This post is about the third book in the Tim Ferriss Book Club, which is limited to books that have dramatically impacted my life. Enjoy!
“I strongly recommend [The Art of Learning] for anyone who lives in a world of competition, whether it’s sports or business or anywhere else.”
- Mark Messier, 6-Time Stanley Cup Champion
“[This book] is a testimonial to the timeless principle of ‘do less and accomplish more.’ Highly recommended.”
- Deepak Chopra
“Josh provides tools that allow all of us to improve ourselves every day.”
- Cal Ripken, Jr., Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee
How do the best performers in the world become the best in the world?
The newest book in the Tim Ferriss Book Club provides the answers and blueprint: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Joshua Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s been one of my constant companions since 2007, and I’m THRILLED to shine the spotlight on it.
- Want to dominate sports? See the quotes from Cal Ripken, Jr. and Mark Messier above. There are many more.
- Want to dominate business or finance? Many of the Forbes 100 work one-on-one with Josh. I personally know hedgefund managers, with $10-100 billion under management, who have The Art of Learning on their bedside tables.
- Want to maximize creativity? Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, says “This is a really superb book, one I wish someone had given to me long ago… It will take a ferocious interruption to make you set this book down.”
Want to up your game, no matter the game? This book is your guide.
This post includes several things, including:
- A brief personal story about Josh
- A sample chapter, both in audio and text
- A video overview
But perhaps you’re in a rush. Want the book synopsis in one sentence? Here it is: Through stories of martial arts wars and tense chess face-offs, Waitzkin reveals the inner workings of his everyday methods, including systematically triggering breakthroughs, cultivating top-1% technique in any field, and mastering the art of performance psychology.
The Art of Learning encapsulates an extraordinary competitor’s life lessons into a page-turning narrative.
My Story with Josh — Love at First F-Bomb
I first met Josh Waitzkin at a coffee shop in Manhattan.
Having just read The Art of Learning, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl that he’d agreed to come. I don’t have many heroes, and he was one of them.
About 15 minutes into sipping coffee and getting acquainted, I realized that he dropped as many f-bombs as I did. He was no Rain Man, and I felt silly for half expecting him to be. 15 minutes turned into nearly three hours, and he’s since become one of my best friends.
If you’ve read the bestselling book Searching for Bobby Fischer (or seen the movie), then you know of Josh.
Wandering through Washington Square Park with his mom at age six, he became fascinated with the “blitz chess” that the street hustlers played at warp speed. He watched and absorbed. Then he begged his mom to let him give it a shot. Just once! Soon thereafter, dressed in OshKosh overalls, he was king of the hustlers.
Josh proceeded to dominate the world chess scene and become the only person to win the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, Senior High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships before the age of 16. He could easily play “simuls,” in which 20-50 chessboards were set up with opponents in a large banquet hall, requiring him to walk from table to table playing all of the games simultaneously in his head.
He was labeled a “prodigy” (more on this shortly).
But how did he really become so good?
Partially by breaking the rules. Bruce Pandolfini, Josh’s original chess teacher, started their first class by taking him in reverse. The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Memorizing openings was forbidden at the start.
Learning chess in reverse?
Yes, and this is just one of the many accelerated learning techniques Josh has refined and perfected over the last 20 years.
Calling Josh a “chess prodigy” is a misnomer because Josh defies pigeonholing. He has a PROCESS for mastering skills — one you can use yourself — and he’s applied it to many fields, not just chess.
He tackled Tai Chi Chuan after leaving the chess world behind. 13 Push Hands National Championships and two World Championship titles later, he decided to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now, a few short years later, he’s a black belt under the Michael Jordan of BJJ, Marcelo Garcia.
As Josh has put it: “I’ve come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess. What I am best at is the art of learning.”
If you want to get the most out of life, you need to get his book.
You won’t regret it.
I’ll also be creating a message board so we can discuss this book and others.
Sample Chapter — The Introduction
[Below is just one of 20 chapters in The Art of Learning. Audio is embedded first, followed by text for the same chapter.]
Finals: Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Championships
Hsinchuang Stadium, Taipei, Taiwan December 5, 2004
Forty seconds before round two, and I’m lying on my back trying to breathe.
Pain all through me. Deep breath. Let it go. I won’t be able to lift my shoulder tomorrow, it won’t heal for over a year, but now it pulses, alive, and I feel the air vibrating around me, the stadium shaking with chants, in Mandarin, not for me.
My teammates are kneeling above me, looking worried. They rub my arms, my shoulders, my legs. The bell rings. I hear my dad’s voice in the stands, ‘C’mon Josh!’ Gotta get up. I watch my opponent run to the center of the ring. He screams, pounds his chest. The fans explode. They call him Buffalo. Bigger than me, stronger, quick as a cat. But I can take him — if I make it to the middle of the ring without falling over. I have to dig deep, bring it up from somewhere right now. Our wrists touch, the bell rings, and he hits me like a Mack truck.
Who could have guessed it would come to this? Just a few years earlier I had been competing around the world in elite chess tournaments. Since I was eight years old, I had consistently been the highest rated player for my age in the United States, and my life was dominated by competitions and training regimens designed to bring me into peak form for the next national or world championship. I had spent the years between ages fifteen and eighteen in the maelstrom of American media following the release of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was based on my dad’s book about my early chess life. I was known as America’s great young chess player and was told that it was my destiny to follow in the footsteps of immortals like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, to be world champion.
But there were problems. After the movie came out I couldn’t go to a tournament without being surrounded by fans asking for autographs. Instead of focusing on chess positions, I was pulled into the image of myself as a celebrity. Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever-deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at a chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and also spiritually calming. It centered me. Chess was my friend. Then, suddenly, the game became alien and disquieting.
I recall one tournament in Las Vegas: I was a young International Master in a field of a thousand competitors including twenty-six strong Grandmasters from around the world. As an up-and-coming player, I had huge respect for the great sages around me. I had studied their masterpieces for hundreds of hours and was awed by the artistry of these men. Before first-round play began I was seated at my board, deep in thought about my opening preparation, when the public address system announced that the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer was at the event. A tournament director placed a poster of the movie next to my table, and immediately a sea of fans surged around the ropes separating the top boards from the audience. As the games progressed, when I rose to clear my mind young girls gave me their phone numbers and asked me to autograph their stomachs or legs.
