Please enjoy this transcript of past podcast guest Cal Newport interviewing me for an article he ended up writing for The New Yorker titled “Revisiting ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’: How Tim Ferriss’s 2007 manifesto anticipated our current moment of professional upheaval.”
Who is Cal? Cal Newport (calnewport.com) is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University who previously earned his PhD from MIT. His scholarship focuses on the theory of distributed systems, while his general-audience writing explores intersections of culture and technology.
Cal is the author of seven books, including, most recently, Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email. He is also a contributing writer for The New Yorker and the host of the Deep Questions podcast.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Cal Newport: All right, so Tim, thanks for taking some time to talk with me today.
Tim Ferriss: My pleasure, excited to dig in.
Cal Newport: Yeah, so I really want to focus, as we’ve talked about before, on the conception and immediate reception of The 4-Hour Workweek, and just to remind you of the context, I’m interested in this idea that that book’s reception in 2007 was actually a warning shot of sorts about what was happening in the world of work becoming less sustainable, and it was a warning shot that was largely forgotten, and now we are feeling it today, the after effects of this thing that you were pointing out early. So I wanted to get into a little bit of story of the book and the reception, I’m going to ask you about that, and get your thoughts about why, in some sense, that warning shot faded out of people’s perception for a while. So that’s the route I’m going to take if that’s amenable to you.
Tim Ferriss: It’s absolutely amenable, I’m game.
Cal Newport: All right, so I want to set the context of the times and the culture before you started conceiving this book. So, right off the bat, you graduated Princeton, do I have this right, right around 2000? What was the actual year you graduated?
Tim Ferriss: 2000.
Cal Newport: Exactly 2000, okay. And did you go straight from Princeton to TrueSAN? Was that your first job?
Tim Ferriss: I did.
Cal Newport: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: I had the desk in the fire exit, very much not up to code. They were over capacity, so it was an exciting time to get a land in Silicon Valley.
Cal Newport: And you were there for that first crash, the 2001 crash?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Cal Newport: So when did you begin to notice signs of unsustainability about the work culture out there? Was it TrueSAN? Was it later with your startup? I mean, what was it like out there? And just as context, this 2000 to 2005 roughly, this is when, as far as I can tell, something tipped in the culture, especially in Silicon Valley, towards this sort of hyper community of unsustainable. So I know somewhere around that this was happening. You were there. What were you seeing on the ground back then?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I was seeing what I suppose many people were seeing and engaging in, which is a heroic sprint, or what was intended to hopefully be a sprint, to sort of cash in or cash out with these incredibly fast-growing startups. This was the sort of new-new economy, all the rules were thrown out, at least that’s how it was presented in the media, and I think everyone there was inclined to believe it because it was an appealing fiction that you could sprint for a few years and everyone could make a ton of money and cash out. It turns out that is harder to do than it would seem on paper, but when things crashed, at least what I saw before the tech startup implosion, was people coming into the office on the day before Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving and working late into the night and so on.
And that in and of itself is not intrinsically unsustainable for everyone, but it’s unsustainable for a lot of people, right? If you’re Ruth Bader Ginsburg, yes, you can do that for the entirety of your whole life. If you’re Henry Kissinger, you can also do that. But I think the vast majority of us can’t sustain that for an incredibly long period of time. So I took the behaviors that I had developed working in the startup culture, working in a very fast-growing startup, and then applied it to my own business, starting around, let’s say 2001.
My tenure at TrueSAN didn’t last very long because TrueSAN didn’t last very long. And I was working across multiple time zones, I was waking up early, going to bed very late, and probably clocking, I would say, at least 12-hour days typically. And what I began to notice, and this is very early from a tech perspective, right? If you wanted to access certain, say files on your computer, this is pre Dropbox, you might have to use something like GoToMyPC to log in remotely and so on. So, as far as mobility and remote access, it was very early days. We had Flintstones tools at the time compared to today.
But the breaking point for me was about 2004, and I was dating a wonderful girl who I thought was probably going to end up my wife, and she broke up with me and gave me not exactly a plaque, but do you know those tri-fold photo holders that you can get at a Target or something like that? They’re sort of wire-brushed and so on. And so she had created a collage of sorts. It showed me, a photograph of my head cut out and pasted onto this paper body in a business suit with a briefcase with stuff flying out, and it said, “Business hours end at 5:00 p.m.” And so she basically said, “Keep this for your health, put this on your desk.”
And at the end of that relationship, what I realized was that outside of the pre-startup crash euphoria and the quick flips and so on, if I telescoped out and if I’m not really getting to your answer, tell me, but this is sort of a microcosm of the macrocosm, if that makes sense? If I telescoped out a year, five years, 10 years and looked at the behaviors, they were not sustainable, and the problems that were small were going to get bigger. The little, physical issues that I had from sitting in front of the computer for those types of stretches were just going to compound so on and so forth. And so that is when I decided to either completely rethink and remake the business or shut it down.
And that led to a commitment to, back when you could buy a one-way ticket overseas without too much trouble, I bought a one-way ticket to the UK where I stayed with a college friend, crashed on a couch, and I committed to spend four weeks there to figure things out. And ultimately even with the rudimentary tools at the time, was able to really automate and outsource an incredible amount at the time, using things like Elance, and again, remote access tools, like GoToMyPC where you would still have to go to an internet cafe, mind you, I guess it was Easy Internet or EasyCafe, which was the internet cafe equivalent or cousin of EasyJet, if that rings any bells?
And I just continued traveling because I had sort of removed the need to be physically in one location. And that led me to travel around the world for around a year. And over that period of time was a guest, and I’ll stop in a minute because I’m not sure if I’m going in the right direction, but over that time, and for actually many years prior, from 2000 — what was the date? I want to say it was 2003 to 2013, I guess, lectured at Princeton twice a year in a high-tech entrepreneurship class. And I was the bootstrap example. They had a lot of venture-backed entrepreneurs who would come speak to the class, and I was the bootstrapping example. And I began to sort of codify the rules that I had borrowed or refined for myself in this huge experiment, and that much later turned into The 4-Hour Workweek.
Cal Newport: Just, by the way, as an aside, there’s not a business school at Princeton, so where were they hiding this high-tech entrepreneurship class? I’m assuming it was probably phenomenally popular?
Tim Ferriss: It was very popular, and relatively new, all things considered. It was in two departments, it was ELE 491, so it was in electrical engineering, and even though it was decidedly non-technical, it was within electrical engineering and also I believe it was called, it may have changed in name, ORF, operations research finance, like financial engineering and operations engineering. So I believe it straddled both of those departments. And so you had undergrads and graduate students in that class, and it was phenomenally popular. The professor Ed Zschau, Z-S-C-H-A-U, is an incredible human, incredible teacher, incredible character, he’s worth looking up, I don’t know how much you want me to get into right now, but he was a former competitive figure skater, had been a congressman, had taken a couple of companies public, was one of the first computer science teachers at Stanford, had then taught at Harvard Business School, of course, chronologically all of these things are out of order, and he was tremendously inspiring, and also encouraging. And so he helped connect me ultimately with the people who led to the job at TrueSAN.
