From Building Multinational Companies to the Tango World Record: Tim Ferriss on Lifestyle Experiments
Based out of San Francisco, Tim Ferriss is an entrepreneur and productivity guru who wrote his first book, the New York Times bestseller, 4 Hour Work Week. His ideas on creating work-life balance through entrepreneurship and not deferring life dreams has spearheaded a mini-movement across Corporate America. A Princeton graduate, he is also a multi-linguist, world traveler and thought leader on lifestyle design. Tim has a knack for experimenting and tweaking literally everything in his life. The 4 Hour Work Week, along with his blog, are two big cornerstones to how I develop my professional life and time-management.
I recently took part in an exclusive Q&A session with Tim, and the floor was opened to almost every serious and quirky question under the sun. From breakfast ideas to how he outsources like a multinational corporate giant, these are some of the best questions answered.
Many thanks to Tim for his time.
Tim Ferriss’s Q&A
> Between your mini-retirements, media appearances, start-up advising, investments, writing, and other creative and athletic pursuits, your activities varies greatly day to day. What are the core constants, key infrastructures and critical tasks that you try to hit like clockwork to keep your forward momentum?
1) Wake up. I mentally run through a gradual list of people and things I’m thankful for.
2) Breakfast. Have some tea and light breakfast, go outside for natural sunshine 20-30 minutes. During that time make phone calls to people of which I made a list of the day before. This isn’t very “zen” of me but it is quite productive.
3) Thinking and Eliminating. I look at my list of things to do and circle or highlight 1 or 2 critical items for the day. Ask: “if these were the only two things I’ve gotten done today, would I be satisfied? Which one of these would change everything else if there were not done?” Do not have any information sources during this time (RSS feeds, twitter, blogs etc.). Avoid incoming info streams until I’ve finished my critical tasks so I don’t get distracted and jump into reactionary mode.
4) Exercise. This is very important to me. Exercise during the late evening anytime from 8-10 pm. This is determined based on my sleep cycle. For people who wake up around 8 am, their strength output peaks between 4 and 6 pm. Since I wake up around 10 am, my peak strength performance occurs between 8 and 10pm. My workout is my meditative time, my “me” time and I focus intensely on that. Then I eat after my workout.
5) Decompressing. This takes place the last 2 hours of everyday. i do something completely non-work related, preferably something such as watching a movie or reading fiction.
> What makes you get up in the morning?
I love what I do. A big part of it is my blog audience. I learn a great deal from them than they do from me. I feel almost guilty not working hard. Trying to change the world in some small or big way.
> What did you have for breakfast today?
Two scrambled eggs with ghee, and a handful of sunflower seeds.
> Have you tried the Paleo Diet?
My diet is pretty much effectively Paleo.
> What did you find to be the most difficult to outsource but once done right made a huge difference? What would you not outsource?
Email would be an example of a difficult item to outsource but very satisfying once done. Email is language sensitive and requires a VA who is able to deal with fairly high level contacts. Sorting email by “Importance” is also difficult to do, as “importance” is hard to standardize. For more examples and a template of rules I gave my VA on how to work with my email, search my blog for “The Holy Grail: How to Outsource the Inbox and Never Check Email Again”.
Scheduling is also a difficult task to outsource, surprisingly. Not so much for the fact that it is time-consuming but because it is an interruption. At first, I underestimated the interruptive nature of scheduling. When outsourcing, consider not only the question of “Do I have the time to do this?”, but a more important question would be “Can I afford the interruption?”. Even it is a small 5 minute interruption during a important task, it resets the clock for your productivity and you will have to go through a period of “warm-up” to get back into the flow.
What would I not outsource? High level marketing decisions which is reflective of my brand. Advertising, planning, approvals of big cheque items (anything above $2000 at this point).
> What are three non-obvious sites, tools and apps that you use on a regular basis that you would be screwed without?
Basecamp: I used Basecamp for almost everything during the writing of the 4 hour body.
Highrise: I use this for contact management.
Evernote: Scanning my bank documents and saving bits and pieces of the web for later reading (Tony’s Note: I use Evernote for 90% of all my work- it is an amazing software)
Textwrangler: Used usually by programmers. Note-taking, draft writing. Removes formatting. I keep this program open all the time on my desktop.
> I noticed that in your skill learning, namely Yabasame (Tony’s Note: Tim did a History Channel pilot episode where he learned Yabasame, the traditional Japanese art of horseback archery- a feat that usually takes years and years of dedicated training to do proficiently- in a week), you said you like to dissect, streamline and automate in order to learn it faster- do you have any organized steps you always take mentally or physically to break things down?
It is actually very straightforward. I try to find the best performer at a given skill and ask him a series of questions.
i) What are the most common mistakes that practitioners (in that particular skill) make?
ii) What are the most dangerous mistakes?
iii) If I had to focus on 3 or 4 things for a week, and I couldn’t focus on anything else, what would you have me focus on if you were responsible for my success? What would the schedule look like?
iv) Is there anyone who shouldn’t be good at this that are?
The last question uncovers the outliers, the anomalies who should not be predisposed to be skilled at this. I always look for the outliers, the people who have beat the odds, in order to replicate what they’ve done.
For great performers of any skill (assuming they’ve been at it for years and years), it is difficult for them to recall what they consciously did in the beginning in order to get better. Therefore I ask the above questions to breakdown their knowledge into digestible pieces.
> What do you suggest for getting and keeping mentors? Rules for approaching them, getting information from them and making sure they’re willing enough to do it regularly? Finding role models and mentors etc.
A very common question. Walking up to someone and say “hey, could you please advise me and taking on another part time job” is not a compelling offer. No one would want to do that. The way of getting some one as a mentor is first, NOT referring to them as a mentor. Never ask them to be your mentor. Rather, it is about developing a relationship over time.
