We Road Tested Productivity Guru Tim Ferriss’s Advice – What Actually Worked?

Tim Ferriss’s latest book, Tools Of Titans, has tips from more than 200 billionaires, film-makers, powerlifters and chess champions – but how much can you actually use? RISING decided to do the intensive version, so you don’t have to...

Whatever else you think of Tim Ferriss, you can’t deny he has the best friends. After publishing a trilogy of books that convinced everyone to check their email once a day, The 4-Hour Work Week, binge on ice cream once-a-week to stay lean, The 4-Hour Body, and learn to cook eggs twenty different ways, The 4-Hour Chef, he started a podcast in 2014… and since then, he’s interviewed 200 of the world’s most interesting people, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Alain De Botton. Now he’s distilled those chats into a housebrick-sized tome called Tools Of Titans, and everyone’s writing gleefully about what they’ve learned from it.

Crucially, though, almost nobody is writing about what they’ve actually done about it. As Derek Sivers (p.184) puts it, ‘If more information was the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.’ In other words, it’s not what you know, it’s what you do – consistently. So, after reading all 684 pages in three days (did we mention that Ferriss also has a post on speed-reading?) and taking copious notes, RISING decided to cram as much of it as we possibly could into a fortnight. Ferriss, after all, is a big fan of experimentation, and also encourages skipping through bits of his book. So we’re skipping all the stuff about keto diets, fasting and hallucinogens, which still leaves a metric tonne of tips and tricks to potentially improve your life with. Here’s what did work… and what, well, not so much.

RISING Man’s Diary: Day 1

Wake up at 7am: Ferris-guests actually have a huge variety of morning routines, from the semi-indolent (Office writer BJ Novak spends his early hours walking, drinking coffee and reading newspapers before sitting down to write at 11am) to the totally insane (ex-SEAL Jocko Willink gets up at 4:30 to work out). The important thing, according to almost everyone, is having a routine. So, making three Ferriss-inspired changes: meditating for 10 minutes (80% of his guests do something like this), going outside to get a jolt of vitamin D ('Naked if you can,' says Ferriss) and doing ‘Morning Pages’, which is jotting down cluttered thoughts in a journal to get them out of your brain ahead of the working day. Opt for the Headspace app for guided meditation; scribble out some stream-of-consciousness nonsense (‘App For New Dads Who Need Better Role Models Than Fred Flintstone?’) in an old notebook, and feel like maybe I should invest in a nice Moleskine. Still feeling self-conscious about both as wander into the garden in shorts – neighbours wouldn’t approve of the naked part. It’s cold.

Day 2

Head into the office and stop on the way for a coffee: ask the barista for a 10% discount (SumoMe founder Noah Kagan’s tip for getting over fear) and get a confused, ‘Uh, no.’ Sit down, chastened, and brainstorm terrible blogpost ideas (Ferris: ‘If you can’t get 10 good ideas, get 20.’) After a dozen terrible ones, come up with one good one: ‘How To Fight Like Batman,’ which feels like a tiny victory. Bash through Seneca’s On The Shortness Of Life – a sterling reminder that we’ll all be dead one day, whether we have a matcha doughnut or not. Have a matcha doughnut.

Day 3

Still meditating and journaling, which is starting to feel less awkward. Also doing more pull-ups: always had a bar in the house, but now using Russian special forces trainer Pavel Tsatsouline’s ‘Grease The Groove’ method, which involves doing 50% of your max reps whenever you like, with at least 15 minutes of rest – ideal for the home-office worker, because you can do it in slippers while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. Get offered a guest column; really don’t fancy it, but would normally take it for the exposure – and turn it down ('How To Say No' p. 385). Feels glorious.

‘Ask the barista for a 10% discount and get a confused, ‘Uh, no.’ Sit down, chastened’ 

Day 4-6

More pull-ups, more journalling. Progress to scribbling down the things I’m most anxious about (Tony Robbins) and settling down to work on just one of them in the morning (a Ferriss idea stolen from this blogpost). It’s liberating: get through about two hours of work without checking email. At bedtime, experiment with Ferriss’s preferred pre-bed ‘tranquiliser’ – honey and apple cider vinegar in hot water. It is disgusting. Also doesn’t seem to help get to sleep any faster.