Cal Newport: And Ed was who taught you the Pareto principle? Do I have that right?
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good question, I’m not sure if Ed taught me Pareto’s principle. The Pareto principle could also have come from a lot of reading. I mean, I’ve always been a voracious reader, so it could’ve come from any number of books.
Cal Newport: There was someone you cited in your 2007 speech. Maybe it was a different Ed. Was there an Ed Lau? Is there a different — or a Ted?
Tim Ferriss: If I had mentioned an Ed, it probably would be Ed Zschau. So I’m perfectly happy to attribute it to Ed.
Cal Newport: We’ll give him the credit. Rewinding just a little bit though, so I like this idea that you have the new-new thing culture in Silicon Valley, late ’90s, early 2000s, everyone wants the Jim Clark Hyperion yacht, “This is where I’m going to end up,” right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly
Cal Newport: And so you go to your startup, you’re like, “I’m going to push now because that’s what you do.” Now, in your case, you mentioned somewhere, I think maybe in The 4-Hour Workweek, which I just re-read last weekend, you mentioned perfectly —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, thanks for that.
Cal Newport: Well, it’s great, I love the book,, and I still remember my first listening of it after our common friend, Ramit Sethi, called me, he was like, “My friend, Tim, has this book, you’ve got to read it today.” And I listened to it on Audible, or whatever it was back then.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Ray Porter, good narrator.
Cal Newport: Yeah, Ray Porter’s great. Yeah, he does a lot of thrillers now, too.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he’s prolific.
Cal Newport: But you mentioned in the book that you had made a fatal flaw with your company that meant that it wasn’t something you were going to sell in three years and buy the yacht. A little bit of a side, I’m just curious, what was the fatal flaw that made the company something that wasn’t going to be quickly sold?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think that if you start with the end in mind, perhaps I’d started with the wrong end. And by that, I mean, my relationships and contracts and so on would not necessarily transfer over to new leadership. So a lot of the business was dependent on me. Ultimately, I created the business because I understood that I had a very large margin of safety with the actual profit margin, and it was also an area I understood really well. But the flaw was not — I mean, there were many, there was more than one flaw, is the short answer, but there’s a good book actually that people can read, which gives them pretty much the gist in the title, and that is Built to Sell. And a more extreme example of something not built to sell would be say, The Tim Ferriss Show, the podcast, right? It is so intrinsically intertwined with me that there’s a key man, in this case, dependency, right?
So there was a bunch of that built into the business that made it more difficult. The other piece that made it difficult in a sense, which can be a very elegant solution for — and I hesitate to call it a lifestyle business because some of these so-called lifestyle businesses are really just cash-flow-healthy businesses that are privately held, right? I think they get maybe an unfair knock, but with many of these lifestyle businesses, certainly a lot of the businesses that exist now, and a lot of the businesses that were created after people read The 4-Hour Workweek, you would have one or two owners, and then you would have lots of contractors. And if you haven’t assembled management team that would effectively transfer as an acqui-hire, even if the price were larger, to another company, there are all sorts of complexities involved.
So that’s a bit of a meandering answer, but there were a bunch of weaknesses because I created it, first and foremost, having never sold a company, having never invested in startups, having never even really considered how one would build a company to sell. I started it, first and foremost, to produce cash flow, and that’s the long and short answer.
Cal Newport: Right, exactly, that in some sense, because you’ve mentioned before, for example, at some point people tried to knock it off unsuccessfully, and that’s because it’s not just the idea or assembling the right contractors, it’s the intense focus on operations that the founder, runner, you, injects into it, that, “I am here 7:00 a.m. to midnight, doing all the things, keeping the things up, carrying…” You are the operational cog.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Cal Newport: You can hire all the contractors and set up a relationship with the manufacturer, but if you’re not paying attention to it —
Tim Ferriss: Cal, may I add actually one more thing?
Cal Newport: Yeah, sure. Of course.
Tim Ferriss: I was just going to say, I think it’s important to note that, because we’re talking about sprints, or I mentioned that word at least, and sustainability, and so on, I think it is, all things equal, critically important if you are opting into, say, the venture-backed startup game, where there are some zero sum scenarios that you work your ass off. I do actually think that’s important if you’re playing that game. And it is, in some ways, very similar to professional sports. It tends to favor the young who are really going to put nose to grindstone and are willing to engage in that type of full-contact sport. But even within that type of intense environment, things very often take two or three times longer than you would like them to and cost two or three times more, and so it makes sense to have systems and habits and principles that support those types of contingency plans, if that makes any sense?
Cal Newport: Well, yeah, and I’m glad you brought that up because this sort of brings me to my next question, which is, you have this culture emerging in Silicon Valley where there’s people making a run for startups going big, for the first time this capital was there, everyone saw what happened to Netscape and then the firing gun had been fired. But then what interests me, and this is where I don’t know if you have an answer or not, is that attitude metastasized out of people who were employee number three on a startup trying to hit an IPO schedule, and it grew to just, “I’m a programmer, I’m in the marketing department at this larger company.” And then it grew out of Silicon Valley and the knowledge work more generally, this, “Let’s get after it, let’s sprint,” this hustle culture.
And the other place that it had shown up where it was sort of necessary was in high finance. So in the ’90s, I guess, you have Michael Lewis now for him looking at Silicon Valley, of course, he had Liar’s Poker. So that culture was coming out of the managing director push in high finance in the ’80s and ’90s, and then we get this push for your startups. But it spread. And it spread the people who — I am not in line to — I don’t own 30 percent of a company that my effort is going towards that I’m going to make a lot of money when this thing sells. And yet everyone began working more and more like that rarefied model of the founder trying to make their startup successful.
I don’t know if you have an answer. I don’t have an answer, but I don’t know if you have a thought on it, but is this just Silicon Valley’s cultural influence? Because this is what I saw, that idea spread and people began treating — work became more and more of that type of sprint, even when there wasn’t a clear finish line that you were sprinting towards.
Tim Ferriss: This is a good question. It’s a good question, and I can only take an educated stab at it, but it’s still speculative. I would say, I think what happens in Silicon Valley often is twofold. There are companies and people who are lionized and put on a pedestal, and therefore, culturally, there is a lot of imitation of Silicon Valley. So I do think that’s a piece. I do think though it’s possible an even larger piece is that Silicon valley, certainly at that time, and there are more places like Silicon Valley now, whether that’s New York City, Cambridge, Shanghai, Beijing, there are more places like it.
But if we flash back to the early 2000s, Silicon Valley was also the prototyping and testing ground for new technologies, and you had bleeding edge early adopters, even if technologies are available. I think of the William Gibson quote, which is very overused, but it is apt here, which is, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And that’s true in Silicon Valley.
