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's everything you need to know about hack days, including why they're important and how to run one for your team.
What is a Hack Day?
Despite what the name might suggest, a hack day doesn't necessarily have anything to do with hackers (though it can!).
A hack day is, essentially, a one-day event for working on any one project you choose.
Hack days first became popular in software development, where they were used for intensive work on apps and other contained projects. But the concept has spread — musicians now run music hack days, companies run internal hack days, and anyone from any industry can use a hack day to work (either solo or with a team) on any project or goal, be it a new product, improved functionality, a creative endeavor, or something else entirely.
If this is your first time planning a hack day, you may be overwhelmed by the freedom to choose whatever you want to work on. Need some inspiration? Here are a few things people have accomplished during real world hack days:
- A director of marketing wanted to learn more about coding and spent the day building a random excuse generator for people to use when they didn't want to go to work.
- An editor-in-chief used a hack day to create a guide to a content management system that made onboarding new employees faster and easier.
- A Daily Muse writer wanted to practice web design and spent a hack day conceptualizing and designing a new page for the company's website.
The bottom line is that there aren't a lot of limits to hack days — you can work on anything, as long as it can be realistically accomplished with one day of intensive work.
Why should you run a Hack Day?
There are many benefits to running a hack day, especially if you make it a hack day event that involves your entire company:
- A hack day can help your team members break out of the day-to-day and try something new! This can be especially important at startups, where teams can be bootstrapped and too busy with an endless list of to-do's that they rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to work on building a new skill or creating something that isn't strictly necessary.
- Hack days can allow team members to work with different people across the organization, building new connections and fostering a sense of teamwork and collaboration.
- A hack day can be a break from the fast-paced work that many people do on the day-to-day, and can offer a chance to relax and have fun while accomplishing a goal. For that, though, a hack day needs to be done right — and more on that below.
4 ingredients for the perfect Hack Day
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, host an official kick-off, 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 for the whole team — consider following a code of conduct to create a safe and comfortable environment. 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. Remote hack days are even possible — start by setting up a few Microsoft Teams or Zoom rooms where people can congregate, and allow them to start breakout rooms as needed to work together on projects.
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.
What will we create on our next hack day? And better yet — what will you create with your own hack day? There's only one way to find out.