Tim Ferriss on the need for priorities

Feb 23, 2017 · 6 min read
Image credit: Business Insider

“If you don’t have time, the truth is, you don’t have priorities. Think harder; don’t work harder”.

I suck at making decisions. Really suck. As in, I don’t make them. I just realized that I avoid making decisions as much as I possibly can. It makes perfect sense now why I feel so busy all the time. As Tim would put it, “being busy is a form of laziness. Lazy thinking and indiscriminate action”.

Spot on.

This somewhat occurred to me just the other day, yesterday even, I think it was. I wrote in my journal/notebook I live in, “I hate making decisions”. Not as a pronouncement but an observation. I know the importance of focus in theory, and doing fewer things well, but I’ve always found it so difficult to do in practice. I want to do so many things. The problem is that I fool myself into believing that I can. But there just isn’t infinite time. Telling myself I can do it all saves me from having to make hard decisions of what to cut. That’s lazy thinking; I’d rather deceive myself than have to make a choice, because what if I make the wrong one?

It turns out I’ve been performing this behavior for well over 10 years now. This approach was all the rage back at the end of high school. I live in Quebec, Canada, so after high school (ends at grade 11) we have a sort of 2-year middle school called CEGEP. Almost like taking the last year of high school and the first year of university and making them a stand-alone thing. So, when deciding what program to go into in CEGEP the only reason I chose the Science program was because I did well in math and science and apparently this was the thing to do if you wanted to “keep your options open”. That’s what everyone was obsessed with saying, “keep your options open”. It’s taken me 10 years to realize how much of a non-decision this is. At the end of the program, literally one of my last classes, I found genetics to be kind of cool so I “decided” to head into Microbiology in University. No surprise (hindsight), I wasn’t too excited about it and it became clear that this wasn’t the place for me when all my classmates were stoked about landing summer jobs in labs and that was literally the last thing I could imagine doing.

Long story short, I switched programs after 2 years and am still half-heartedly working on completing my new degree. Now that I’m looking back on this with new eyes, there’s so much I see. It seems indecision is a big issue for me. I could keep rambling on about the role indecision played in the implosion of my freelance accounting practice (I hope to one day, as I think there are some lessons to be shared from it), but let’s get someone in here who’s a little futher down the path; Tim Ferriss.

This whole experience is one of those lucky ones for me where I feel like I happened accross the exact perfect thing at just about the perfect time. In this post, Tim shares a few short audio essays and I highly recommend Ep. 13 which I’ll be sharing more of below. Even after my takeaways, listening to it for yourself is 14 minutes I promise you won’t regret.

Tim starts off on a note very similar to yesterday’s quote. He had orginally written the essay earlier on but didn’t publish it due to how exposed it made him feel. This quote from Neil Gaiman made him pull the trigger:

“The moment that you feel that just possibly you’re walking down the street naked exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right”.

Tim has been interviewed for “a day in the life of…” articles but he doesn’t usually let journalists follow him around for a “normal day” because while he may be portrayed as a super hero productivity guru, he insists he is anything but. He doesn’t even consider himself a consistent “normal”. He’s snoozed the alarm for 3 hours, he procrastinates, he even shared that he visited a therapist for the first time. The media likes to portray standouts as super heros. Sometimes it’s inspiring, but more often it might lead to the conclusion that “they can do it but I’m just a normal person”. So Tim made this episode to prove that isn’t true, and that most “super heroes” are nothing of the sort. They’re weird neurotic people who do big things despite lots of self defeating habits and self talk.

Tim insists that “it doesn’t take much to seem superhuman and appear successful to nearly everyone around you. In fact, you just need one rule, and that is this: what you do is more important than how you do [it and] everything else, and doing something well does not make it important”.

Tim says he sucks at efficiency. To cope with this he came up with an 8 step process for efficacy instead. Doing the right things.

“Hard work doesnt solve impotent goals and unclear priorities. It actually magnifies and multiplies the problems”.

Here is his 8 step process:

  1. Wake up 1 hr before having to be at a computer screen, email is the mind killer.
  2. Make a cup of tea and sit down with a pen or pencil and paper.
  3. Write down 3–5 things (no more) that are making you the most anxious or uncomfortable. The stuff being put off, moved from day to day and list to list. Most important usually means most uncomfortable; some chance of rejection or conflict.
  4. For each thing, ask yourself “if this were the only thing I accomplished today — would I be satisfied with my day?” and “will moving this forward make all the other todos unimportant/irrelevant or easier to knock off later?” , as he puts it — is it a force multiplier?
  5. Look only at items answered “yes” to for these questions. This should bring the list down to 1 or 2 now.
  6. Block out 2–3 hours to focus on one of them for today, thats its (yes, just one). Let the rest of the urgent stuff, less important stuff, slide. There may be penalties, people might get pissed off, but the world will not end.
  7. To be very clear, block out 2–3 hours straight to focus on one of them for today. A single block of time, not 10 minutes spurts adding up to 2 hours over the day. Even if you can spare the time for the interruptions, you can’t afford the distraction of being pulled in and out of trying to focus.
  8. If you get distracted or start procrastinating, dont freak out and enter downward sprial (what Tim used to do). Gently come back to the one to-do item (Tim: regular meditation helps with not freaking out).

And that’s pretty much it. This is the way Tim can create big outcomes despite the neverending impulse to procrastinate, nap, and otherwise “fritter away my days with bullshit”.

“If I have 10 important things to do in a day, it is 100% certain that nothing important will get done that day. If everything is important, nothing is. On the other hand, I can usually handle one must-do item and block out my lesser behaviors for 2–3 hours a day. If you can do this for 2 hours, that puts you in rareified company. You are in the top 5% of people”.

Tim warns that if you consistently feel the counterproductive need for volume, doing lots of stuff, working harder and harder but perhaps not with clear priorities, remember that being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.

“If, despite your best efforts, you feel like you’re losing at the game of life, remember this: even the best of the best feel this way sometimes. No one is 100% all the time”.

When Tim feels like he is in a pit of despair, he likes to think of Kurt Vonnegut who said: “ When I write I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth”. This coming from a famous writer, an icon. If the best of the best can feel that way sometimes, you are allowed too.

Some parting words from Tim:

“Don’t underestimate yourself and don’t overestimate the rest of the world. You are better than you think and you are not alone”.

Everyone struggles. Here are some articles Tim recommends to help rebound:

I hope this wasn’t too long and I hope you enjoy the new format. Thank you for reading and I’ll see you tomorrow!


Coming soon: interviews and stories with up-and-coming…


Coming soon: interviews and stories with up-and-coming entrepreneurs of all kinds. In the mean time, please enjoy daily snippets of things that jump out from what I’m reading.


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Coming soon: interviews and stories with up-and-coming entrepreneurs of all kinds. In the mean time, please enjoy daily snippets of things that jump out from what I’m reading.