This might sound like a dream for a seventeen-year-old boy, and I won’t deny enjoying the attention, but professionally it was a nightmare. My game began to unravel. I caught myself thinking about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought. The Grandmasters, my elders, were ignored and scowled at me. Some of them treated me like a pariah. I had won eight national championships and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.
At a young age I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed sense of contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time. I missed just being a student of the game, but there was no escaping the spotlight. I found myself dreading chess, miserable before leaving for tournaments. I played without inspiration and was invited to appear on television shows. I smiled.
Then when I was eighteen years old I stumbled upon a little book called the Tao Te Ching, and my life took a turn. I was moved by the book’s natural wisdom and I started delving into other Buddhist and Taoist philosophical texts. I recognized that being at the pinnacle in other people’s eyes had nothing to do with quality of life, and I was drawn to the potential for inner tranquility.
On October 5, 1998, I walked into William C. C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan studio in downtown Manhattan and found myself surrounded by peacefully concentrating men and women floating through a choreographed set of movements. I was used to driven chess players cultivating tunnel vision in order to win the big game, but now the focus was on bodily awareness, as if there were some inner bliss that resulted from mindfully moving slowly in strange ways.
I began taking classes and after a few weeks I found myself practicing the meditative movements for hours at home. Given the complicated nature of my chess life, it was beautifully liberating to be learning in an environment in which I was simply one of the beginners — and something felt right about this art. I was amazed by the way my body pulsed with life when flowing through the ancient steps, as if I were tapping into a primal alignment.
My teacher, the world-renowned Grandmaster William C.C. Chen, spent months with me in beginner classes, patiently correcting my movements. In a room with fifteen new students, Chen would look into my eyes from twenty feet away, quietly assume my posture, and relax his elbow a half inch one way or another. I would follow his subtle instruction and suddenly my hand would come alive with throbbing energy as if he had plugged me into a soothing electrical current. His insight into body mechanics seemed magical, but perhaps equally impressive was Chen’s humility. Here was a man thought by many to be the greatest living Tai Chi Master in the world, and he patiently taught first-day novices with the same loving attention he gave his senior students.
I learned quickly, and became fascinated with the growth that I was experiencing. Since I was twelve years old I had kept journals of my chess study, making psychological observations along the way — now I was doing the same with Tai Chi.
After about six months of refining my form (the choreographed movements that are the heart of Tai Chi Chuan), Master Chen invited me to join the Push Hands class. This was very exciting, my baby steps toward the martial side of the art. In my first session, my teacher and I stood facing each other, each of us with our right leg forward and the backs of our right wrists touching. He told me to push into him, but when I did he wasn’t there anymore. I felt sucked forward, as if by a vacuum. I stumbled and scratched my head. Next, he gently pushed into me and I tried to get out of the way but didn’t know where to go. Finally I fell back on old instincts, tried to resist the incoming force, and with barely any contact Chen sent me flying into the air.
Over time, Master Chen taught me the body mechanics of nonresistance. As my training became more vigorous, I learned to dissolve away from attacks while staying rooted to the ground. I found myself calculating less and feeling more, and as I internalized the physical techniques all the little movements of the Tai Chi meditative form started to come alive to me in Push Hands practice. I remember one time, in the middle of a sparring session I sensed a hole in my partner’s structure and suddenly he seemed to leap away from me. He looked shocked and told me that he had been pushed away, but he hadn’t noticed any explosive movement on my part. I had no idea what to make of this, but slowly I began to realize the martial power of my living room meditation sessions. After thousands of slow-motion, ever-refined repetitions of certain movements, my body could become that shape instinctively. Somehow in Tai Chi the mind needed little physical action to have great physical effect.
This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied techniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious. From the outside Tai Chi and chess couldn’t be more different, but they began to converge in my mind. I started to translate my chess ideas into Tai Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying Tai Chi. Once I was giving a forty-board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai Chi. I wasn’t calculating with chess notation or thinking about opening variations…I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts. This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess.
Similarly, I would be in a Push Hands competition and time would seem to slow down enough to allow me to methodically take apart my opponent’s structure and uncover his vulnerability, as in a chess game. My fascination with consciousness, study of chess and Tai Chi, love for literature and the ocean, for meditation and philosophy, all coalesced around the theme of tapping into the mind’s potential via complete immersion into one and all activities. My growth became defined by barrierlessness. Pure concentration didn’t allow thoughts or false constructions to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived.
As I cultivated openness to these connections, my life became flooded with intense learning experiences. I remember sitting on a Bermuda cliff one stormy afternoon, watching waves pound into the rocks. I was focused on the water trickling back out to sea and suddenly knew the answer to a chess problem I had been wrestling with for weeks. Another time, after completely immersing myself in the analysis of a chess position for eight hours, I had a breakthrough in my Tai Chi and successfully tested it in class that night. Great literature inspired chess growth, shooting jump shots on a New York City blacktop gave me insight about fluidity that applied to Tai Chi, becoming at peace holding my breath seventy feet underwater as a free-diver helped me in the time pressure of world championship chess or martial arts competitions. Training in the ability to quickly lower my heart rate after intense physical strain helped me recover between periods of exhausting concentration in chess tournaments. After several years of cloudiness, I was flying free, devouring information, completely in love with learning.
Before I began to conceive of this book, I was content to understand my growth in the martial arts in a very abstract manner. I related to my experience with language like parallel learning and translation of level. I felt as though I had transferred the essence of my chess understanding into my Tai Chi practice. But this didn’t make much sense, especially outside of my own head. What does essence really mean anyway? And how does one transfer it from a mental to a physical discipline?
These questions became the central preoccupation in my life after I won my first Push Hands National Championship in November 2000. At the time I was studying philosophy at Columbia University and was especially drawn to Asian thought. I discovered some interesting foundations for my experience in ancient Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Greek texts — Upanishadic essence, Taoist receptivity, Neo-Confucian principle, Buddhist nonduality, and the Platonic forms all seemed to be a bizarre cross-cultural trace of what I was searching for. Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions. Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language — when I spoke about intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning. The need for precision forced me to think about these ideas more concretely. I had to come to a deeper sense of concepts like essence, quality, principle, intuition, and wisdom in order to understand my own experience, let alone have any chance of communicating it.
As I struggled for a more precise grasp of my own learning process, I was forced to retrace my steps and remember what had been internalized and forgotten. In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.
Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery. Similarly, a great pianist or violinist does not think about individual notes, but hits them all perfectly in a virtuoso performance. In fact, thinking about a “C” while playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be a real hitch because the flow might be lost. The problem is that if you want to write an instructional chess book for beginners, you have to dig up all the stuff that is buried in your unconscious — I had this issue when I wrote my first book, Attacking Chess. In order to write for beginners, I had to break down my chess knowledge incrementally, whereas for years I had been cultivating a seamless integration of the critical information.
The same pattern can be seen when the art of learning is analyzed: themes can be internalized, lived by, and forgotten. I figured out how to learn efficiently in the brutally competitive world of chess, where a moment without growth spells a front-row seat to rivals mercilessly passing you by. Then I intuitively applied my hard-earned lessons to the martial arts. I avoided the pitfalls and tempting divergences that a learner is confronted with, but I didn’t really think about them because the road map was deep inside me — just like the chess principles.
Since I decided to write this book, I have analyzed myself, taken my knowledge apart, and rigorously investigated my own experience. Speaking to corporate and academic audiences about my learning experience has also challenged me to make my ideas more accessible. Whenever there was a concept or learning technique that I related to in a manner too abstract to convey, I forced myself to break it down into the incremental steps with which I got there. Over time I began to see the principles that have been silently guiding me, and a systematic methodology of learning emerged.
My chess life began in Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village, and took me on a sixteen-year-roller-coaster ride, through world championships in America, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, and India, through every kind of heartache and ecstasy a competitor can imagine. In recent years, my Tai Chi life has become a dance of meditation and intense martial competition, of pure growth and the observation, testing, and exploration of that learning process. I have currently won thirteen Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands National Championship titles, placed third in the 2002 World Championship in Taiwan, and in 2004 I won the Chung Hwa Cup International in Taiwan, the World Championship of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands.
A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else. After so many years of big games, performing under pressure has become a way of life. Presence under fire hardly feels different from the presence I feel sitting at my computer, typing these sentences. What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess — what I am best at is the art of learning.
This book is the story of my method.
Below is a short video overview of The Art of Learning. Don’t miss the hilarious outtakes starting around 4:45:
QOD: If you’ve met or studied any world-class performers, what did you learn from them? What lessons have you learned from observing the greats? Please share in the comments!
One video letter from my quarterly mailings.
Every three months, I ship out a box of wonderful physical products, along with a video “letter” explaining how I found them and how I use them.
One such video letter is above.
The theme of these quarterly mailings is obsession–the ideas and objects I can’t get out of my head.
Obsessions enter my life from odd places. Currently, my gadgets and gear recommendations are coming from Cirque du Soleil performers, chess prodigies, Fortune 500 CEOs, and military snipers. It’s the randomness that makes it fun.
More than 1,500 people subscribe to these boxes through Quarterly.co. They are making 130 more slots available for my next shipment, which is going to be killer. You can subscribe here. If you miss TIM05, you’ll be first in line for TIM06.
Below, I describe the goodies from the last two boxes, so you can explore them a la carte.
[Note for those asking about the TFX TV show -- 13 episodes are coming soon, plus extras for iTunes season pass holders!]
Scroll to below the photos for descriptions and links.
1. Vagabonding book — one of my all-time favorites — signed by author Rolf Potts - This is one of two books I took around the world with me for approximately 18 months. I love it so much that I bought the rights to the audiobook, worked with Rolf to add new case studies, and had him narrate an updated version. Listen to a free sample here.
2. Soma Water Filter - The water filter I use and show off to friends. More details in the video at the top of this post.
3. STX Lacrosse Ball - My all-around fix for muscular issues including foot ache (e.g. plantar fasciitis), tight chest (which can cause back pain), and more.
6. Red Blossom Pu-erh Tea - This is the tea I currently drink every morning, especially when experimenting with Intermittent Fasting (IF).
This box was an experiment that included both physical and digital items, including one-of-a-kind remixes and welcome videos from band members and movie directors.
Even excluding the value of the 15 extra and remixed songs from Beats Antique, the People in Motion extras, and the Kumare extras, the box has a retail value of $209.25.
1. Clean Bottle, The Square, $45.00 — My favorite water bottle, bar none. Click the link to see how easy it is to clean. Genius.
2. The Five Minute Journal , $22.95. This is how I’ve been practicing gratitude and focus for months now. 2.5 minutes in the morning, another 2.5 minutes at night. Simple and effective.
3. Steve’s Grass-Fed Paleostix, $5.50. Need a slow-carb or Paleo snack? This one will do the trick.
4. CLEAR card, 4 months free trial, $60 value. This is how I skip airport security lines, saving my sanity and hundreds of hours a year.
5. Kumare, $21.73, including two albums of unreleased music, as well as behind-the-scenes photos. This is one of my favorite documentaries of the last 5 years. It blends reality and illusion into an amazing fabric. Check it out.
6. Beats Antique custom drive containing 7 (!) of their albums, as well as a special group of remixes and extras. I fell in love with Beats Antique at one of their live performances in SF. Their “electronic gypsy” music (as they’d describe it), combined with sensual dance, was mesmerizing.
To understand exactly what I mean, skip to 7:15 in the below video for one of my favorite songs (“Beauty Beats“). For the full sexy, play all 25+ minutes in the background while you work:
Here are the albums I included in the box:
Collide 2008, $8.99
Tribal Derivations 2007, $8.99
Contraption (EP Vol.1), $6.23
Contraption, Vol. II 2012, $7.92
Blind Threshold 2010, $8.99
Elektrafone 2011, $8.99
The Trunk Archives, $3.96
7. People in Motion – Documentary on parkour and freerunning, including custom-designed bracelet drive and extras.
Want to get the next box of random goodness? Just sign up here! Wait until you see what’s coming…
Question of the day: What types of items would you like to see in future Quarterly mailings and blog posts like this?
Charlie Hoehn was a full-time employee of mine during the making and launch of The 4-Hour Body. It was an intense period.
In this post, Charlie will share his M.E.D. (Minimum Effective Dose) for overcoming anxiety and managing workaholism. There are six techniques in total.
If you haven’t already, be sure to read his previous post on preventing burnout.
Do you feel a constant sense of dread? Do you have trouble breathing, relaxing, and sleeping? Do you worry that you’re losing control, or that you’re going to die?
In other words: are you trapped in your own personal hell?
