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Interview: Timothy Ferriss, Bestselling Author of The 4-Hour Workweek

The Intelligent Use of Data

Scott Hanselman: Hi, this is Scott Hanselman and this is another episode of Hanselminutes. I'm down here in Sebastopol, California at Foo Camp and I've been lucky enough to sit down with Tim Ferriss, the New York best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek. That's four, the number four, not 40, not 14, four-hour workweek. How's it going, Tim?

Timothy Ferriss: It's going great.

SH: I want to understand how you're able to synthesize what is a 40- or 60- or 80-hour workweek to those four or few hours that really are the most value-added. Are you just outsourcing everything that's tedious?

TF: No. I think that that's the most popular topic to discuss because it gets people hot and heavy and it's political and emotional, but at the core of the most important concept is that of reductionism. What I mean by that is it's very easy to make the simple complex, but it's quite challenging to make a complex simple. Once you identify the fewest moving parts what you might call primitives in language learning, for example, that comprise the entire language or the entire objectives so in the case of work, if you do an 80/20 analysis of your inputs you'll find a very disproportionate ratio of input to output, so 20% of the activities that you're engaged in are generally correlated to 80% of the desired outcomes, but it's usually skewed even more than that. You find that this type of analysis ports very easily to almost any activity. So, in the case of the tango, for example, I did my first tango class in Argentina and then five months later competed in the world championships and made it to the semi-finals representing Buenos Aires as an American, which has never been done and then set a world record. The reason I was able to do that is not because I mastered the tango in some amorphous allen-compassing way. It's because I was able to identify that there two components that really determined everything else, work and lead. I was able to learn those two things and really focused on finding those two things that had my desired outcome. It's really looking at problems and realizing that the simplest solution is usually the best, all Occam's Razor, and really just trying to reduce it to these primitive elements.

SH: Does that work in most everything? I mean some people wants to say that the 80/20 rule basically makes you a person that's getting a basically B average. You're not truly excelling, but you're very competent. Can you take it to that next level?

TF: I don't think that's true. I think it depends on how you measure competency, which is a separate discussion in itself, but I think it's possible to be extremely world-class in many, many things if you focus on what's important. I believe that can be taught as well. So, I think that the term 80/20 is misleading because it can be 99/1. It can be 99/20. What I mean by that is it doesn't need to add up to 100 either. Some people say, "Oh, 80%." Well, they think in terms of grade point average, but there's a point of diminishing returns with any activity. So, for example, in learning languages, and that's one of my various geek out obsessions, you find that to be 95% accurate in a given language conversationally can be accomplished very quickly in about six months, three to six months, even though in something like Mandarin Chinese or Japanese to get to, let's say, the 97% accuracy range could take 20 to 25 years. You find there's that same radical point of diminishing returns with almost anything whether it's sports or business. Putting in the first two hours of e-mail may accomplish 99% of what you want versus putting in 20 hours of e-mail, for example.

SH: That just clicked for me. Now, help me - this may be a silly tangent, but help me understand how that explains why those first two to three hours on any plane flight I get more e-mail done than at any session where I sit down consciously in my office and try to do my e-mail.

TF: I think one of the reasons is, and this may be more of a technical level, but Scoble said the same thing to me coincidentally. The reason is that you're focusing on output and exclusively output. Most people try to do both at the same time. So, what happens? You have 50 e-mails. You answer the first five and then ping, ping, you start getting replies. That interrupts that function that you're trying to batch, which is that output. Of course, the other option or the other explanation is that if you're sitting in a fuselage hurdling through space in the window seat and you can't move, you don't have any crutch activities immediately within reach. So, you can't go to the bathroom. You can't reorganize your file folders. You can't grab a cup of coffee and go talk to your colleague about something that's not important. You really have no crutch activity to resort to. I think those two certainly contribute.

SH: So, then if I apply the analysis that we're talking about to try to make that possible in my regular life when I'm not in an airplane, unplug the network cable, and sit in a simulated tube in my office and try to get that stuff handled.

TF: Sure, yeah. You can simulate it. The way that I look at developing any skill set is you have three layers of importance that determine your results. The first is environment. Environment is the number one variable that you need to optimize. Secondly, you have the material, the what of what you do, and then last you have the method. All right? The how. And most people approach it in exactly the opposite order. They focus on how to be very good at something before they determine whether it's important or not, then they focus on doing that thing and then they look at environment as an afterthought.
I approach it top down in the other direction. For example, if I go to Berlin to learn German like I did or if I go to Dubai to learn Arabic, which I'm going to do in two months or so once my learning curve flattens out with this book, I'm going to disappear for a while, I will probably in Dubai, for example, get an apartment that is fairly far outside the city. So, what does that do? It immediately builds in probably two-hour commute time and I will learn Arabic in that commute time because I'm creating that fuselage-type isolation, but it's the way I learned Japanese, it's the way I learned Mandarin, almost all the languages I learned.

SH: So, it's literally setting yourself up for success.

TF: Right. Humans have very poor impulse control and they have very poor distraction-filtering. It's far more effective to create the proper environment that doesn't allow you to misbehave than to depend on making decisions about discipline at every point through the process.

SH: So, is this really effective single-tasking? I'm hearing that there's a very conscious decision that this single task that I am focusing on is the right thing. I noticed that we were in a talk earlier today you were doing a hurdler stretch while you were listening and I said, "Maybe his secret is that he's multitasking."

TF: No, no, I single-task. The hurdler stretch doesn't require any mental RAM so I'm able to do that. It's a passive activity, not an active activity. So, you have different mental faculties that are consumed by different things and you don't want to have specific mental applications, if I can really push the analogy, that are drawing on that same faculty. You find when people try to answer e-mail, IM, and do God knows what at the same time while eating a sandwich, it just doesn't work. It's calling on some of the same mental faculties and you add strip RAM quite quickly. Even if you have, for example, we were talking about GTD before the interview and what David Allen refers to as open loops, they also sit in the background like an application that just consumes RAM the entire time. It is important to close those apps as well.


More Stories By Scott Hanselman

Scott Hanselman will be starting a new job at Microsoft as a senior program manager in the developer division. His blog is at http://www.hanselman.com.

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Most Recent Comments
Luis Colorado 11/06/07 09:46:19 AM EST

Gaining 34 pounds of muscle in 4 weeks seems to be very unlikely. According to Arnold Scharzenegger, you would be extremely lucky to gain 34 pounds of muscle in a year, let's forget about 4 weeks. I wonder if it can be inferred that other claims made by Mr. Ferriss are so unlikely as this one.