So for instance, years ago, you could go into a coffee shop in Palo Alto and they were actually attempting, I think, it was Coupa Cafe, C-O-U-P-A, they were attempting to allow you to pay in Bitcoin for your coffee. I don’t think they had many takers, but nonetheless, that was an option. And similarly, I think whether it’s internet cafes, remote work arrangements, virtual organizations, a lot of these were tested early on and you also had people buying tools and iPhones and so on, although iPhone may have come later, with a certain density in Silicon Valley. And when you have all of those tools and you have certain cultural norms, but they’re enabled by a certain pervasive technology fetish, if we look at where we are now, it’s the easiest way to make the point that when you can always be connected and when you don’t have a single physical office, you can work all the time. And in fact, it’s incredibly challenging and you need strategies and rules, maybe even technological constraints so that you don’t work all the time. It bleeds over, and I think that’s a byproduct of not just the culture and the narrative, although that’s a big piece of it. It’s also byproduct of Silicon Valley at the time, at least being sort of ground zero for density of new tech use, which then proliferated out to other places.
Cal Newport: I like this because I think it’s the alternate hypothesis and it’s a hobby horse hypothesis of mine that, yeah, the other way to understand people getting more busywork seeming less sustainable. My original hypothesis, which is there’s this culture of overwork that came out of Silicon Valley, but what you’re saying here is the other, I think competing hypothesis, which is maybe even more right. I mean, I just wrote a whole book about this.
It was the tools and that when you give people always on low friction digital communication, there’s weird dynamics that occur. And I note for example, in your 2007 sort of coming out, South by Southwest talk, your South by Southwest interactive talks, I want to get to as sort of the core of this book’s release, and I just re-listened to it.
Email is mentioned. You mentioned email four times in the first six minutes of that talk. It is your personification in some sense of unsustainable work, right? The whole opening of this talk is about how work has become unsustainable and email is brought up multiple times as the example. So this is the competing hypothesis, which is once email spread, and again, we can blame Silicon Valley in the sense that they probably prototyped like, “Hey, we should all be on email talking all the time.” And that’s where that came from. It became an accidental byproduct.
We can all reach each other at all times. There’s no governor on that behavior and the whole social, cultural, economic business culture environment, just spiraled out of control and suddenly no one knew what to do. We were constantly getting emails. We didn’t know what to do with it. No one was putting a cap on that. No one was asking, “How should we do it?”
So that’s another hypothesis. Maybe that one’s more accurate. Because you mentioned emails so much when you were talking about this book in the time, I’m taking it that’s an important, to you, that’s an important piece of part of what was making work less sustainable back then.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure. And I mean, I think that — well, a few things. Number one, I would love to hear that talk because I haven’t heard it since I gave it. I wasn’t even aware that they had a recording. So if you have a record, if you could send a link to that, I would love to listen to it. I have to —
Cal Newport: Do you remember your PowerPoint broke? Do you remember that? And you had to go —
Tim Ferriss: I do remember that.
Cal Newport: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: I absolutely remember that. I do remember that.
Cal Newport: It seemed like a metaphor for something. It seemed very profound.
Tim Ferriss: Yes! It was very, very meta. So let me just as a backdrop say, I think Silicon Valley in its best versions shows us the bright, optimistic, enabled, better future that we can have. You get glimpses of things that might only be seen on Main Street five, 10, 15, 20 years later. So in that sense, it is a glimpse of things to come.
Conversely, it’s also the canary in the coal mine for new maladies, for new neuroses, for new afflictions that are related to new technologies and developments and cultural changes, also, if they’re associated with technologies.
So the email at the time was the — it was the email addiction and assorted issues was the easiest to point to and Twitter is just an example. I think you and I spoke about this some time ago, but my understanding is that Twitter launched officially that same South by Southwest and I remember there being a huge big screen TV on the ground floor of the convention center, where they had South by Southwest Interactive, which at the time was really the red-headed stepchild of the entire event. It was tiny. It was so small. And now it’s the connective tissue that binds everything at South by Southwest together.
But at the time it was very small and you could see all of the tweets being published in real time in the world on one big screen TV and you could watch it. I mean, you could watch it slowly click through and you could see it scroll. It was incredible. And kind of crazy to think that you could do that at that point, 2007 but Twitter wasn’t ubiquitous. Social media weren’t ubiquitous in the same way that they are today.
So email at the time was a clear example of a tool that was designed for defense purposes. If we go back to like ARPANET and so on best I can tell that was now being adapted to be used as an instant messaging tool by millions of people. And I recall, I don’t know if I mentioned this in the talk but, at the time Robert Scoble was a big figure in this corner of tech. And he had said something to me along the lines, I may have only mentioned this in later talks, I don’t know if I mentioned in that one, but that the only way to receive fewer emails is to not respond and that he had noticed when he responded to email for every email he responded to, he received something like 1.75 emails in response.
And that is the very definition of insurmountable, right? You used the word metastasized earlier in the conversation and I think that’s very appropriate here. And if you begin to telescope out, just looking at, if we take that math as roughly true for a lot of people in some fashion, it was very clear that we had either a broken tool and/or a broken approach to handling this tool. And everybody empathized, especially the people in this audience at South by Southwest. I mean, these are tech-early adopters who have maybe been sort of wading through the briar patches and quicksand of high-volume email by that point, perhaps for a few years longer than the mainstream.
That acute pain perhaps had not been felt by a lot of other people, which is part of the reason why I think The 4-Hour Workweek really, and it was deliberate on my part also, but it really took off among tech-savvy and tech-immersed knowledge workers in a handful of cities first. And I think it’s because they felt the pain most acutely.
Cal Newport: And that matches my research. They’re hard to find now, but I used to have, people were posting notes, their notes from your session. “The email. It’s too much. Tell people you’re not going to answer.” All of the Elimination ideas was just “asterisk, exclamation point,” Scoble’s interview with you, “Let’s get into the email.” You definitely felt that. This is where that tipping point was happening, but no one was yet saying this was unsustainable.
My whole theory on this is that when I went back and did all the research on email spread, it spreads in the early ’90s because we needed more cost-effective, asynchronous communication. It was replacing fax machines and voicemail, and it’s cheaper and it did it well and it’s good for that. And then we got what you said, which was, “Well, let’s just use this as the main medium through which all collaboration happens,” a hyperactive hive-mind of back-and-forth conversation.
That doesn’t scale. That fried our brains and tech got there first, but the problem was tech was the wrong place for that to hit first, because there’s such techno instrumentalists in that world. They’re like, “Okay, it’s all about user habits. If I can just get a custom VIM macro suite set up just properly.” Right? This was the era of Merlin Mann and Inbox Zero that “If email’s a problem, it’s because I don’t have the right setup. I don’t have the right configuration. I don’t have the right processing system” — and so they were going at it by saying, “I’ll just build better tools,” because the tech people, tech is quite neutral; it’s all about how you use it.