I’ve been there (here’s the backstory), and I know what it’s like. Shallow breathing, tension in the gut, chest pains, rapid heartbeat… Every moment is exhausting, crushing, and painful. Anxiety destroys your confidence, your productivity, your relationships, and your ability to enjoy life.
For a long time, I thought I was going crazy. I was convinced that something horribly wrong was about to happen. I tired and afraid all the time, and I didn’t know how to shake it. One half of me pretended to be normal while the other half tried to keep it together.
I tried everything: meditation, yoga, high-intensity workouts, long runs, therapy, therapy books, keeping a journal, super clean diets, extended fasting, drugs, deep breathing exercises, prayer, etc. I even took a six-week course, made specifically for men who wanted to overcome anxiety.
What I discovered is that the most effective “cures” for anxiety are often free, painless, and fun. When I was doing the six techniques I cover in this post on a daily basis, I was able to get back to my normal self in less than one month.
It’s my sincerest hope that this post helps you eliminate your anxiety, once and for all. Surprisingly, it’s not as hard as you think…
1. Enjoy Guilt-Free Play with Friends
“A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind.”
— Stuart Brown
When I asked Tim for his advice on overcoming anxiety, he said, “Remember to EXERCISE daily. That is 80% of the battle.”
I completely agree. Exercise is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. But what’s the best type of exercise? Running on the treadmill for an hour? Doing hundreds of sit-ups? Self-inflicted torture via P90X?
How about ‘None of the Above.’ All of those activities are miserable. People only do them because they think getting in shape has to be a punishment.
Exercise does not have to feel like work; it can be play. In other words, physical movement that gets your heart racing, causes you to sweat, and is legitimately FUN for you and your friends. You don’t have to track your time, measure your heart rate, or count your calories. Forget all that noise. Just focus on having fun while moving around with your friends.
In my experience, the best forms of anxiety-reducing play are outdoor sports. They are social (more than one person is required), mildly competitive, and cause everyone to break a sweat in the fresh air and sunshine. However, any fun play activity that you can do on a regular basis with your friends should work.
Almost every weekend, my friends and I play home run derby or go to the driving range. For me, taking batting practice or hitting golf balls is the most rewarding form of play. Plus it gives me an excuse to move around outside for an hour or two.
I also take frequent trips to the park with an Aerobie Flying Ring (a flat rubber Frisbee that flies really fast). The Aerobie is perfect for playing because I have to call up a friend to join me, and we both end up running around chasing it.
Incorporating play into my weekly routine helped my anxiety and workaholism more than anything else. It was such a massive relief to hang out with my friends and have guilt-free fun again. Playing helped me decompress and unplug from work, which actually made me more productive.
After each round of catch or home run derby, I would return to my laptop feeling light and happy. And to my surprise, I was able to produce better work at a faster pace. My brain was operating at a higher level because it was happy, playful, and recharged. And I wasn’t the only one who attested to a boost in productivity and creativity because of play.
[Note from Tim: Exercise also elicits measurable biochemical effects (like increased BDNF production) that improve cognitive performance.]
My friend Ann (a book editor) texted me one afternoon to say that she was trying to work, but was so bored that she’d spent the last hour staring at a turtle swimming in a pond. I told her to come pick me up so we could play catch. We drove over to a park and played with the Aerobie for two hours in the sun. The next day, she sent me this message:
All work and no play makes Jack an anxious boy — literally. Isolating yourself erodes your health, and sitting in a chair all day is a recipe for neuroses. Get off the Internet, turn off your screens, and go have guilt-free fun playing with your friends! You’ll be less anxious, less lonely, more relaxed, and a whole lot happier.
DO IT NOW
Schedule a daily reminder to Play. Ask a friend, co-worker, or neighbor to play catch. Search Yelp.com for “co-ed sports” or “improv comedy,” then sign up. For a negligible fee, you get to be surrounded by fun people who like to play. Totally worth it.
You can take baby steps toward playing more, of course. You could invite a friend on a long walk, or play catch instead of drinking coffee, or take a date to the driving range. The important thing is to schedule guilt-free fun with good people.
Aim for 30 minutes per day (or more, if possible). Reducing your anxiety through play only takes 2% of your total time each week, but it’s up to you to decide that your happiness is worth the effort.
[Note from Tim: Schedule this recreation in advance or it won't happen. If you're a type-A personality, work will swell to fill your unfilled calendar.]
Free, or very cheap. Try not to think of play in terms of costs. This is an investment in your health and happiness, with a guaranteed return.
Aerobie Flying Ring. This is the best toy for playing catch. It’s light, durable, portable, and extremely fun.
Charlie’s Play Picks. Check out my list of fun activities and toys.
Play by Dr. Stuart Brown. If you want to read more about the science behind play and its essential role in fueling happiness, pick up a copy of this book. It’s fantastic. Also worth reading: The Play Deficit (article) by Peter Gray.
2. Unplug from All Sources of News
“Learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace.”
— Robert J. Sawyer
It took me a long time to see it, but the news was my single biggest source of anxiety.
The websites I was reading each day talked non-stop about crime, corruption, economic breakdown, and the end of the world. As a result, my fear of being attacked spun out of control. I became obsessed with protecting myself from every possible threat. I researched what to do if I was arrested and thrown in jail. I spent hundreds of dollars on food and equipment that I hoped would save me in the event of a disaster.
There was nothing inherently wrong with preparing for an emergency, but obsessing over apocalyptic scenarios, every day, for months on end?
One day, it finally dawned on me: my fear of an imaginary future was destroying my ability to enjoy the present.
And what planted those seeds of fear? The news.
When I made the commitment to cut the news out of my life completely — no TV, no conspiracy sites or “truth deliverer” blogs, ignoring / blocking every sensationalist link I came across on social media, etc. — my anxiety plummeted in less than two weeks. The negative information I removed from my conscious awareness freed me from the confines of other people’s frightening narratives.
I replaced the scary news with positive, joyful, and fun information. For instance, I listened to uplifting songs and standup comedy. I watched improv, and classic funny & happy movies. I read fun books that sparked my imagination and touched my soul. It really helped.
Of course, I didn’t bury my head in the sand. I still talked with my friends, who would inevitably bring up the noteworthy events that took place that week. And I was always surprised to discover that… I didn’t really miss anything. I was alive, and the world kept turning. That was about it.