Day 7

Ask another barista for 10% off coffee: he snorts derisively, perhaps jealous of my beard and nonchalant air of togetherness. In an effort not to do this any more, I reach out to half a dozen personal heroes – strength coaches, mixed martial arts fighters, adventurers – to ask for interviews, which I’ve been putting off for ages because I’m worried they’ll say no (Ferriss: ‘A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.’) About half of them say yes, including Ryan Hall – winner of a recent season of the Ultimate Fighter, but also a guy who is quite Ferriss-like in the way he assimilates new skills. Celebrate with more pull-ups. Also make an attempt at ultra-endurance athlete/ doctor Peter Attia’s ‘Reverse Thighmaster’ series of  movements, which are essentially small leg circles done while lying on a yoga mat. Fail miserably – much to the amusement of my wife, who’s done enough Barre Ballet classes to do them easily. Apparently possess more weaknesses than I thought.

Day 8

Decide to kick off week two with an air of positivity. The rules? First: ‘stop complaining’ – (‘When you complain, nobody wants to help you,’ says Tradesy CEO Tracy Dinunzio) and second is when anything bad happens, saying ‘Good. This means I can…’ from Jocko Willink. Both of these take a bit of doing – my well-honed instinct when things go wrong is to have a short rant about them – and they prevent me from sharing thoughts on Ferriss’s ‘Titanium tea’ (black/ green tea with turmeric and ginger, which tastes… interesting). Finish the day with a ‘gratitude list’, or scribbling three things I’m grateful for in journal (tip courtesy Sin City director Robert Rodriguez, who is amazing at everything). The idea of this isn’t just to make yourself more ‘grateful’ for your life, but to switch off your negative brain, pre-bed. It sort of works – at least I spend minimal time freaking out about all the work I have to do before nodding off to sleep.

Days 9-12

Still meditating, journaling, anxiety listing, not complaining, and doing pull-ups. Start scheduling time away from Wifi and work to think creatively and read books, including Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: ‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength,’ And, three by Sebastian Junger – can’t believe I haven’t read him before – he’s one of Ferriss’s guests, but has also done everything from living in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous military bases, to chopping trees in North America. Still cannot do the Reverse Thighmaster. Make bedroom as dark as a cave (Kelly Starrett) and start playing Tetris before bed to wipe brain-slate clean. It seems to work!

'Ask half a dozen heroes for interviews… and it works!'

Day 13

The final push! Start the day with Coach Christopher Sommer’s Pike Pulses and some ‘coprolalia’ (a stream of curse words designed to kickstart creativity) then switch all notifications off and concentrate on ‘Going On Offense’ – a suggestion from billionaire Chris Sacca on how to chase after revenue streams rather than constantly responding to requests from other people. Decide on ebook to put out, and start drafting a list of the ‘First 10’ people to enlist to publicise it (Seth Godin). Sleep like a tranquilised ox.

Day 14

…and done. Really? Well, not really: still meditating, anxiety-listing, doing pull-ups while the coffee brews, idea-blasting, gratitude-listing, and (a new one) dousing myself in magnesium before bed. This is the stuff I’ll probably keep up: in one sense, it’s a bit time-consuming (the morning routine takes a good half-hour), but in another – given the creativity it unlocks later on in the morning, when you’re usually at a low ebb – I’m probably getting that time back with interest. I’ve also discovered a bunch of interesting authors and documentaries, a couple of new training tweaks (though you’ve got to be a bit selective about these) and, yes, gone from 17 to 21 pullups in a fortnight. Tools Of Titans, it turns out, is full of good advice. But drinking titanium tea nude in the garden at 4:30am? Well, you’ve got to draw a line somewhere...

WHAT NEXT? If you don’t fancy reading the book then listen to Tim’s interview with Arnold himself: it’s one of the best podcasts he’s done, and full of actionable advice. Once Arnold has convinced you about the value of transcendental meditation, try it yourself: sit somewhere quiet and repeat a two-syllable phrase – ‘Nature’, or ‘Peaceful’, perhaps, probably not ‘Arnie’ or ‘True Lies’ – for 5-10 minutes. Yes, it takes practice.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.