So they’re like, “We must just be using this tool wrong,” but I think you’re right. And I agree with that theory that no, no, the whole ways that organizations were using emails, this is how collaboration happened, it meant there was nothing you could do to your inbox configuration that was going to save you from having to answer a lot of emails. You had to actually change how the work happened, which is basically what a lot of what you were preaching. And maybe that’s what made it transgressive at the time, or a release, but I’m glad you had that same reaction because that’s so strongly how I remember your talk is the email thing just landed. That was a punch that just landed. And the audience was like, “Yes.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Now email and the idea of autoresponders and de-risking autoresponders and case studies of people who’d implemented interval-based management of email say checking every day at 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and providing a phone number if they’re needed more urgently, et cetera. I mean, these types of approaches and the actual experiments and case studies, which allowed people to see how infrequently the worst-case scenarios manifest landed in a very, very big way.
And just to build on what you said, it’s very tempting to think that you can make surface-level changes to the tools and tactics that already lay on top of what you’re doing. And it turns out, I think certainly in hindsight, if we look at the last 20 years since 2000, I would imagine that if what I’ve seen is any reflection of a broader experience that instead of having an inbox now, you have five crowded inboxes, you have different messaging apps, you might have iMessage, you might have multiple emails. You might have any number of other applications that sit on the desktop or on your phone.
And it’s clear to me that you really, at least, I mean, millions of people who have read The 4-Hour Workweek have found it more helpful to start with first principles and questioning assumptions and identifying possible worst-case scenarios, how to mitigate them, and then running experiments a little higher up the stack, if that makes any sense or further upstream, just to mix all my metaphors.
Because at the end of the day, if you have an unsustainable approach, you can window dress it with an upgrade or an application switch, but you’re not typically addressing root causes. And I think that’s why, even now, since you just read it last week, I mean, you can say as credibly as anyone that the resources in The 4-Hour Workweek are out of date and many of the examples, how to market test, how to launch, what people would now call an MVP, have all changed. But the book still sits in the top few hundred on Amazon generally to this day, somewhere in the top thousand. And I think it’s because of the principles. It’s because the principles and the stories and the pain are still present and can still be used or in the case of the pain minimized by kind of revisiting the fundamentals.
Cal Newport: Right. You’re saying it’s not GoToMyPC and PBwiki fans?
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Those are no longer relevant. And if, this is actually a great point, if you think the latest app is going to save you, you’re just going to have to repeat the drill six months later, 12 months later. So there’s very little durability to a tactic-based or a tool-based approach, in my experience.
Cal Newport: Right. You’re not one Slack plugin away from productivity Nirvana.
Tim Ferriss: From Nirvana, right.
Cal Newport: One of the things you talk about in The 4-Hour Workweek is, in Elimination you talk about, “I don’t like productivity, and I think most time management is, in some sense, a waste of time. This is smart people spending too much time trying to be more efficient instead of trying to be smarter about what they do.”
And I recently did this big piece for The New Yorker on, it was called “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.” And it was about the rise of the productivity pron movement, which was this movement that felt like with the right high-tech tools and scripts and database-backed applications, you could basically make work, you could tame all your work and it would be easy. Right?
An interesting thing about that timeline is that that movement picked up all of its speed in the three or four years before The 4-Hour Workweek came out and around the time The 4-Hour Workweek came out, the main, one of the main organs of that, which was Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders blog, which was a really important thing at the time —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, hugely influential. Yeah.
Cal Newport: It basically shut, not shut down, but it redirected away from, “This isn’t going to work,” that’s kind of the point of this article is it followed Merlin’s story, but it was like, “Okay, we’re not going to solve work by just having Quicksilver scripts and KGTD. Like, actually, we need to rethink work.” All of that was concurrent. So when you were looking at “Productivity’s not working; time management’s not working,” is that what you were seeing? That moment of, that brief moment of optimism, where we thought with the right Mac configurations we could make our overwhelming work effortless without having to actually ask the question of what our work is? You might not remember. I mean this was a while ago.
Tim Ferriss: No, I remember a lot of it. I think that last portion is true for me, at least in the sense that the cult of productivity and we have to be very careful with that term, and you’ve written about this. I read your recent piece actually, which I thought was very good. We have to define productivity very carefully, lest we become a, yeah the greyhound chasing this rabbit around a track, not knowing why we’re there in the first place, but I think technologists and those who are mesmerized by technologists and technology are very prone to getting extremely efficient at doing things that are not important.
And sometimes they do apply it to things that are important, but the thrust of The 4-Hour Workweek, I would say in a nutshell, is what you do is more important than how you do it, and put another way, being effective is more important than being efficient. So let’s think really hard about the 80/20 principle, otherwise known as Pareto’s law, such that if you focus on the highest leverage things, even if you fuck up every which way from Sunday, you have such a margin of safety and such a disproportionate output for the time that you put in, it’s okay.
Does that make sense? So if you look at, Churchill, Drucker, I mean, a lot of these figures who were massively productive by almost any definition. I mean, taking naps, you got Ulysses S. Grant, alcoholic. It’s not like they were sitting in front of a typewriter or dictating or active, frenetically active all the time. That was just not the case. So —
Cal Newport: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I agree with you. And I think anyone who has attempted to kind of address the malaise of overwork by adding more tools and tricks and scripts realizes pretty quickly that the water’s always going to fill faster than you can bail it out with that type of approach. At least in my experience.
Cal Newport: I think that idea was very influential for me too. I got it from you. I got that from The 4-Hour Workweek, but I thought about it. Recently wrote an essay over the summer where I read a book about the history of a lot of great scientists throughout the history of science. And I wrote this essay that was saying, “Galileo didn’t work that much, and yet we see him as being incredibly productive, but he was rarely busy.” So, and that’s a 4-Hour Workweek, that’s a 4-Hour Workweek idea.
Tim Ferriss: I just want to say one more thing, because it’s so tangible for folks. A lot of people don’t identify with scientists or maybe even writers, but this is true of a lot of the world’s best investors also, right? I mean, Warren Buffett. “Don’t just do something; stand there,” instead of “Don’t just stand there; do something.” And very laziness bordering on sloth, I think, is how either he or Munger have described their investing approach. You really don’t have to get a lot of things right. Or rather, you don’t have to do a lot if you get a few things right, if you really pick your targets well.
Cal Newport: Okay, good. Now that you’ve brought it up, let me just as an aside pitch you this. This idea I’ve been developing on my podcast recently: slow productivity. And here’s my whole concept. I don’t know. Let’s see if this makes sense.
Productivity depends on scale. So when you say, “What I want to do is maximize what I produce on the scale of weeks, you’re going to be very, very busy. Let’s get things moving. Email is going back and forth. I’m jumping on calls,” or what have you. But if you change the scale to years, “I want to maximize what I produce over the five years to be as impressive as possible.”