The information you allow into your conscious awareness determines the quality of your life. In other words, you are what you think. If you are subsisting on content that’s unsettling, anxious, and soulless (see: the news, reality shows, horror movies, books written by hateful authors, porn), your mind will become stressed, scared, and cynical.
But if you are consuming content that’s joyous and playful, your mind will become happy and loving. Simple as that.
DO IT NOW
Cut anxiety-inducing information – especially the news – out of your daily routine completely! If your friends are watching the news in the same room, either change the channel or go do something else. If a scary headline appears in your Facebook feed, don’t click it – block it.
There’s no need to subject yourself to unhealthy unrealities. Replace those unsettling thoughts with positive content that will uplift you.
The “Anti-News” List. My favorite anxiety-fighting content. Just remember: Sad people tend to focus on the lyrics, while happy people just listen to the music. Don’t over-analyze the deeper implications of the art; just enjoy how it makes you feel.
BONUS POINTS: Flip the Shut-Off Switch
Whenever I’m feeling burned out, I have to force myself to unplug.
I relocate to a scenic environment where the skyline isn’t cluttered with buildings or human activity, then I disconnect from every device with a screen for a minimum of 24 hours. That means no texting, no calling, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram, and no Seinfeld. Only nature, face-to-face interactions, and books are allowed.
Unplugged nature vacations are incredibly refreshing. My mind always feels like a stuffy room that gets a sudden rush of fresh air. Instead of feeling tired all day long from a steady diet of internet content, I’m rejuvenated by real life again.
Give yourself permission to stop working and unplug. Don’t feel guilty for taking time off. This isn’t an escape from the real world – it’s a chance to reconnect with it.
3. Consistent Bedtime & Afternoon Naps
“My girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’ I said ‘No, I made a few mistakes.’”
— Steven Wright
I really can’t overemphasize the importance of consistent quality sleep. Every anxious person I’ve met has either been in denial about how little sleep they get, or they’re overlooking the fact that they’re going to bed at random hours every night.
One of my readers wrote this message to me after reading an early draft of my book:
“When I began forcing myself to sleep eight hours a night, my physical health problems cleared up, my emotions balanced out, and my anxiety disappeared. My mind could function and that tight feeling around my eyes vanished. Eight hours of sleep is a miracle pill.”
I was chronically in a severe sleep deficit, which took a major toll on my mental health.
The endless stream of digital information I was taking in every waking hour only compounded the problem. And because I kept going to bed at random hours, my mind never had enough time to shut down, relax, and digest everything that poured in during the day.
During the month I cured my anxiety, I made consistent sleep one of my highest priorities. The first thing I did was optimize my bedroom for ideal sleeping conditions. Here are the steps I took:
- Plugged my iPhone charger in an outlet far away from my bed so I couldn’t grab my phone while I was laying down. This little obstacle prevented me from checking Facebook or watching Youtube before trying to fall asleep. [Note from Tim: I always put my iPhone on Airplane Mode or turn it off while sleeping. Even on silent, the illumination of arriving text messages is enough to wake or aggravate me.]
- Cranked up the air conditioning so the temperature in my bedroom was around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Kept the curtains drawn and wore a sleep mask so that my room was as dark as I could possibly make it.
Once my room was optimized, I committed to a consistent bedtime. I set a daily reminder on my iPhone called “Get Ready for Bed,” which went off at 10:00PM every night (i.e. nine hours before I wanted to wake up). As soon as it went off, I’d stop whatever I was doing, hit the bathroom, brush my teeth, and change out of my day clothes. I was dead serious about obeying my phone’s command. Even if I was in the middle of a conversation, I’d abruptly end it so I could get ready for bed.
After I finished getting ready, I’d switch my phone to silent mode, plug it into the charger that was far away from my bed, and lay down to read fiction for 15 minutes (No business or “thinking” books allowed). Then I’d turn off the lights and focus on the rhythm of my breathing until I fell asleep.
It took several nights to adjust to this change, but within a week, I was sleeping like a champion. The key was getting ready at the same time every night. It set me in motion toward getting in bed, and ultimately re-trained my body to crave sleep at a reasonable hour.
There was another aspect of my sleep routine that was critical for healing my anxiety: I took a 20-minute nap every afternoon.
Each day, immediately after I finished lunch, I would find a spot to nap – a couch, a bench, a reclined car seat, a carpeted floor, a friend’s wedding…
I’d set an alarm on my phone for 20 minutes, lie on my back, and close my eyes. I never tried to fall asleep; I just relaxed and focused on breathing in and out. Even if I didn’t fall asleep (10-20% of the time), I always felt refreshed and calm when my alarm went off.
Naps are awesome. I wish I could be a salesman for naps. We all took them every day when we were kids, so… why should we stop taking them just because we’re older? Take a quick nap in the afternoon, even if you have to cut your lunch break short. Then force yourself to get ready for bed at the same time every night. You’ll be more relaxed, more productive, and far less anxious.
DO IT NOW
Set a daily reminder on your phone to “Get Ready for Bed,” nine hours prior to your target wake time. Set another reminder to take a nap after lunch. Plug your cell phone charger in an outlet that’s far away from your bed. Cover your windows so your bedroom is as dark as possible. Drop the temperature in your bedroom to 68 degrees.
Aim for 8 hours of consistent quality sleep each night, and one 20-minute nap every afternoon.
Sweet Dreams Sleep Mask. The light! It buuurns! Use this mask to block it out.
Flux. The bright white light that you refer to as your “computer” might be disrupting your internal rhythm. Download the free Flux application to have your screen’s lighting automatically switch to a sunset hue in the evening.
Philips Wake-up Light. If you despise alarms as much as I do, then check out the Wake-up Light. It makes waking up gradual and pleasant.
4. Eliminate Stimulants
The physical sensations that preceded my panic attacks were the jitters (shaking hands, quivering voice) and a rapid resting heart rate. Guess what gave me both of those sensations? Coffee. And wouldn’t you know it, I was drinking 3-4 cups each day, running around like Tweek on South Park.
I decided to cut coffee out of my diet for a week. Shortly after I removed the caffeine from my bloodstream, I stopped having the jitters. My resting heart rate remained steady. The physical sensations that came with having a panic attack were no longer there, and I started calming down. [After some experimentation, I found that I could only have a half serving of coffee before I started feeling jittery. I also found that I couldn’t have caffeine past 5:00PM without disrupting my sleep routine.]
