Tim Ferriss is a human guinea pig: in his researching the 4-Hour Workweek, Body, and Chef, the author has thrown himself into deadlifts and omelets and French—and from all that experimentation, a meta-sequence of contrarian best practices emerged.
During a talk at the Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, Ferriss unpacked—or is it deconstructed?—the madness to his methodology.
The first stage of skill acquisition, behavior change, or however you want to call improving yourself is deconstruction, the art of breaking a complex practice into small tasks. Within that deconstruction, Ferriss says, you can suss out the failure points of your potential practice and avoid them for the first five sessions, after which it can become a habit.
Ferriss learned to swim only five years ago, he says, because he had a hard time breathing and kept getting exhausted from kicking. Then he discovered Total Immersion Swimming, which sidestepped those pain points.
Next is selection: he anchors his argument to the Pareto principle, stating that you get 80% of your value from 20% of the work. The key, then, is locating those most valuable factors of a given undertaking, going all-in on them, and cutting away excess distractions. As we learned in the breakfast nook, you can accelerate your productivity—and save yourself stress—by making decisions about the way you make decisions. A prime example of that creative reductionism is Axis of Awesome, the Australian band that can teach you to play guitar using only four chords.
Then comes what Ferriss says is the secret sauce: sequencing, or determining what order you should learn those most important factors. Again he eschews the received wisdom: The dude became a tango champion because he learned the following, or traditionally female role, in the dance, rather than the more complex lead role.
Another hack with sequencing is being able to find places to fit in "no stakes" practice. The worst time to learn how to cook, Ferriss says, is when you're trying to make a meal. Take, for instance, growing your cooking techniques—if you click to 17.43 in the video, you'll see a slide of him kneeling and holding a pan. What's he up to?
"I'm learning how to sauté. I'm practicing the wrist motion with dry beans in a skillet. Kneeling on a carpet so they don't fly everywhere on a hardwood floor. [If] you do this for 20 minutes, two or three times, you'll have the motion down, and you can use two hands over the stove—no problem. No omelets on walls."
Finally, you'll never integrate the practice into your life unless you have stakes, he says. You don't get fired from your diet if you don't follow through; you just stay the same. So, Ferriss says, you need to build a way for you to lose something.
He mentions Stickk, a site that catalyzes that incentive process: You choose your goal, a referee (possibly "a merciless friend who will punish you"), and an anti-charity to give to (the highest on Stickk is the George W. Bush Memorial Library, Ferriss reports). The data is telling: When you give someone stakes and a referee, the rate of compliance hikes from 25% to more than 70%.
In other words, you can change your behavior when you create the right situation—if you are impeccable about the way you structure your efforts. The process is one of creative reduction, Ferriss says:
"Decision is related to the word incision, it means 'to cut off.' It means to cut away other options and to commit and to focus on whatever skill you have in [your] head."
[Image: Flickr user Katherine McAdoo]