How To Basecamp

How To Basecamp

I've written before about our challenges using Basecamp as we grow.   To me, Basecamp is akin to Democracy:  It's not great, but it's the best thing out there. (If anyone knows of better project management solutions, please post them as comments on the other thread -- Basecamp is getting very long in the tooth and while I'm hoping for a significant overhaul, I'd switch to something else if I could find another solution that addressed our pain points, as 37 Signals hasn't given any indication that one is coming.)

In response to a comment on that post, I'm posting below the "How To Basecamp" guide we've created for our employees.  This guide was created by Christine, our Wordsmithstress at Socialize, so thank you Christine for putting this together.

Note: there are some videos & screenshots in the internal document we use that are private and aren't in here.  I've done my best to replace them with blurred out versions.

About Basecamp:

Basecamp is a project management tool created by 37signals that creates an accessible digital trail that email can't. There's a bit of a learning curve with Basecamp, but you'll soon get comfortable with the system the more you use it.

Once you've made an account, to access Basecamp, you can login at http://[your_domain_here] We recommend that you bookmark your to-do page (and choose the timeframe,this week, today, in the past, etc.,that works the best for you). With that bookmark, you'll always enter Basecamp through the view that's most important to you: all the tasks you have to do!

Keep in mind that Basecamp will remember your navigation. What does that mean? Well, if you were previously looking at Christine's to-do's for the week, the next time you click on "To-Dos" on the Basecamp navbar, you'll see Christine's to-do's. You can navigate out of this view by changing the parameters in the right hand corner. Keep in mind that Basecamp will also remember your navigation through projects. To switch out of a certain project, you can click on "Switch to a different project" to change project views or head back to the dashboard to shake it clean (y'know, like an Etch A Sketch).


Sometimes the terminology can be a bit confusing. Here's a rundown of Basecamp's different levels of organization.

  • Dashboard: The bird's-eye view of Basecamp. From here you can see what everyone is working on and access a list of projects you're privy to (right-hand column). Keep in mind that your activity will show up on the dashboard view, so people will be able to see your comments and such.
  • Projects: Sometimes pertaining to a specific department, projects are a high-level view of the big columns that prop up Socialize, Inc. Since these often coincide with the organization of the company itself, they should be created sparingly,think of projects as very broad and large-scale.
  • Milestones (now part of the 'Calendar' tab): A mid-level view of department goals. These are what we'd call "projects" outside of the Basecamp world. For example, an in-house Socialized app launch would be a milestone.  Every milestone should have a due-date and an owner, even if the due-date is an arbitrary date two years out.
  • To-Do Lists ("Buckets"): A lower level view that breaks down what needs to happen in order for us to reach our milestones. If we're launching the Socialized app, one bucket could be "Generate Buzz."
  • To-Dos (these live inside the To-Do List buckets): The micro view, all the little steps you need to accomplish on a (usually) day-to-day basis. A to-do can only be assigned to one person as a time. Under the bucket "Generate Buzz," we might task Jeremia with demo-ing our Socialized app at a tech schmoozing event.

To-Do's 101

To-do's are the building blocks of Basecamp's project management system,these are your day-to-day tasks.

If you would like someone else to take on a task, you must create a to-do for them. The task creator is responsible for making sure the task is created properly. The to-do must fulfill the three following requirements: (1) it is a separate to-do (not a comment in another to-do/task), (2) it has an owner (the person responsible for accomplishing the task), and (3) it has a due date. If you task someone in a comment thread of anothe rto-do, they will not be able to find this task under their to-do list. Create a separate to-do (and even link the original conversation) so that they can easily find the task.

To create a to-do, you must be within the desired project. From the dashboard, find the appropriate parent project. From this page you can either add a to-do to an existing to-do list or create a new list as the to-do's home.

Sometimes, a task is ongoing and has no real due date. In this case, the task can become a to-do list or it can be labeled as ongoing (e.g. "[O]" as a type of recognizable nomenclature). Try not to use the messages functionality, as for some reason Basecamp implemented messages in a way that doesn't allow people to be added/removed in later comment threads-- very annlying. Ideally, you want to-do's to be both measurable and actionable. Meaning that it's hard to measure the success and endpoint of a to-do like "comment on blogs",a more quantitative to-do would read "comment on 5 blogs" and be dated for a week away.

It's possible to hack the system a little bit. Basecamp is great for managing various deadlines and tasks, but sometimes you want a repository for suggestions or ideas. 37signals offers other tools for this purpose (like Campfire), but you can manipulate Basecamp for this purpose as well. Create and designate a to-do list for messages and ideas. As these items become actionable, they can be dragged into a different list to become real to-do's with owners and dates.

Tl;dr? Here's the basic gist:
1.    Task creators are responsible for assigning the to-do on Basecamp.
2.    Don't task someone in a comment.
3.    All to-do's need a owner and a date.
4.    Don't use the messages functionality.


It can be hard to search on Basecamp, and there's no advanced search option/filters either. This video is an overview of searching (spoiler alert: use shortcut Cmd+F to help you find the keyword in question).We suggest searching through projects (rather than across all of Basecamp) to narrow down your scope. And, you know, you can always admit defeat and just search through your email as well since Basecamp will always email you when you've been tasked or included in a comment.

Tips and Tricks

  • If you're using Google Apps, add their Google ShortLink Labs feature so you can make short links (e.g. "" to access The Mother) to frequently used Basecamp buckets, to-dos, etc.
  • "Tag" a bucket or to-do with unique keywords to facilitate searching. For example, tag a website-related task with "Charlotte" (get it,Charlotte's Web?) so that you can search for that keyword rather than the ubiquitous "website."
  • When something is marked "private" in Basecamp it means that it's private to your company (i.e. ALL of Socialize, Inc. employees). It does NOT mean it is private to only the people active/included in the bucket list.
  • Tired of checking off 5 people's names every time you make a new comment on a task? Create an email distro list for that team and grant Basecamp access to that email address. Keep in mind, though, that tasks should be assigned to individuals and never to a distro list.
  • FAQs
  • If a milestone has a due date, then does every task also need to have a due date?  Or if a task doesn't have a due date, but is in a task list that has a related milestone, do we just assume the corresponding task is due when the milestone is due?
  • Every task needs a due date. Why? Tasks are the little steps we take to reach a specific milestone. Sometimes, tasks need to be completed in a certain order. Because Basecamp offers several levels of organization, you may see or access the task without seeing the milestone due date. Adding that due date will ensure that you can keep yourself accountable to getting the task done on time.

Do you have other tips on "How To Baescamp?"  Please post them as comments below.  I'm especially interested in any 3rd party services that address some of the main pain points we've been having.