A friend of mine experienced similar results after removing aspartame. She had horrible anxiety for months but couldn’t figure out what was causing it. One day at work, she noticed that she’d finished three diet sodas in just a few hours. Her body was overloaded with caffeine and aspartame (a toxic sugar subsitute in diet drinks). As soon as she stopped drinking diet soda, her anxiety disappeared.
Sometimes, we tend to overlook the simple answers that are right in front of us. Let’s fix that.
DO IT NOW
Cut out any substance you regularly consume that’s correlated with increased feelings of anxiety. Common culprits include: caffeine, aspartame, gluten, refined sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. Keep it out of your body for one week.
If you have that substance in your house, throw it away. If the people you spend the most time with are encouraging you to consume it, politely turn them down and do something else. If you have strong cravings for that substance, find a healthy substitute you can consume instead (e.g. water, tea, sugar-free gum).
After the substance has been out of your system for seven days, you can reassess its toxicity by consuming a typical dose you’re used to taking. If your anxiety symptoms return within one hour of ingestion, you’ve found the culprit. Try to eliminate that substance for good.
5. Trauma Releasing Exercises
[Note from Charlie: This technique is going to sound bizarre. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but it worked really well for me and there’s a good amount of research to back up the benefits of T.R.E.]
One of the weirdest effects of anxiety is how much tension builds up in your body. I couldn’t even take a deep breath because my stomach always trembled, like it was being stretched to its limits. Relaxing felt physically impossible.
My body was so tense because I was constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Every day, I was producing the energy needed to survive a life-threatening event. The problem was that this event was in my mind; it was imaginary and it never took place. I had all this excess energy that wasn’t being released, so I became extremely high-strung.
A friend recommended that I check out T.R.E. — Trauma Releasing Exercises, which helped him conquer his anxiety. I watched a few videos of T.R.E. on YouTube and immediately thought it was fake. The clips showed people lying on the ground as their bodies went into spastic tremors. Their movements looked comical and freaky, like they were in the middle of an exorcism.
T.R.E. was originally designed as a safe and easy way to induce tremors. Anyone who has gone through extreme trauma, from the emotionally abused to war veterans, can use these exercises to their benefit. The exercises take about 20 minutes to complete, and they’re intended to induce tremors by exhausting your leg muscles.
I learned that tremors are a natural means for mammals to discharge excess energy after a traumatic event. The tremors release our body’s surplus of adrenaline after it’s no longer needed for survival. I watched footage of antelopes, bears, and other animals that had narrowly escaped an attack. Their bodies instinctively trembled for a few minutes, and then they’d act calm and normal again. It was fascinating.
Unlike most species, adult humans typically prevent themselves from having tremors. Why? Because we avoid behavior that makes us look weak or vulnerable. In other words, we are so self-conscious that we unknowingly block our body’s natural (yet embarrassing) function during times of great stress. As a result, we make it very difficult to overcome trauma because we’re constantly holding in so much excess energy. Thankfully, T.R.E. can help.
I bought the T.R.E. book on my Kindle and went through all the exercises. After I completed the full circuit, I lied on the ground and was STUNNED as my back, hips, and legs shook rapidly in sporadic bursts for 20 minutes. The tremors weren’t painful at all; the sensation actually felt relaxing and natural. I was just astounded by how vigorously my body shook. I looked like a vibrating cell phone. After my body’s tremors finally subsided, I went to lie down on my bed and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
I performed these exercises three nights per week, for three weeks. They were hugely effective for releasing the physical tension my body was holding in. I can’t show or describe all of the exercises here, as I don’t want to take credit for a routine I didn’t create. But if you’re interested in giving T.R.E. a shot, you can check out the book (or win a free copy by leaving a comment below — see instructions at the bottom of this post).
I know T.R.E. might sound kooky, or even a little scary. But it’s really not bad at all. It’s basically just a series of stretches that help your body thaw itself out by alleviating your chronic tension. Your tremors will definitely make your body move in strange ways though, so be sure to do these exercises in a relaxed environment where you won’t feel self-conscious.
DO IT NOW
Watch the 8-minute Tremors video on T.R.E.’s official website to see how it works.
Do the exercises every other day for three weeks. Then as needed.
$10 for the book.
Trauma Releasing Exercises. This short book explains the trauma recovery process in uncomplicated language. The last chapter includes photos and descriptions of the exercises, which elicit tremors that release deep chronic tension in the body.
6. Fix Micronutrient Deficiencies
Everyone should get tested for micronutrient deficiencies at some point. There are plenty of reasons why this is a smart move, but the most obvious is because of our changing soil.
The vegetables we eat absorb their nutrients from the soil they grow in, and the purity (and depth) of our topsoil has been severely compromised through hyper-aggressive/monoculture agriculture and mining. So even if you are eating a seemingly natural and well-balanced diet, you could still be deficient in key nutrients your brain and body need in order to function properly. Broccoli in one place doesn’t necessarily equal broccoli in another, for instance. Where you get your produce matters; they could be chock-full or devoid of the vitamins, etc. depending on where you source.
Below are two of the most common nutrient deficiencies that tend to amplify anxiety:
- The Vitamin B club. A lot of people are deficient in B-12 (methylcobalamin — found in meat), but others might be deficient in B-2 (riboflavin — found in yogurt, spinach, almonds, and eggs), or B-5 (pantothenic acid — found in avocados, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes), or B-6 (pyridoxal phosphate — found in tuna, chicken, turkey, and cod). Fortunately, it’s possible to get the recommended dose of all the B vitamins by taking a B-complex pill once per day.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. You can find omega-3 in salmon, fish oil, hemp seeds, and flax seeds. I take 2-4 servings of Nordic Natural’s cod liver oil pills each day, which contains a solid dose of the three fatty acids: EPA, DHA, and ALA.
For a few months, I was feeling unusually fatigued. I had no idea what was causing it. I was getting good sleep, I was eating healthy, and I was exercising regularly. I did some research, and found that I had a ton of symptoms for Vitamin B-12 deficiency: I felt mildly depressed, I had very little motivation, I was short of breath, my brain was foggy, and my fingers occasionally went numb.
Vitamin B-12 is in meat, fish, and certain dairy products (if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’re likely deficient in B-12). The normal range for B-12 is between 500 and 1,000 pg/ml (picograms per milliliter), and if your levels fall below 500 pg/ml, your brain ages twice as fast. In other words, if your body isn’t absorbing enough B-12, your mind rapidly deteriorates and stops functioning properly. Holy Guacamole!
