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Balancing the Grind with Jonas Downey, Design Team Lead at Basecamp

Jonas Downey is the Design Team Lead at project management software company, Basecamp, and the co-creator of weather app Hello Weather.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

Hello! My name is Jonas, I’m the design team lead at Basecamp, and the co-creator of Hello Weather.

I’ve worked as a software product designer at Basecamp for over 8 years, and have had the great privilege to help create many of our products, including Basecamp 2 and 3, Know Your Company, and our new upcoming email service, HEY.

Prior to Basecamp, I was a web and software developer at Argonne National Laboratory, and cut my teeth studying a strange blend of computer science and conceptual art at the University of Illinois.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I’m not a morning person, so I roll out of bed around 8am, throw on a pot of coffee, and start working by 8:30am. It’s easy to do that, since I have no commute!

Over the years I discovered I’m most productive during certain times of the day, so I try to optimize tasks around that. In the morning I keep it light, catch up on what’s happening at the company, and make a little progress on whatever project I’m working on. Then I take a breather in the late morning, make myself presentable, and schedule any face-to-face chats that need to happen.

After that I spend the better part of the afternoon focusing on design work, which is typically spent in a text editor writing words and code, in a web browser figuring out a UI design, and then stepping back to see if it all fits together.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

It sure does! We literally wrote the book about remote work, so we’re all in.

There’s a huge difference in quality of life between office work and remote work. Office work forces your life to revolve around work. Remote work makes your work revolve around your life.

When you’re remote, you can work how you want, when you want, in whatever environment you want, and at the times that suit you best. It’s all up to you. There just isn’t that level of freedom in an office setting.

Jonas’ home office

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve it?

I’m totally a workaholic. I probably inherited this trait from my family, who are a long line of hardworking midwestern bootstrappy folks.

Obviously, being a workaholic is a pretty toxic thing. It messed up some of my past relationships. I’ve struggled with it a lot. I try to stay aware of my time and maintain a reasonable balance. Working at home with my family in close proximity helps, because there’s so much other activity drawing me away from work.

It’s hard to disconnect from work when you enjoy what you do, and have a ton of interest and energy for it. It’s even harder when the work is always right there in your house, with no real separation (which is definitely one of the downsides of remote work.)

But you have to disconnect, because otherwise the work and your life both suffer greatly. Ironically, not working so much will make your work much better!

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

A while back I wrote about optimizing for quality work time instead of clock time. That’s one practice that helps me instinctively figure out when I should be working or stepping away for a while.

Also, I’ve always done extra-curricular projects outside of my main job, which expanded my skills and broadened my perspective about what I’m doing. It’s so valuable to build things without having a boss, client, or teacher telling you what to do.

That’s where you can take risks, experiment with new approaches, and discover what you really want. Almost all of my career moves happened because I had supplemented my full-time experience with interesting side projects.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

Here’s a shortlist I recommend to fellow aspiring software designers:

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

I always begin the day thinking about what I intend to have accomplished by the end of the day. And then I work towards that as best I can.

My hit rate is probably 50/50, but it’s good to have intentions!

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I always wonder how extremely prolific creative people manage to hold down a family life too.

Is it just that they’re so naturally talented and efficient that they can get amazing things done quicker than mere mortals? Or are they secretly suffering behind the scenes and we just can’t see it from the outside?

It would be cool to hear about that from folks like Jessica Hische or Aaron Draplin.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

It’s important to have a sense of humor and healthy detachment about your work. I dig what I do, and I hope it has a meaningful positive impact on the world. But at the end of the day I try not to take it too seriously. It’s just software, you know?

That slight bit of detachment is a superpower. It helps you take criticism without getting upset, and makes it easier to throw away your past work when a better solution becomes apparent.

It’s also a healthy reminder that there are bigger things in life than work—so quit working so damn much.

Before you go…

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.