> Many of your fans of your book, the 4-Hour Work Week, are stuck in the “try muse one, try muse two”, why are so many of us get stuck?
1) Look at your product. You must create products that belong in markets YOU belong to. You must also create a product you would buy.
For example, if you are somebody in your mid-twenties and you’re trying to start a web portal for first-time single moms- what are you thinking? Unless you are married to a first-time mom, you have no idea how to market to them.
One recent good muse example I received was an instructional DVD on how to construct a homemade drum set with materials from Home Depot. Some people ask me: “What if I don’t know how to make a drum set?” My answer: “Go out and learn to do it!”
2) Be careful of haphazard spending in testing your muse – you do not need to spend a lot of money to know if something will work. Your goal with testing is not to necessarily have a home run success, but to reach breakeven. If you can reach breakeven with your first advertisement, you are kicking ass. You can now tweak the elements to see what will increase conversions in sales. Start off small and work your way up. In fact, you don’t have to spend any money in the beginning you can use live user-testing or testing with wireframes. Wireframing tests how people respond to just the screenshots of the subject element. A great program for wireframe testing is Balsamiq.
The worst case scenario you can do friends polling, giving seminars, or holding workshops to identify what works and what doesn’t. All of these things cost next to nothing to do.
> What are the top marketing tools out there to market individual products?
It really depends on your product. I can not recommend tools in a general sense. I do not like to obsess on the tools. Use the tried and true methods, read the The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk! and focus on developing your mind share and positioning of the product. Also concentrate on the deliverables: what the product provides to the user. Only then should you worry about the marketing. Take care of the product, and the marketing will almost take care of itself.
> What’s your process of planning your day, month and year?
I don’t make long term business goals as it allows you to defer doing the things that you should do now. If you have these extended goals, it is just an example of Parkinson’s Law. You view these long term “things-to-do” as something you can postpone doing the day after, the week after, the month after… because, after all, its a “long-term” goal. So I don’t have any business “to-do’s” past six months. Past that point, all my planned engagements are personal.
> Do you think you will focus your non-rest time on philanthropic work?
I spend a decent amount of time on that right now with Donors Choose, Waiting for Superman and so forth. I think it can be very easy to be unproductive in focusing on philanthropic work, meaning that I do believe you can create a lot of value by giving people a hand up instead of a hand out by developing businesses that focus on industries that ultimately help the world in some fashion. I don’t think I will get to a point where I’d go to celebrities fundraisers.
On another note, I think hybrid for-profit and philanthropic businesses like TOMS Shoes are going to become much more popular.
> Who is your favourite entrepreneur growing up?
Read Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson.
> What is your favourite deadlift stance?
Wide sumo stance. Either that or conventional for least chance of injury.
> Beside the tips you shared in your first book, do you have any tips on meeting and connecting with high-profile people? For example, if I wanted to guest-post on your blog, how can I ‘wow’ you?
First, they can start by not harassing me. The harassing approach which a lot of people take simply does not work- you will just get blacklisted. People misunderstand some of my advice in the book. Persistence is good. But emailing my assistant 50x is just being a pain in the ass. You have to do so tactfully. On your own blog or website, put up a couple of posts that are very good. Show me that they’re good (comments, traffic etc.). Show me that you have 2 or 3 things that have received a good response and send an email to my assistants indicating that you would like to guest post. Be clear that you are not trying to sell anything but simply trying to build your own reputation as a writer. Provide three links to your best work. Keep it short and sweet. Then suggest three topics and potential headlines with two sentence descriptions for each. By the way, this is also the same way you pitch to the New York Times or any magazine you would like to write for.
> Recommended books on improving negotiation skills?
> Can you describe how you scale and organize your personal outsourcing infrastructure over time? From one off-shore VA to multiple offshore VAs etc.? Please share any effective tactics.
It is not a specularly sophisticated structure.
For almost all lower level stuff like those bank related or bill related I’ve either eliminated or automated. For my current infrastructure, I have my primary executive VA, who handles almost all of my calendaring, 90%+ of my emails, media inquiries, speaking engagement requests. I allow for my Executive VA to subcontract in some cases, to her sub-VAs (which all of whom are approved by me).
I met my Executive VA by chance when I was corresponding through an Executive Assistant to some one else. I responded at the closing of the correspondence indicating she was very good at her job and asking her whether she had a twin brother/twin sister who could help me. It turned out that her, and often times many other assistants, works freelance and would be able to take new clients on. Beyond that, I also have a Director of Special Projects.
Further down the structure, I have access to a dedicated team at Asksunday.com and several other firms as well for more labour-intensive things like spreadsheets, filtering comments on the blog etc. My Director of Special Projects also interacts with outsourcing firms. I do not ask my VAs to moderate my blog comments. I go through and moderate my blog comments personally. This does not take very much time when you batch.
I have two email accounts- one being my “bat cave” account and then the other is my “funnel” account, which funnels many different emails directly to my executive VA. My executive VA does not have access to my “bat cave”, highest level, confidential email account.
> Best places in the world, according to you?
San Francisco, of course. I also love Buenos Aires, Berlin, Olso… many places.
> Recommended colleges for their entrepreneurship program?
It depends on the professor. I hear Babson College is very good. But almost all of the top school in North America will have a handful of good entrepreneurship faculty. A lot of these top school classes will have CEOs or former CEOs teaching.
> Books that have changed your life?
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. Amazing.
> Are you going to start an extended 4-Hours series?
Probably not. I think I would be surprised if I continued the brand after the 4-Hour Body. But never say never, right?
Housekeeping and Value-Giving.
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**Title photo credits: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid laughingsquid.com