It’s like a completely different game because now it’s like, “I want to produce three great things in the next five years,” which means your Wednesday, you might do nothing. Right? It’s like scale, so this is my new thing. Maybe scale, the scale at which you’re talking about producing changes the rhythm of what your every day feels like, but this is all aspirational for me because I have too much going on.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I love that phrasing, slow productivity or patient productivity is maybe another way to look at it and not to revert back to investing over and over again. But money is such an important, tangible, scary, alluring thing to people that it’s useful as an instrument when talking about some of these principles.
And I read a book recently, well listened to a book called The Psychology Of Money by Morgan Housel and I was quite impressed by it. And one of the chapters explored the importance of playing your own game and not other people’s games, but that entails knowing what games they are playing.
So for instance, if you have momentum traders who are in very short positions, who really don’t care if, let’s just use an arbitrary example, if Google has a higher price a year from now, but they do care, they don’t care about fundamentals, anything like that, free cash flow, whatever, they don’t care about any of that. What they do care about is sort of market sentiment or behavior driving up the price so they can sell tomorrow or a week later.
And it’s important to kind of know the motivations and the games of other participants, because if you have a different time horizon, your way of relating that to that is totally different, right? For instance, can I guess, and this is not investment advice, but can I guess correctly whether stock’s going to go up or down by what percentage over the next week? No. Over a year? No, probably not. I mean, any kind of cataclysm could hit, but there are certain trends over time where it’s like, “Yeah, do I think there are certain technologies that inescapably are going to become more pervasive in a five- to 10-year stretch? And if I invest in companies that are investing heavily in those areas, do I have a pretty high degree of confidence it’s going to go up? Yep.”
And that’s all the homework I really need to do. Does that make sense? And similarly with productivity, if you’re emulating, if your time horizon is like, “How can I get the most important things done over the next five years?” And that’s reasonably well thought through, but you’re reading interviews with people on the cover of magazines if that’s even a thing anymore, who are in a mad sprint in a zero sum startup game to dominate market share and do God knows what, you’re playing different games. They’re just different games.
Cal Newport: Was that your mindset when you moved in the podcasting? “Now we’re doing a long game?” You had a lot going on and you simplified things. And at first it must’ve been — the first month you’re doing that is not an empire.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. I’m not sure if this is going to be relevant, but I’ll tell you that the podcast came about because The 4-Hour Chef just about killed me. It was such a complex project done in such tight timelines. It was one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done physically, very, very difficult project. And when I launch books I’m basically doing an 80/20 analysis and looking at what is the different channels and forms of media that are decreasing in influence but are thought to have still very high influence by the majority and thus overvalued in some fashion, this could apply to paid acquisition too. And then I’m looking at the neglected darlings that are undervalued in some way, uncrowded in some way, but growing in importance. And so podcasts, I do this every book launch, and the podcasts came out pretty uniformly as having a massive impact. This is in 2011, 2012, planning this. So I did a lot of podcasts for the book release and they had a tremendous impact. And I really enjoyed the format and decided that I wanted to test podcasting for, I think, it was six episodes.
But here’s the rationale. The rationale was, or rather the question that I would ask myself, is, “Is there a way that I can win doing this even if I fail?” And the way that I win doing something even if I fail is if I develop skills and relationships or deepen relationships that transcend that project as a failure. Does that make sense?
Cal Newport: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Scott Adams writes a lot about this really well. And in the case of the podcast, I thought to myself, well, I’m going to take a break from books. No matter what, given the type of books I write, I do interviews, I ask questions. I would like to get better at asking questions and navigating those conversations. I’m going to have these types of conversations anyway, also. So why don’t I determine what I think the minimum effective dose is for podcasting? How many episodes would I actually have to do to start to get better at speaking and interviewing? I was like, “Ah, six to 10 probably. Great. Let’s commit to that.” And then I was off to the races and it’s become a lot more since, but that’s how it started.
Cal Newport: Okay. Interesting. I was curious about that. I’m glad we got that detour. So going back to work being unsustainable, warning shot, when you got this opportunity to speak at South by Southwest 2007 at South by Southwest Interactive, this was potentially a hostile crowd, as far as I can tell, because these were Silicon Valley types. You were at this music festival, but this is where all the khaki pants were and all the vests were. These were people who were going after it, crushing it, trying to get their startups turned around. So it could have gone both ways, because this was — so were you worried about that or you knew everyone, enough people in this world, you’re like, “Yeah, everyone’s going to be on board with this.” What’s the mindset going into that crowd?
Tim Ferriss: The mindset was “I really don’t have much to lose.” In the sense that if it works, great, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And I’m right back where I started. And I felt like I knew that crowd because I was a member of that crowd on some level, if that makes sense. And I also wanted to approach it, maybe this is part of the mindset, by telling my story and describing case studies. You would know better than I because I haven’t heard it since I gave it, but I don’t think I was saying, “You have to do this and everyone should do X, Y, and Z.” There was certainly prescriptions, “You could do this, this is what I’ve done, this is what so-and-so did.” But it was really sharing a story and there was so much common pain, I knew the pain was going to land.
I knew it was going to land because I had also workshopped the material on classes for years of technologists. Now, these are undergrad and graduate students, but nonetheless, I was living in Silicon Valley. So I was surrounded by friends who were co-founders and people who were using technology. So I was very highly confident that at the very least the various pains would be something people would identify with. And also, maybe a little known fact, Hugh Forrest, who I thank pretty much every time I speak at South by Southwest, gave me a shot. I did not have a proper room. The talk was given in basically an overflow room, I want to say, that also acted as a mini cafeteria. And there was a cancellation. There was some type of cancellation.
And to my memory, he was like, “Hey, if you still want a shot, we’ve got a spot. Here’s this little stage.” And I want to say the capacity was something like 100, maybe 100 to 150 people, somewhere in that range. And no one knew who the Hell I was and it was packed. It was packed. And that had nothing to do with me. It had zero to do with me. It had to do with the pain and the potential of some toolkit that would help alleviate that pain. But it was standing room only. And that is purely from subject matter.
Cal Newport: And the structure of the talk was six minutes, seven minutes, pain. Let’s get into the pain and then relief in we can radically rethink what work is. And I’ll talk through different ways you might do that. One of the things I picked up relistening to it recently too was the other thing that seemed to land in there was the examples you gave about it’s okay to do things that might make someone else’s life temporarily less convenient. For some reason that really landed. Put an autoresponder and say, “I’m not going to respond to you right away.” Or fire a client.
Those two things really seem to land. Do you think that gets at the pain in a pretty clear way, the frustration? I definitely came away with that. And because when I heard those two things, I remember those things landing when I first heard your talk and they landed, whatever this is now, 14, 15 years later. It’s okay to basically tell some people, “You have to be inconvenienced here.” So there must have been something going on where everyone could just grab you and your time, and there was a helplessness and that frustration was palpable, I think those examples really got to it.
