When was the last time you built something from scratch — all in a single day?
Most days, urgent priorities consume our time, whether we are meeting deadlines or supporting our teams. There never seems to be enough space to unleash our most creative ideas.
That's why my favorite days are hack days! They create the opportunity to build something new — from start to finish — all in one day.
The concept first arose in engineering, but hack days add creative firepower to every team. Here are 4 key ingredients for productive hack days…
1. Create positivity
At Superhuman, we often talk about creating delight. We want to delight our customers and the wider Superhuman community.
But hack days bring a special form of delight: we create delight for ourselves!
As it turns out, delight is critical for successful hack days. Why? Because positivity heightens creative self-efficacy — the belief that we can successfully generate and execute original ideas.
How to do this: lead with tremendous positivity.
Positivity from leaders amplifies team creativity. Make a separate Slack channel, invite special guests, and figure out fun prizes (more on that later) to build anticipation.
Not only will you foster creativity — you'll also encourage the team to prepare well, brainstorm ideas, and hit the ground running.
Hack days should exude joy and playfulness in a safe and comfortable environment for the whole team. At Superhuman, we switched from multi-day hackathons to flexible hack days. Everyone chooses 8 hours to work on their project around their existing commitments — and sleep schedule!
2. Dismantle hierarchies
The best hack days contain a dash of disorder!
Forget reporting lines. Look beyond your usual collaborators. And set aside day-to-day responsibilities. Instead, the whole team will embark on brand new, self-contained projects — something they can execute in a single day.
Why should you deconstruct work norms?
To inspire feelings of total autonomy. When you wield autonomy, it charges your creativity. Whereas feeling disempowered is fatal for creativity.
How to do this: give everyone room to work on anything they want, with anybody in the company.
Hack day projects can be new features or long-overdue process improvements. They could also be optimizations for the office environment, or someone's home setup.
Make it clear that hack day projects don't need to ladder up to company goals — you're free to let your creativity flow!
3. Use constraints to create challenge stress and flow
Hack days give you one day — not long at all — to build something.
The limited timeframe is key, as constraints accelerate creativity.
The scenario also creates "challenge stress", which releases oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin. These neurochemicals intensify focus, strengthen social connections, and help build relationships that will long outlast the day.
And finally, this balance of high challenge and high skill can induce flow, the elusive psychological state in which we often do the best work of our lives.
How to do this: limit distractions and add constraints.
For a deep dive on flow, see my talk on game design!
4. Drive creativity with competition
When you encourage creative autonomy, your team will have intrinsic motivation to succeed and showcase their work.
But there's another way to stimulate problem-solving: competition.
Incentives drive the creation of original ideas. But when competition is intense, it has the opposite effect… so keep it light!
How to do this: wrap the day with votes for the best projects and prizes for the winners.
Offer prizes that are fun and light-hearted, and vote for winners in multiple categories.
At Superhuman, we have separate categories for technical and non-technical projects. This makes our hack days more inclusive, and ensures that one exciting presentation doesn't outshine the efforts of multiple teams.
Many of Superhuman's best and most loved features have come from hack days, like Snippets, Split Inbox, and Remind Me on Desktop. Not to mention this page revealing Superhuman's real leadership team…