When I got tested for B-12 deficiency, the results showed that my levels were 200 pg/ml — less than half of the minimum amount my body required. Even though I was eating meat almost every single day, I was still massively deficient.
I immediately began supplementing with Vitamin B-12 pills — 1,000 mcg every day, sublingually (under the tongue). Within one week, I could already feel a difference. I was less foggy and more energetic. When I got tested again for B-12 a month later, my levels had shot up to 529 pg/ml. I was back in the normal range.
A few of my friends took micronutrient deficiency tests, as well. None of them had B-12 levels as low as mine, but they were all deficient in something. One found he was deficient in magnesium. Another was deficient in selenium, while another was deficient in potassium. All of them took measures to correct their deficiencies, brought their levels back up to the normal ranges, and felt like new people. Their minds were clear and sharp, and their energy went through the roof.
One final note on deficiencies: It’s possible that your gut isn’t absorbing nutrients properly. If you suspect that’s the case, you might consider taking a probiotic supplement to introduce more healthy bacteria into your GI tract. You can also get more healthy bacteria by eating fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi.
DO IT NOW
Research the nutrients mentioned above to see if you might be deficient.
Once you’ve been tested for deficiencies, ingest an ample amount of the desired nutrients (via food or supplements) for 30 days. Get tested again and re-assess.
Varies, depending on whether you’re ingesting food or supplements (pills average less than $1.50 per day). $80 for the B-12 deficiency test at Any Lab Test Now. $400 for the micronutrient test. I know, I know – it’s expensive.
[None of these resources are affiliate links. Neither Tim nor I will earn money if you decide to make a purchase through them.]
Any Lab Test Now. You can get tested for deficiencies in just a few minutes at Any Lab Test Now and have the results emailed to you within 48 hours. You can also get micronutrient tests at your doctor’s office, but (depending on which state you’re in) they will probably make you jump through a few hoops first.
Spectracell. This is the micronutrient testing lab Tim used to uncover his selenium deficiency (he used Brazil nuts to correct it).
Vitamin B-Complex Caps. This covers all of your bases for the B vitamins. These pills are free from common allergens, like soy, yeast, barley, wheat, and lactose.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question, “Is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and they say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”
- Bill Hicks
I couldn’t see it for a long time, but I was the creator of my own anxious reality.
I didn’t allow myself to have fun. I never slept. I drank coffee all day while staring at screens. I consumed fear-mongering news that convinced me the end was near. People absorbed and reflected my nervousness back at me, and my anxiety perpetuated itself.
I’m not crippled with anxiety anymore, and I’m not burned out. Now, my state of mind is different.
I allow myself to have guilt-free fun in everything I do. The world is a playground, my work is a game, and life is a ride. And you know what? I feel 100 times better than I ever thought I would. I’m back to my normal self.
And I have no fear that those awful feelings will ever return, because I know the antidote — play.
# # #
Want a free copy of Charlie’s book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety?
Leave a comment below with your favorite technique for managing or overcoming anxiety.
The top 20 comments, as selected by Charlie, will receive:
Charlie Hoehn first reached out to me in 2008 through Ramit Sethi.
Shortly thereafter, I hired him as a part-time intern. Eventually, he became a full-time employee.
For three years, we worked together on a number of projects, most notably the The 4-Hour Body and the Opening the Kimono event. Charlie’s responsibilities ranged from “professional” tasks (planning VIP parties, assembling scandalous guest posts, coordinating logistics for 15,000 orders during the Land Rush campaign, etc.) to productive tomfoolery (epic grocery shopping sprees, editing vajayjay photos, photographing giraffe make outs, persuading me to swallow 25 pills at once).
It was one hell of a ride. We had a lot of fun, and we had some huge successes.
From day one, Charlie expressed a constant desire to become a hyper-efficient and effective entrepreneur. His role expanded as he requested more responsibilities (“What else can I do to help?” he’d ask me repeatedly), and we often found ourselves juggling several projects at once.
Most of the time, we handled it well. And as Charlie’s comfort zone stretched, his confidence increased, his communication and abilities improved, and our day-to-day operations were generally strife-free. We worked well together.
Then — in the middle of making The 4-Hour Chef – he suddenly quit. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Finding work-life balance (or work-life “separation,” as I prefer) in a connected world is challenging. Speaking personally, I’m either 100% ON (for book launches, creative deadlines, etc.) or 100% OFF (such as my recent excursion to Bali). This ability to hit the shut-off switch helps me remain sane, separate work from pleasure, and it usually prevents me from burning out.
In this post, Charlie will share his story: what it was like to work with me for three years, and what led up to his burnout.
For all Type-A driven readers — especially those who struggle with the shut-off switch — this one is for you…
My brain felt swollen, like it was pushing against my skull. I looked down at my iPhone. Good lord. 60 hours straight. Wide awake, no sleep, for 60 hours straight. Yet I was still lively and sharp, thanks to the magic pill.
For four days, I’d supercharged my energy with a powerful nootropic; a brain drug typically reserved for fighter pilots and narcoleptics. If you’ve seen the movie Limitless, well, that pill actually exists. The drug’s primary function is to silence the body’s pleas for sleep. Lucky for me. Rest was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
I’d secretly taken this brain drug, without my boss knowing, so I could be great at my job. I was in charge of coordinating the Opening the Kimono event — a private conference on next-generation content marketing, hosted by Tim Ferriss.
Most attendees knew Tim for his two mega-bestselling books: The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. The driving themes of Tim’s work were effectiveness and efficiency — getting better results, in less time, with less effort.
In The 4HB, Tim revealed how to lose 20 pounds of fat in one month (without exercise), how to triple fat loss with cold exposure, and how to produce 15-minute female orgasms. Both books sold more than a million copies each, and Tim was a star in the publishing world.
In addition to being a bestselling author, Tim was also a successful angel investor and advisor (his portfolio included Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Evernote, and many others). He was also — and I’m not exaggerating — a Chinese kickboxing champion, a horseback archer, a world record holder in tango, and a polyglot (fluent in five languages).