Tim Ferriss: For sure. And it’s also the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder here, but one way to look at it would be it’s okay if you inconvenience other people. The other way to look at it is it is not just okay but it’s imperative that you prioritize your self-care. And if you don’t, you’re not going to be a player in this game very long. And if you don’t establish boundaries and ask for what you want, indicate what you don’t want, the world will be happy to program all that for you. And chances are it’s not going to turn out very well. So you can develop what I would consider a positive assertiveness or you can build resentment and accrue fatigue until you break. And it’s not only those two options, but I think it’s perhaps useful to think of the two in opposition.
And that definitely landed for folks and the tools are important. I don’t want to say that the tools aren’t important, but ultimately it’s asking better questions, it’s testing assumptions, and it’s really reorienting yourself with different philosophies and a different psychology because if you don’t believe it’s okay for anyone to wait an hour or two or three, or even a day or two or three for a response, in some instances, it doesn’t matter what tool you use. It just doesn’t. And impatience will just swell to fill the void if you allow it on behalf of everyone who is being trained to be impatient.
Cal Newport: What was the private reception, if you remember? So now you’ve given the talk, standing room only, you’re socializing the parties, et cetera, that makes up South by Southwest. Do you remember what were people talking to you about, crowing to you about, excited about?
Tim Ferriss: It’s been a while, so to my memory, the vast majority of the conversations began with a confession of some type, people came up to talk about their pain or their situation or the unrealistic expectations that are made of them and how they feel like they have digital handcuffs of one type or another. I mean, it almost always started with some type of confession and commiserating, because I’ve been there and done that. And so I wasn’t an outsider in that sense, I was a fellow patient, if that makes sense. That makes no sense. And people were also excited and nervous to test things. So they were looking for reassurance that these were experiments worth doing with limited downside, which is always how I painted it. I would ask questions and you’ve heard this.
Again, I haven’t heard the talk since I gave it, but what is the absolute worst case scenario if you put up an autoresponder? Are you going to be fired sight unseen because you created an autoresponder? Okay. Then you determine what you think the worst case scenario is. How could you mitigate the risk of that downside? Maybe you talk to your boss in advance. Maybe you test it only for half a day on Fridays when your boss leaves at 3:00 p.m. and you can get to see how coworkers respond to it. And then how would you reverse the damage if the worst case scenario comes through? Well, you take the autoresponder down. What is the residual damage of that, really? And if the damage is containable, if it’s finite and you look at the potential upside of what it could mean to you if it works, that is a bet, that is a gamble worth taking.
So just an asymmetric bet. And so I really tried to frame it that way. I was like, “Look, I’m not saying that anyone should commit to doing these things forever,” because a lot of the concerns and the pushback would be like, “Well, what if this? And what if that? And what if…” All of these scenarios. I can’t account for all the scenarios, but I do know that in my own life and in the life of the people who served as case studies, a short test, 24 hours, 48 hours is very valuable because it provides you with more information and it either confirms or questions a lot of the fears associated, the anxieties associated with it. So a lot of the conversations are around that and people got right to it. South by Southwest lasts a while. So there were people who began to test autoresponders the next day. And so people then started coming up to me to share their hallelujah, I thought all these horrible things are going to happen and none of them happened.
Cal Newport: At the same conference?
Tim Ferriss: At the same conference.
Cal Newport: I think that’s a very important point that the freedom to experiment is the meta value. In other words, the book, and your talk is a microcosm of the book, first lays out here’s this pain that wasn’t being articulated. And so people say, “Thank you.” No one’s articulating this. They’re all saying, “Get after it.” And then the second part is “You have a lot more options than you think. You can even be relatively radical and re-engineering what work means, go out there and try things.” And then the book had specific things to try, but am I paraphrasing or summarizing the reaction, how you were thinking properly, when you were saying, “It’s not that you have to build a particular automated muse that uses VAs in this very particular way, you should be doing that type of experiment.” Be willing to say, “Well, what if I did this, let me try this.” And you might not end up selling French sailor shirts, but you can —
Tim Ferriss: Forgot about that.
Cal Newport: But you could almost certainly end up with a much better work, configuration might look much different. The person who always comes to mind, and I won’t use his name because I didn’t ask him permission, but he’s a common friend of ours, and was really big on your book when it came out. And when I met up with him at some point, I think it was 2008 in Rio, and I was there presenting a paper to computer science conference, he was there for Carnival, because he’s a lifestyle designer. And when I first met up with him, he was showing me. “Okay, I’ve written this code.” It was very in line specifically with the examples in the book, it goes through the Google AdWords, automatically finds what underperforming value AdWords.
“I click this button and it automatically sends a email to my VAs in the Philippines, who are good English speakers who then write 25 articles on this topic and put it on HubSpot so we can get a high price for these.” Very, very automated. And then I met up with him a couple years later and what he was doing was much more sustainable. He was a computer program. He was like, “I found that I’m working remotely hourly, but for a European company, and I’m getting paid in euros and I’m living mainly in South America. And there’s a great geoarbitrage going on there. And it was this spirit of rethink your work life. His first attempt was “Let me exactly follow one of the examples in the book.” And then where he ended up was actually, “I’m getting mobility, I’m getting geoarbitrage,” those bigger concepts.
And then he ended up going to an incubator and doing a startup because he had time to think about things and what he wanted to do. To me, that always summarized the point you’re making there, that you can do radical things that are different than the thing that’s very unsustainable now, but you have to go take action and experiment and that’s okay, and even if some people get mad, that’s okay, but there’s a wide variety. And especially if time changes and tech changes, and let’s say today, people are not incredibly nervous about asking for a remote work arrangement, but when that book came out, that was incredibly avant-garde, so the times have changed, but the general principle approaches, that applies.
Tim Ferriss: Even two years ago a lot of people would still relate to remote work very differently than they do today, both as employers and employees. And I want to, if it’s okay with you, just take a step back for a second, because the point you made about timescale and how you think about, say, productivity leads me to want to also just mention, at the very least, that The 4-Hour Workweek started with some overarching macro principles. And the Definition section, there’s the Definition, Elimination, Automation, Liberation, all that, the Definition section, the purpose of that was to uncover perhaps unexamined assumptions, like these invisible scripts that are running a lot of our decisions and long-term planning, and to question them and then to offer alternatives. And so, for instance, taking a very close look at what I called in the book “the deferred life plan.”
The deferred life plan, which is this “Slave, save, retire, I will redeem my decades of work for this utopian vision of leisure in my older years and that will work for me and be great,” has dozens of unexamined assumptions inside of it. And then offering alternatives like mini-retirements and distributing retirement throughout life since long life is not guaranteed and there are all sorts of other issues with assuming you’ll have enough for retirement with no income, et cetera. There are others that I’m just going to mention because they may be interesting to take a closer look at. One would also be, and this is very relevant now, that — well, two things. One is that there’s absolute and then relative income.
