're jumping from one task to another, trying and failing at multitasking, but it doesn't have to be that way. And Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hansson, the co-founders of 37signals have found a better way to work. Both David and Jason have written about time management extensively and today they're joining me to talk about the concept of bucketing your time. Guys, tell me, tell me a little bit about this.
Yes, so I, so often we so often seem to focus around how do we get more productivity? How do we get more progress out of the time we already have, not working 60 hour weeks, not working 80 hour weeks. No. If you have 40, how do you make them count in the best way possible? And the way I found to be most effective is to bucket that time in ways that I'll do a certain activity, like answering emails, particularly answering sort of open-ended questions, follow ups from something we've talked about on the podcast to follow ups or something I've written about on HEY, those are kind of responses they don't need a response immediately. So what I do is I answer those kinds of emails about like once every two weeks. I let it all flow up. HEY has this wonderful feature called Reply Later. So it'll all just stack up and I'll go in there and there'll be like 70 emails.
That's a bucket of time. I'm going to spend 30 minutes or 40 minutes answering 70 emails, which means that I'm actually only spending two minutes an email, which is the other advantage of, if you're trying to give something a limited amount of time, um, it teaches you about efficiency, efficiency of writing. If I was writing to each individual person, giving them a reply as soon as that come in, first of all it would interrupt my state of flow, as soon as I had to do that, I had now to jump out of this mode I was getting into, figuring out what is this person saying, writing to this person. Boom, I've already sharded my time. I've made a cut in the day. When I see it altogether, I go like, how am I gonna reply to 70 people? Well, I'm gonna reply to 70 people by keeping my replies to two paragraphs or less.
Sometimes one line or less, sometimes one emoji. That works really well, people get a a good answer. Does it matter that that reply comes two weeks later? No, not really. Now I've handled all this email that could have been drip, drip, dripped out over my work weeks for two weeks straight. It's an incredible way to ensure that the time that's left over the time that's not inside this bucket counts for more. That, my favorite days are the ones where I set up these buckets that collect all the rainwater that's falling down in terms of interruptions. I don't touch him and now there's a totally clear sky, totally clear day, nothing on the calendar. That's when I do my best work. Not about eeking out more hours, about collecting all these tasks that come in that are not urgent, that are not ASAP, which is 99% of everything, and dealing with them in bulk, efficiently so that I don't have to worry about them the rest of the time.
Jason, are you doing something similar?
Yeah, and I think the key here is to figure out what's not worth doing, um, right now I think too, um, cuz as David said, there's all sorts of things that come up and a lot of 'em aren't worth doing now. And I, so I try to always have like one or two things to do in a given day. Um, and not nine things. It's like, what are the one or two things I wanna really hammer today and get right today? And you know, sometimes you gotta bounce around with a few other people, but that's it. So people are like, do you, do you keep to-do list? I don't, I don't cuz I have like one or two things that I wanna focus on and I wanna give those things, you know, multiple hours of time, uninterrupted. And then at the end of the day I'll often just knock out some emails like David does with Reply Later, which is like one of the best features of HEY, just such a great way to say this is for later and I'll do it all at once.
Um, so that's kinda the, the approach that, that I take too. The other thing I would say is that, um, for me, one of the other techniques I use is I use a single laptop. I have one computer, so it's single laptop, it's a 13 inch laptop. I don't have an external monitor, I don't have a second computer, so I go full screen on all my apps. Um, and I, I don't multitask. I don't have a chat window open or messages open while, unless I have to pull something from one thing to another cuz there's something somewhere else that I need. But I don't do two things at once. And I think what happens is, is most people are setting themselves up to do many things at once without even thinking that they're doing many things at once. But if, if half of your mental energy or a quarter or whatever is, is always drawn to the right side of your screen, the left side of the screen.
Cause there's a list of things you need to get back to. You can't do one thing at a time. You're constantly breaking your, your day up and you probably don't even realize it. You think it's just work, but it's, it's not. So I try to go full screen and everything that helps me just stay focused and if I need to switch, I switch. But at least there's an effort. I mean the effort is minor, you're like, you know, command tab, whatever. But at least it's still, it's it's conscious. It's like I'm gotta do this versus just having this thing I can kind of dart my eye back and forth. So that's another technique that I use.
I think what happens often when people let work hit them as soon as it just comes in. So all these drops are just hitting them as soon as they fall, you end up feeling really busy like, oh man, I have so much to do. And you'll reach the end of the week and you can't remember what you actually did. You can't remember what you actually moved forward. You did a bunch of stuff, you interacted with a bunch of people, you replied to a bunch of people, you checked in on a bunch of people or a bunch of things perhaps, but what did you actually move forward? I find that when I'm in that mode, I'll end up on Friday and go like, do you know what? This week sucked. That was not a good week. I don't like weeks when I can't on Friday afternoon feel a sense of satisfaction that something that truly mattered got moved down, got moved down the field.
