It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work – Book Review for ADHD Programmers
I just finished the audio version of the new book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, written by the founders of Basecamp, a project management software company. The book intends to encourage businesses to think differently about work in a way that’s far less stressful while still being effective as businesses. And whereas it’s written toward business owners and managers, people with ADHD (including ADHD programmers, designers, etc.) can learn a LOT from the mindset and tips they put forth in the book.
If you’ve got ADHD and want to do well in your career, you’ve got to utilize different mindsets than conventional (neurotypical, non-ADHD) people. Since the Basecamp people specialize in unorthodox approaches to, well everything, there’s a lot we can borrow from them as individual engineers, designers and so on.
Basecamp (formerly known as 37 Signals) is a software company that has become well known over time to their unorthodox but very pragmatic approaches to the software business. They’re a completely remote company (with employees in a dozen countries), intentionally small (just over 50 people) with an annual revenue in the tens of millions, and a dedicated culture of work-life balance.
Basecamp’s founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (a.k.a., DHH) are known for being outspoken on their no-BS approach to business. Their other books, Rework, Remote, and Getting Real (now a free pdf) impart their knowledge on (respectively) how to work your own way, how to do remote work right, and how to develop software effectively. It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work is their newest release, which challenges improvable and even unhealthy paradigms in business – from habits like overworking and “hero” mentalities to processes that simply aren’t as effective as they could be. These concepts can be applied to—and in my opinion, very valuable to—individual technology people, especially those with alternative brains like us ADHD folk.
“‘No’ is easier to do. ‘Yes’ is easier to say. ‘No’ is ‘no’ to one thing. ‘Yes’ is ‘no’ to a thousand things.”
“’No’ is a precision instrument….a laser focused on one point; ‘Yes’ is a blunt object, a club, a fisherman’s net that catches everything indiscriminately.”
“‘No’ is specific. ‘Yes’ is general. When you say ‘no’ to one thing, it’s a choice that breeds choices…when you say ‘yes’ to one thing, you’ve spent that choice. The door is shut on a whole host of alternative possibilities.”
ADHD people can be very anxious. There’s a tenancy to get led by other people, partially as a result of eight executive function problems. It’s often way too easy for us to say yes, committing to things when it’s not necessarily good for us. (I’ve also written about this on my freelance programming blog: see The Importance of Saying NO).
This is no different for programmers with ADHD. I’ve seen at least a few of them over time who are always overwhelmed because they had far too much on their plate. And they’ve had too much to do because they’re bad at saying no.
Sometimes it’s because of a sense of obligation or shame; we struggle to get things done quickly enough, so we take on too much to compensate. It doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s just plain inability to realize how big a task is until after we’re committed to it.
Many ADHD people also have trouble estimating time and tracking time accurately. It’s easier to overestimate or underestimate how long something will take us, which can undoubtedly frustrate our clients and employers.
Being able to say “no” or as I like to think of it, underpromising and overdelivering, not only can lead to happier clients and bosses, it can also improve your ability to accurately assess how long things will actually take you to do in the future. Doing a few things well is always better than doing a lot of things not so well.
“Don’t Cheat Sleep”
“‘Sleep is for the weak.’ ‘Real A-players only need 4-5 hours.’ ‘Great accomplishments require great sacrifice.’ BULL-SHIT. The people who brag about trading sleep for endless logs and midnight marathon are usually the ones who can’t point to actual accomplishments.”
In the book, they go to great lengths to critique the “hero mentality” that exists in some workplaces, and in some individuals. I used to subscribe to this, without realizing it. Deep down, I never thought my work was good enough, so to make up for that insecurity I just did more of it. Lots more—to the point where I was working late every night, early every morning, and on weekends when I should have been living my life.
There’s tons of evidence out that overworking makes your work suck; that lack of sleep makes you stupid; that not taking vacations is terrible for you; and that longer work weeks aren’t necessarily more productive ones. Encourage yourself away from these things as much as possible and a happier AND more effective career and life.
“Hire The Work, Not the Résumé”
“…you can’t land a job at Basecamp based on your resume. CVs might as well be tossed in the garbage. We don’t care where you went to school or how many years you’ve been working in the industry, or even that much about where you just worked. What we care about is who you are, and what you can do.”
A résumé is just a first impression—sure, it’s how you get noticed. But at Basecamp they treat it as far less valuable than proving what you can do. Once they filter out an initial round of candidates for a new position, they give them a small project (paid) that shows off how well the person can actually get the job done. This makes a lot of sense; instead of having people talk about the quality of their work, they’re asked to prove it.
When you apply to jobs, your resume is like the “first date” version of yourself. A great many technical hiring managers will look beyond them—and they should. The real proof is in the pudding—the things you’ve actually done. Fill out your GitHub profile as much as possible. Show off personal projects on your résumé and personal portfolio.
“Whoever managed to rebrand the typical open-plan office—with all its noise, lack of privacy and resulting interruptions—as something hip and modern deserves a damn medal from the committee of irritating distractions. Such offices are great at one thing: packing in as many people as possible at the expense of the individual.”
At Basecamp they call their home office “The Library” since it seems like one when you walk in—serene and tranquil, and nothing like our conventional notion of a workplace. Distractions are frowned upon since they understand that technical and creative work requires focus.
This is even more true for programmers and creatives with ADHD – we’re natively prone to distractions of all different types. I’ve broken these down in a presentation I’ve given in the past—but sound, visual movement, and people are three major distractors found in just about every office in the world. Controlling those stimuli as well as possible is a huge factor in our ability to get work done.
This is one significant reason why I advocate for remote work for ADHD programmers: the more you can control your environment, the more potential you have to reduce your distractions and increase your productivity. Furthermore, this is how you tap into hyperfocus, which is common among ADHD people – and when utilized well, it can take your productivity to the next level.
It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work has a lot of other great information in it that can shape the way you choose to build your technology career or business. Email me and let me know if you check it out. Or leave a comment below.