David Heinemeier Hansson

November 25, 2022

Equating responsibility with busyness

A lot of people equate responsibility and busyness, especially when it comes to running a company. That responsibility means being involved with everything all the time, doing all the work that isn't getting done to your satisfaction of pace and urgency. Those are traps, both of them, that I fall in often. But I have learned to set boundaries around, for example, with things like a commitment to not working more than 40 hours a week on average. There are occasional weeks where I work more and then there are weeks where I work less. But if you take a whole year, it's about 40 hours a week.

You just can't do everything, then. Not only is there more than 40 hours a week of work that I could possibly involve myself in, but there's also 120 hours of work a week. There's also 200. There's an unlimited amount of stuff that I could feel like, "Well, I should do that because I have the obligation to do that." Sometimes the responsibility that you hold comes with a serving of just sitting back and shutting the fuck up. Are we on a good path right now? Great. Don't mess with it. Don't tinker with it. Keep your hands off. That's responsibility.

Now, this is one of the ways we've essentially institutionalized at 37signals with our way of working, which is something we call Shape Up. Its central thesis is that we work in six-week cycles. At the beginning of a cycle, we'll determine what we should work on. Once we start working on that cycle, we will work on the things we said we were going to work on, and then we will otherwise sit on our damn hands.

All the great ideas we're going to come up with, they're not going to just flow into the work right away. They have to wait until it's time to decide again. That level of tying your hand behind your back is a way to fuse responsibility with a reservedness. Not being able to react on every gut instinct of urgency when you get a new idea.

The best thing, and I still struggle with this from time to time, the best thing you can do for your team that you're responsible for is to leave them the hell alone. I like to be left alone a lot of the time. So you can combine those things and say like, "Do you know what? I'm going to step in with responsibility, be part of setting it in direction." And once the direction is set, leave the people to simply travel that direction, and then spend the time between checkpoints getting bored, getting creative, coming up with my own damn stuff to do.

Bit extracted from a lovely, far-reaching conversation with Ben Henley-Smith on the Best Work podcast.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.