So determining how much you make per hour is actually quite important in the sense that it’s easy to say so-and-so makes $200,000 a year, so-and-so makes $75,000 a year, another person makes $500,000 a year, therefore, the last example is the most successful and no doubt they have the greatest lifestyle output for what they make. But the lifestyle or life value of each unit, each dollar is really dependent on other factors and to what degree you control them. The where, with whom, how, et cetera, determines a lot of that. And which is part of the reason that geoarbitrage was another thing that was — I don’t know if it was put on the map, but it was definitely thrust into the zeitgeist by readers of this book, the idea that you can geoarbitrage, which you can do in a single country, or even in a single state. It doesn’t have to be scattering different income and expenses around the world.
It could be you’ve gone through COVID, you’ve lived in Manhattan, you decide that this makes no sense. To escape the city you went to New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut, or who knows where. Upstate New York, you realize you prefer that quality of life and that you can get four times the value for money in certain locations, even just within a radius of a few hours. I just think the Definition section is super important. We don’t have to dwell on it, but I just wanted to mention some of these overarching approaches to deconstructing assumptions that underlie a lot of our decision making.
Cal Newport: Let’s pull on that thread. In particular a thread about today. So this message was 15 years ago, work is unsustainable, be willing to consider radical changes to what work is and what role it plays in your life. There’s the mystery of why that warning shot was somewhat ignored in the semi-immediate aftermath, which I’ll get back to in a second. But we fast forward to today, especially COVID post-pandemic, as someone who’s writing about these topics right now, this is exactly what’s on everyone’s mind. This book and what you’re talking about, everyone is going through — not everyone, but there is a very large fraction of, let’s say, remote-capable knowledge workers who had severe disruption in what their day-to-day life was like due to the pandemic who are going through the thinking. So you mentioned before, you’re saying the book is catching — not catching a new wave. It’s always sold well, but it’s finding an audience now, a new audience.
Tim Ferriss: It’s never really stopped, but I would have to imagine it’s finding a new audience. A friend of mine, old friend, sent me a photograph from Austin. He said, “Oh, this makes me happy.” And it was a photograph of young guy, probably late twenties, reading The 4-Hour Workweek. The only hardcover edition, or I should say latest hardcover edition, that exists, is the 2009 expanded and updated edition. So 11 or 12 years later, post-COVID, this is still finding an audience. And it’s finding new audiences, I think in part, because there were early adopters for this book and there were people who really ran the tests and did the experiments in the book. And then there was also, of course, it’s called The 4-Hour Workweek. I mean, there was a lot of dismissing it based on the title. Even though on some level it’s really about maximizing per-hour output. On some level, it’s about that.
But for the title, because of how popular it became in the subsequent year, it was on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list I want to say for, I could get you the exact duration, but four and a half years, five years straight, something like that. And it became part of the pop cultural conversation. And I think that there are many, there have to be at this point, just given the exposure of the book, millions of people who have seen the book, they’ve heard about the book, and they concluded “This will never work. This can never work for me.” And then all of a sudden, this discussion of time and mobility, which is the sort of centerpiece of The 4-Hour Workweek, has been pushed to the forefront of everyone’s mind through this gigantic experiment called COVID-19.
And all of a sudden people who thought they wanted to be in an office, people who thought they wanted to work in a certain way, after having experienced alternatives are saying, “Wait a second, I actually don’t want to go back to the office. How do I figure this out?” And there are also, I don’t want to say risks, but challenges, in working remotely in feeling like you have and developing community when you are fully distributed. And these problems existed, certainly when The 4-Hour Workweek was initially released, they still exist. So I feel like we are still in the honeymoon phase of remote work for millions of people. They think they found the promised land, but I don’t think they have experienced some of the harder aspects and the Filling the Void chapter in The 4-Hour Workweek talks about this. So I think for a lot of these reasons and more, the book has definitely seen a new resurgence of interest.
Cal Newport: But why in the interim, it’s a mystery that I’m curious about, in the interim between when it first hits, work is unsustainable, you should try radical new things. In the interim, the over time, the book in pop culture, beyond people who were directly engaged with the book got associated with something different. And I mentioned this to you via email, but I think about 2011, The Office brings up the book. Darryl brings up the book, the character Darryl in The Office. And by that point in 2011, when he’s bringing up this book, it has nothing to do with work being unsustainable and radically rethinking work. It is all just, “How do I be more hyper productive?” Which is almost the opposite of what the book is about. And I bet that for a lot of people who the book was on their radar, but they didn’t engage with the book, that’s for a lot of people became associated with being hyperactive by using sort of radically inventive in the systems you use for the purpose of getting more done, which is not what the book was about.
And so this is sort of this mystery to me is that this big warning shot was happening. We feel it today, huge. Work’s not sustainable. We need to recharge it. But in between somehow that warning shot for a lot of people got changed to how can we use tech and innovative systems to get even more done?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s a damn fine question. I mean, yeah, The 4-Hour Workweek became, and I didn’t mind, I thought it was kind of funny, this sort of pop culture productivity. What’s the right way to put it?
Cal Newport: It’s that word again.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Novelty, in a way. Right. So it shows up on The Office or the cast from, well, supposedly the cast, I mean it’s probably a bunch of ghost writers, but from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, wrote a book called The 7 Secrets of Awakening the Highly Effective Four-Hour Giant, Today. So you can see what that is. And I would love to hear your theory for why this is, but I think it’s deeply uncomfortable, and it can be deeply challenging to really question the assumptions and plans that are the underpinning for much of your existence, your waking existence. I think it’s very uncomfortable. And it’s not as cleanly measurable perhaps as installing a new Chrome plugin that helps you do A, B, and C, and, “I cleared 17 percent more email in the last hour.” That type of trackability and that type of accountability is really alluring.
Tim Ferriss: And so the productivity porn, like real porn, it’s highly addictive and highly distracting and as new sort of technical doodads and applications and approaches surfaced, even if they’re old approaches that are being reinvented using note cards or index cards for various things, it’s a very graspable sort of appealing novelty that I think almost everyone one gravitates towards. So I think it’s not surprising to me that into The 4-Hour Workweek became a representation of a collection of productivity trick or techniques or technologies, because it did include that, in fairness.
But I think that what is unfortunate, but not surprising, is that The 4-Workweek sort of treated like a toolkit, and a bunch of construction materials, but used without the blueprint and the approach and the guiding design principles that are explored in the first, say, two sections, especially, does that make any sense? Those two things were divorced, where in my mind, the blueprints and the design principles, those are the most valuable and most important piece. And then the tools, those are all going to change over time and I expect them to change over time. So that’s what I’ve observed.
Cal Newport: So did you observe people actually doing that? Just looking at the hacks and not — or was it the perception of the people who weren’t reading the book, but just, “This is what I think it is?” Because, of course, you’re around this crowd a lot more.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s more the latter. The book is written in a way, if you start at page one, you cannot get around the sort of philosophical resets and questioning of assumptions and design principles. You can’t get around them. But if you are reading a blog post that is supposedly a summary of The 4-Hour Workweek, or you are reading any number of books that followed The 4-Hour Workweek, which were intended to kind of capitalize on that wave of popularity, they focused almost without exception on the tools and the tricks and the latest websites and the best virtual assistant services and so on. Again, not to say those don’t have value, they do have value, but without the kind of underlying frameworks and principles, I don’t think you end up solving many problems. And in fact, I think you can end up creating a lot of new problems.
