Live your best life with the help of Tim Herrera of the New York Times

A series of interesting conversations with interesting people.

The Smarter Living section of the New York Times was created to help its readers live their best life and its editor, Tim Herrera, practices what the section preaches. Whether it be saving for retirement, confidently and aggressively saying no to things, or slaying at SoulCycle, he is passionate about living smarter and passes it along to his readers every day. We caught up with Tim to ask him about the inspiration behind the new Times section, where he sees it going in the future, and what he’s been reading and saving to Pocket lately.

You are the editor of Smarter Living, the service journalism section of The New York Times that aims to help its readers understand the world and make the most of it. What does a typical week-in-the-life look like for you?

Reading! It’s a ton of reading. I spend a good portion of my time seeing what people are doing in this line of coverage and looking for inspiration. But typically it’s a mix of a lot of editing, a little writing, lots of planning and more meetings than I’d like. (Jk, it’s all SoulCycle.) But I do try to apply a lot of what I learn in this job to my life, so I spend a lot of effort on managing my finances, and I spend a lot of time on fitness stuff. I’m reading “Essentialism” for the second time in two years so I’m back on this kick of aggressively saying no to stuff and focusing only on a handful of things.

How did the Smarter Living section begin and how did you get it off the ground?

It started primarily as an archives project in mid-2016. It was the brainchild of Deputy Managing Editor Cliff Levy and Senior Editor Justin Bank (my editor at the time), and in those early days it was just the three of us plucking the best service journalism stories from our archives, updating them as needed, and giving them a new life with a fresh audience. Readers loved it, and we’ve been growing ever since.

What sets The New York Times form of service journalism apart from other publications?

We treat service as seriously as any other type of coverage at The Times, whereas some of our competitors approach it a little more superficially. We try to run stories that are unique, and on topics that we can add something genuine to. And we don’t shy away from weighty subjects — our biggest story last year, for example, was about how to deal with the uncomfortable conversations that come with making the decision not to have kids. People expect a lot from The Times, and we do our best to live up to those expectations.

You also write the weekly Smarter Living newsletter, which is a recap of The Times’ best advice for living a more fulfilling life. What has the reader response been so far?

That is one of my favorite parts of this whole operation! Having that newsletter allows us to talk directly with readers in a format they’re comfortable with, and the result is this genuine, two-way personal connection. I think our approach with the newsletter, and in a lot of ways, with the section, is that we want readers to know we’re listening and that we care. That sounds so silly and earnest, but it’s really powerful for an institution like The Times to actually invest in relationships with readers, and it’s really unique.

Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez

How do you decide what Smarter Living is going to cover next?

We’re lucky that we’re defined more thematically than topically, so our main driving force behind stories is just anything that helps readers live better lives. Sometimes that means a comprehensive guide to packing, other times it means a story about self-compassion. This year I’m really interested in what we call psychology-of-life stories, which are a little more abstract but still helpful and full of advice. (Here’s one of my recent favorites.)

You openly invite writers on Twitter to pitch stories to you. How come? And what have some of the more memorable pitches been?

More than 75% of the stories I commissioned last year were from writers who had never written for The Times, and I’m so earnestly and sincerely proud of that. A lot of those writers — like Kristin Wong, Anna Goldfarb, and Jolie Kerr — have become regular contributors for SL and other desks, so just being super open about soliciting pitches broadens the pool of voices we can introduce into The Times. But I do get some weird ones when I do callouts; someone once pitched a guide to cleaning dog poop out of a Roomba. (Didn’t take that one, I’m sad to say.)

What are some things you do to live smarter?

I have learned so many new skills in this job! A few major things: 1. Start saving for retirement right now, literally today, close this tab and do it, even if it’s just like $20 a week. 2. Stop trying to “beat” your procrastination, because it’s never going to happen. Rather, give yourself tiny, microscopic goals that are easy to accomplish, then celebrate every one of those wins. 3. If email is a problem for you, try “batching” it: Set aside an hour at the beginning of the day and the end of the day for email, and ignore it the rest the day if possible. 4. Confidently, and aggressively, turn down work/projects/tasks/whatever else that you truly don’t want to do. 5. Stop eating so much sugar!

What type of impact do you hope Smarter Living has on its readers? And where would you like to see the section go in the future?

We have a pretty simple mandate: Help readers live better lives. That’s genuinely our only goal, so my hope is that our readers are able to take away something tangible and practical from our stories. And we’re really excited to develop more products and “things” that help readers do that, so definitely something to keep an eye out for this year.

What have you been reading and finding interesting lately — or saving to Pocket?

One of my favorite daily newsletters is the Daily Brass Bring from Kara Cutruzzula, it’s this amazing, bite-sized bit of joy about work, creativity, and life. James Clear writes a truly incredible blog and newsletter about living better. Scott Young is another fantastic blogger. The Mission is the best-kept secret on Medium. (Is it a secret?) I feel like I Pocket every single thing CityLab writes. The Financial Diet and The Billfold are my two favorite money blogs. Literally anything Zeynep Tufecki writes. And, not that these two need any introduction, but Eric Barker and Tim Urban inspired my interest in this type of reporting in the first place.

If you had the chance to escape and read all of your current Pocket saves where would you go to do it?

I have been thinking about this question SO much lately! Honestly, my dream is to take a week off and just go lie on a beach somewhere reading for 10 hours a day.

Who would you want to see us interview next?

Mallory Ortberg!!!!!!!

For more news, advice, and recommendations on living better check out the Smarter Living section of the New York Times here. For a weekly roundup of each week’s best advice, subscribe to the Smarter Living newsletter here. And get Pocket to save stories like these and discover other great content.