Now not all weeks all the time have that quality to them, but it should absolutely be a goal. And you should absolutely be on guard when you feel like those weeks are just stacking up. Man, I just had 1, 2, 3 busy weeks in a row that I can't account for in terms of, hey do you know what uh, three weeks is 120 hours of work? That's an enormous amount of time if you know how to spend it well. If you squander it, if you dot it around, it's tragic actually. It's tragic to realize that potential, right? 120 hours in terms of solving a creative project, moving something forward, shipping something feature that's a really healthy chunk of time. But you spend it on a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of nothing. Um, I think it's a recipe for dread, for dissatisfaction with work.
And I think this is the other reason why we are so focused on this notion of not just time but attention. Jason, maybe you can expand on this, but I thought the post you wrote about why you say no to a lot of obligations that might not take a lot of time but will steal your attention was really instructive to me for realizing why is it that I can't say yes to someone who wants a call for 15 minutes in the middle of the day? Why does it feel like it's more than 15 minutes? Cuz it's not just about the time, it's about splintering the flow, it's about splintering the attention and realizing, do you know what if I just have 1, 2, 3 of those things in a day, that day is shot, there was eight hours of potential in that day and I wasted it on three in engagement of 15 minutes each.
Yeah, we can put that, that article in the show notes. So I'll get you a link to it, Kimberly. But the other thing I wanna talk about is at the organizational level we also have buckets, which is basically our six week cycle. So, um, David just wrote a post on LinkedIn, all right, on HEY world and then also on LinkedIn where someone asked a question about like, what if your priorities changed during the six week period of time? And the answer is they don't change, they're not allowed to change. Six weeks is a commitment. It's not just a period of time, it's actually a commitment. Nothing changes. I mean, look, if there's an emergency or whatever, okay, fine, but shouldn't be and shouldn't happen. Six weeks is a commitment and that's a time bucket and there's many different buckets of six weeks during a cycle in the company.
But we're not pouring one bucket into another. We're not mixing the buckets. So, so if you're assigned to these two projects, that's your only responsibility and you're not gonna be pulled off of those things unless there's a true, true emergency. Otherwise this is the only thing you have to worry about. So at an organizational level, it's important, to time box and bucket two. Um, and and again, it's not just about time, it's about the commitment that you make that you will not change your mind during that short period of time, which is why six weeks is such a wonderful period of time because it's much harder to commit to not changing your mind if you say we're gonna plan for the next 12 months, that's too long. You're gonna change your mind over 12 months, but you can absolutely not change your mind over six weeks.
And then when that's over, you can get to what you wanted to do next that you wanted to change your mind down, but you waited. It's a very important thing. So I wanted, I wanted to mention that too. So, so bucketing is not just for the individual, but it's for a team and it's for a company. It's very important way to, to look at things. And I think this is actually probably the most, we should talk more about this cause it's the most underrated, underappreciated detail. At most companies, they're constantly playing, you're constantly playing whiplash. And I think everyone who's listening is gonna be shaking their head up and down or nodding to this because, um, they're doing something and someone pulls 'em aside or there's a change of heart or a change of mind or a change of priority and they're constantly being pulled back and forth into things, out of things, on top of things, under things.
And that doesn't happen here. And that's, you know, that's a, one of the keys to actually moving forward. It, it relates to what David was saying is like you can be doing a bunch of stuff and not getting anywhere. That's what happens when priorities keep changing and points of view or, or, um, uh, responsibilities keep changing. But if you're, if you're committed, you, you can actually move forward pretty quickly. So on the, on the, quickly on the uh, attention and time point, um, I realized this happened to me. This one, this one guy kept asking me to get together for lunch or something, I forget exactly if it was lunch or 15 minute phone call or something like that. And I realized like I actually have the time to do that. It's not like I don't eat lunch , like I eat lunch anyway and I I have the time.
But what I realized was that like it's not just the 60 minutes for lunch is not just that, first of all, you gotta, you gotta commute to the thing, you gotta meet the person, you gotta ramp up. The conversations almost never actually take 60 minutes. They're gonna take longer. Um, and then like whatever you were thinking about is broken now, before I could have maybe kept thinking about what I was thinking about over lunch and now I have to stop and think about something else. So time and attention are very different things and attention is far more limited than, than time. Um, and that's the other thing to keep in mind is that while you have 24 hours a day, you don't have 24 hours of attention a day. And while you might work eight hour days, you don't have eight hours of attention that you can dart back and forth cuz there's margin on the ends that, that really don't count as attention cuz it's attention switching and what whatnot. So anyway, diff different things. Um, I'll get a link to the article and um, I think it's a good point to keep in mind.
I think this principle of attention switching and the fact that it is far more scarce than time applies at the organizational level too. In fact, this notion of why we try to have, or not just why we have the discipline to only change our mind or make determinations on the big projects we're pursuing every six weeks is to enable that. Is such that we constrain ourselves and let's not kid ourselves, sometimes that's difficult. Sometimes you get halfway through a cycle and you're like, ah, I really, uh, I want this thing. And you have to go like, okay, breathe. I get an opportunity in three weeks to have a conversation about putting that on the next game. And what happens a lot of times is of course you've confused enthusiasm with priority. The thing you were so excited about three weeks ago, you're not actually that excited about when you have to to do it.