Cal Newport: Well, and maybe some of that was, I mean, you’re a hundred percent right because I just reread the book. There’s no other way to interpret the book if you read it. There’s no other way to interpret it than this is unsustainable. Life is, you have to craft the life that emphasizes the other currencies that are important. This is what the good life is built on. Oh, now let’s talk about how you might do it. Maybe, and part of this is I have two theories I’ll throw at you, part of this, I think, is don’t underestimate the degree to which the way you did talk about the systems when you got there was so new and compelling that it almost opened up a new genre and tone in productivity. There was a, I don’t quite know how to articulate it, but there was a precision and a brashness to, it was very declarative and precise and, and it’s kind of hard to articulate, but the way you would talk about and the VA should do this, and we should, but don’t do it for this, I can’t do it justice, but it’s very compelling in itself.
So I think you might have introduced a stylistic approach to giving advice that itself could be separated from the context, because it’s very compelling. The book is very compelling beyond the content. So there’s something in that tone. But then the other thing is I think, and when we last talked, I was bringing this up to you, is that I’ve been covering recently, I’m very interested in the anti-productivity movement, and it’s very powerful right now. And I’m taken by the degree to which, when you read people who are in this movement, the way they characterize what is popular in productivity and time management is invented, is fabricated. When they talk about what productivity books are out there right now, they will say, “Yeah, it’s all about trying to get 60 things done and find more time in your day to get things done.”
And so I go over to, okay, time management in Amazon, let’s look at the bestseller list. What are commonly the top three books there? It’s usually shifting back and forth between The 4-Hour Workweek, my 2016 book Deep Work, and Greg McKeown’s 2015 book Essentialism. All of these books are about working less, getting away from distraction, getting away from busyness, trying to get the things that are more meaningful. I mean, you have to go down pretty far. I mean, David Allen shows up pretty early, but I think he’s misinterpreted. I think he’s more about, “I hate the fact that we have so much to do, but let’s at least try to tame it so we don’t go insane.” So you can’t really interpret him as pushing for overwork. I can’t find on the list of bestselling time management books right now, anything that is, how do we get more done?
I think the last book like that, that just straight lionized that was maybe Hyperproductivity from eight years ago or something like this. And so that also seems to be effect that’s going on is that for people who are characterizing 4-Hour Workweek or any of these books, or characterizing me or other people in the genre who aren’t engaged in the books, they have just projected this whole fabricated world where productivity, we’re all Frederick Winslow Taylor, and we have stopwatches and we’re twirling our mustaches and trying to get people to move back and forth between if you put your keyboard over here, you can type faster, move your mouse faster and whatever. And so I don’t know what that means, but it seems to be true that there is a fabricated world of what productivity literature is and nothing like that has been popular in 30 years.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think the narrative, this is true for a lot of things. There’s a delay in the narrative. So how we think about ourselves, how we perceive the world around us, what we think is popular, is informed by our realities, but there’s kind of a lag time and a durability to narratives, if that makes any sense. So if you grow up with hyperinflation, you have a certain story around that, you’re going to continue to have that story even beyond hyperinflation for a period of time. It might even affect your behavior for the rest of your life. Who knows? And I think that for a lot of people who are commenting on what they would consider productivity books, or time management books, they have all the biases that you would expect. They have primacy, reasoncy, they’ve got any number of other are things at play.
And I think for many people who sort of grew up in the say mid to late, but not grew up professionally came up in the mid to late two thousands, or actually it’s not even, and it’s not even that long. It would be the first, 2000 to 2010, maybe. The things seemed to be pretty saturated with that kind of advice. Not necessarily in the form of books, but certainly online, there was a lot of productivity porn and I was a beneficiary of that. So I can’t slam it too hard on some level but I think that has that type of highly prescriptive hyper productivity, instructional material has kind of lost its luster for most people I would say.
Cal Newport: So optimistically then, so I know we’re running short on time, so I’ll give my optimistic take and you can see if you share optimism. Here’s the optimistic storyline then of 4-Hour Workweek. And today is 2007. This book comes out, the way we’re working is becoming unsustainable, be willing to consider radical alternatives. It was aimed at, for the tech crowd that was ahead of the trend on unsustainability, it landed very powerfully. The people who encountered it said, “Yeah, this is absolutely right.” It’s taken 15 years to get to it, but the wider world around it was not quite ready for that yet. They were still, we were like, “Look, we’re still doing — we still believe that maybe hardcore productivity and systems, and if we just have the right planner, that we can solve this problem. We get to 2021, we get the pandemic to help accelerate this.
Now knowledge work writ large is that 300 people, and that overcrowded converted cafeteria in 2007, they now recognize things are unsustainable. They’re now really open to the idea of maybe radically new things are available. That your book was a warning shot. “We might have ignored it for a little while.” And by we, I mean the people who didn’t directly encounter it, which it was a large [group of] people. “But now we’re hearing the echoes of that warning shot reverberating, because what you were warning about, we’re all there, that you were 15 years ahead of your time.” Am I optimistic there or is that plausible?
Tim Ferriss: I mean that sounds plausible for sure. I mean I certainly, what I saw and experienced other people saw and experienced, I just happened to be the one of many who could have written this book, who sat down after looking for this book for myself to write the book I couldn’t find. And I think that a lot of the challenges discussed in The 4-Hour Workweek have only compounded. And if compounding is the eighth wonder of the world, then it’s remarkable and terrifying what that can become. So I do think I agree with you. Yeah. That it’s same, same, but 10 X. Same, same, but a hundred X. Same, same, but a thousand X. Instead of one inbox, we now have 14. And it’s clear to me, and maybe this will always be the case, but that a lot of what we consider work is just simply not working.
And it’s never been more important to ensure that we are not getting really good at doing things should not be done in the first place. And optimistically, also, we’ve never, in a sense, had more options. The technology’s never been better. The flexibility with remote work arrangements have never been better. So the tools and options and unorthodox career and life choices that are available now have never been available to more people in my opinion.
Cal Newport: Well, so I know we’re at the 90-minute mark. I promise. So I’ll just conclude by saying when I first read that book or listened to it, I guess it was, in April, 2007, I had that instinct that there’s something prophetic about this in the sense that this is picking up on bigger trends that are going to be very important. And a lot of thinking, a lot of things are going to be based on for a long time to come. And I mean, at least it’s my sentiment that 15 years later, I think that was true. So I’m glad you put those ideas out there when you did.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks, Cal. I really appreciate that. And I really admire the work that you do and thinking that you do behind the work that you put out really. I’m a big fan. So thank you for taking the time to have the chat also.
Cal Newport: Well, thank you, Tim.
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