But this sense of attention goes to the core of what humans are capable of. Humans do not multitask. There's a single CPU up there and what it can do is it can switch between tasks and every time it switches, there's a cost, there's a switching cost. You break the flow. This is one of the things that stand out particularly to me as a programmer. There's been a bunch of studies on this showing that if you interrupt someone for just 10 minutes, how long does it take for them to ramp back up into productive mode? And for some people to take as much as 45 minutes, I find the other thing to be just as true, which is if I know I have something I need to do in like two hours, it might just be 20 minutes, 30 minutes, I will not engage with the difficult problems that I'm trying to solve.
My brain somehow knows that, like, do you know what? It takes a lot of energy to get into the creative mind space to actually crack these problems I'm trying to deal with. And if I have something coming up in two hours, you know what? I'm just gonna be busy for two hours. I'm gonna check my emails, I'm gonna do all this other stuff that doesn't move the things forward. Um, so treating your head or individually team-wise and organizationally as this thing that's constrained by attention, not by time, not by hours in the day, but individual tasks that you need to switch back and forth, I think is a real breakthrough and why we're able to, with such small teams, make such great progress. This is something I see all the time when I talk to people and I tell 'em, we have three programmers working on features for Basecamp. And they go like, what do you mean three programmers on one feature? For like, no, no, no. Three programmers total are working on features and they're working with the designer and they're shipping all the stuff that you see publicly announced every six weeks and they have a difficult time even computing that. Now there are other reasons for it too, but I do think that Jason say says, this is the most important.
Okay, I do have a quick question for you guys because I feel like there's people who are listening who are like, yeah, David, that's nice that you can answer your email every two weeks and just let them fill up the bucket. Like I don't have that flexibility. I think a lot of it starts at the top of just not always feeling like everything is an emergency. So for people who are listening who maybe are entrepreneurs, like how do you change that culture from being always on and needing to answer things immediately to this culture that we have, which is like you have focused time and you work and then you respond to emails when you have time that you're not working on other things.
I think it needs to start at the top. And as you say, if, if you have a boss that is addicted to ASAP pills, you gotta break that addiction. One way of doing it is to send them a copy of Rework. This is where we had the great chapter where the illustration was literally a pill glass that says ASAP is poisoned on it, um, giving someone an opportunity to just reflect on it, right? All the things that we're chasing all the time as being so important and so urgent, how many of them really are? Um, but some of these things you have to crack it from whoever is setting the agenda. It is difficult to do individually, but at least you can bracket your own time and your own obligations and your own relationship with what's urgent. That's oftentimes a huge part of it too, even if you can't clear the tables entirely.
Yeah, I don't have much more to add. I mean, I just, I I remember when we were a web design firm, um, like a client might email you at 10:00 PM and you might check your email at 10:00 PM and you feel like, well, they wrote me a 10, I need to get back to 'em right now. And oftentimes like, no, you don't, you can wait till the morning and it's the, that's, that's where the urgency thing comes in. Like because they wrote you a 10, it just means maybe that's when they wrote you because that's when they had time or whatever. Like the assumption that because you get something from someone, you need to respond immediately no matter when it was sent. That's your own mental, that's the story you're telling yourself basically. And you can tell yourself a different story, which is, I, I'll just get back.
First of all, I shouldn't be checking my email at 10, but whatever, if I did for whatever reason, okay, I'll get back to them in the morning. Nothing's that important right now. It's a personal choice to make, oftentimes, not always, especially if there's expectations by from your boss or some weird situation like that, but many times you put that on yourself. You just assume that people want to hear back from you immediately because you're so important. I'm so important, I must get back to people with my answer. They can wait. Most things can wait. Um, and it actually is fine. So again, I know these are hard things to do and these are sort of sort of flippant remarks and whatnot, but like I I, there's no other way to really talk about this material than to say like, you actually have probably have a lot more control over this than you think you do. And just kind of think about that and try it and see what happens tomorrow. Try it tomorrow. Try letting that one thing slide a little bit longer than you normally would and you, you'll find out the sky's not falling and the world doesn't end. And that's just a good first step towards realizing that maybe you have more control over this than you think.
And I also think there's a broader point here, specifically, if you're trapped halfway inside some pole where a boss or a client is pulling for you, if you actually set some boundaries, you appear more valuable. Like, hey, boss, you want me to work on this? Okay, here's the consequence. Again, you put it in a diplomatic way and present it nicely and and whatnot, but like if I'm working on this, I can't also work, work on that and then just become a person who's not just automatically saying yes to everything, no matter how unreasonable the demand is. I think you'll find that you'll establish some authority that actually carries you further than just being the person who always says yes all the time at any moment.
Okay, well with that we're gonna wrap. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. And as always, if you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 and we just might answer it on an upcoming podcast.