I’d been working with Tim for nearly three years as his Director of Special Projects. It was a dream job that I’d worked hard to land, and I’d reaped countless benefits. In the time we’d known each other, he’d personally introduced me to a wide array of amazing people: mega-successful CEO’s, brilliant tech entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, world-class athletes, inventors, robotics engineers, pickup artists, jet-setting casino owners, supermodels… The list was endless. My network went from “average” to “insane” simply by being around him.
He’d also given me a world-class education (I’d guess 3-5 MBAs combined), and helped build my portfolio into a showcase of incredible work.
I was 25 years old at the time, living in Russian Hill in San Francisco. Each morning, I’d walk over to my neighborhood café, sit down with my laptop, and work until nightfall on my weekly tasks. Whenever I finished a given job, I’d ask Tim for more work. Things multiplied quickly, and I soon had a plethora of responsibilities: assistant, researcher, editor, marketer, videographer, photographer, customer service, project manager… And then, I was his conference coordinator. Opening The Kimono was my biggest challenge to date.
More than 130 authors and entrepreneurs, from all over the world, paid $10,000 apiece for admission to Tim’s conference. And while I was confident we would successfully make it through this four-day event, I was also completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. There were so many moving parts.
I was terrified of screwing up. If something went wrong, I would need to fix it with superhuman speed. Somehow, I had to stay awake for the entire event…
And so, in my desperation, I visited an overseas pharmaceutical website, where I ordered the most powerful brain drug on the market.
The pills arrived just before the event. I took one every morning. Each day, I expected to pass out randomly from exhaustion. But it never happened; I stayed alert and wide-awake the whole time. The pills really, really worked. During the course of the four-day seminar, I slept a grand total of six hours. And just as I’d hoped, I was great at my job.
The event was a whirlwind, but we managed to pull it off. On the final day, everyone gave us a standing ovation. Attendees ran up to hug us and said it was the best conference they’d ever been to. Our inboxes were filled with dozens of glowing reviews and thank you notes.
I was in shock. After months of working around the clock, we’d exceeded all expectations, including our own. Tim gave me a hearty congratulations, and said he was amazed how well we’d done.
I was proud, happy, and very tired when I arrived back home. But later that night, my body started sending out emergency signals, warning me that something horribly wrong was happening.
My heart was racing. My vision was blurred. I had a pounding headache that wouldn’t stop. Sounds drifted sluggishly into my ears, and I could barely stand upright.
For the first time in my life, I felt completely and utterly burned out.
# # #
A few days later, I went back to work. We were just getting started on our next big project: The 4-Hour Chef.
Two years prior, I helped Tim edit and launch his second book, The 4-Hour Body. I was immensely proud to have played a part in the book’s success; it was the pinnacle of my career. On the other hand, The 4-Hour Body had been the most stressful undertaking of my life. Tim and I half-joked that the book nearly killed us. I was hesitant to jump in for round two.
Tim offered to double my salary if I helped him complete The 4-Hour Chef.
It was a generous offer, and I was immediately interested in taking it. I’d be making more money than I’d know what to do with, and I’d have another cool achievement under my belt. What did I have to lose? After a moment’s pause, we shook on it.
I felt incredibly fortunate to be in that position, especially since so many people I knew were either unemployed or working in jobs they hated. My family and friends all congratulated me. From a distance, things looked great.
But on the inside, I was flailing. I’d completely lost balance, and I couldn’t see that I was destroying myself.
I was addicted to my work. You see, I liked to think of myself as busy and important, so I tethered myself to the Internet seven days a week. I communicated with everyone through screens. I spent all day long sitting indoors. I drank coffee all week, and drank alcohol all weekend. I only stopped working when I was sleeping. And then I stopped sleeping.
I just couldn’t stop myself from working all the time. I wanted to be indispensable, the best in the world at running operations. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life or if I started feeling sick; work was everything to me. Practically everyone I met in the tech scene behaved the same way.
So many of my friends and colleagues were workaholics.
Several buddies of mine were pulling 16-hour workdays. My friend in medical school was popping Adderall like candy. All of us were destroying ourselves during the week, and punishing our livers on the weekend. We didn’t take vacations. We didn’t take breaks. Work was life.
Here’s the thing: I was a workaholic long before I met Tim.
I’d always stayed up late. I’d always spent hours at a time staring at screens. The difference now was that my state of mind had changed. Now, the results mattered more than the process. I took everything very seriously because I thought I was so important — there was money and success on the line! And I wanted to be the best at dominating life.
Predictably, life stopped being fun.
Each week, I felt increasingly sick, exhausted, and apathetic. My eyes sunk back and grew dark circles beneath them. My forehead developed thick stress lines.
My hands started shaking. I felt like I was always on the verge of crying. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, so I just tried to work my way through it.
Then the deadline for The 4-Hour Chef got pushed back three months.
Then a family member died.
Then a close friend attempted suicide.
When Tim and I met up for dinner the following week, I told him very meekly:
“I can’t do this anymore. I have to quit.”
# # #
Tim didn’t argue with me.
He understood where I was coming from, and offered his support in whatever I was going to do next. It was a massive relief to part on amicable terms, but I felt weaker than ever. I was already feeling the pressure to get back to work, but what would I do? My identity was gone. I decided to take a couple weeks off. Then another week… And another…
I spent the next three months being unemployed and feeling awful. Every day, I’d go through the motions of my old routine without actually doing anything. I compulsively checked email all day long, stayed up until 4:00AM, and slept a few hours each night. I received a handful of job offers and turned them all down, recoiling at the thought of having to go back to work.
The worst part was the guilt. I felt enormously guilty every second I wasn’t doing something that could advance my career or earn money. I would pace around like a neurotic rat, coming up with random chores to distract myself. When the chores were finished, I’d think, “Okay… Now what?” Any activity that didn’t feel productive – sleeping in, watching TV, taking a trip – filled me with regret. There was this gnawing sense that I was wasting time. I was losing money. And yet, I had no desire to work.
I started wondering if I’d screwed up my life very badly. Hadn’t I been living the dream? Did I just throw away everything I’d worked for? I started feeling very anxious. I wanted to do something big, to reinvent my career, to make a name for myself so I could be successful. What that something would be, I didn’t know.
Then one day, two of my friends, Chad Mureta (whom I’d met at the Kimono event) and Jason Adams, suggested that we start a mobile app company together. They were both sharp entrepreneurs and savvy marketers, and Chad was already making millions from the apps he’d developed.
Finally, I thought, here’s a job that makes sense. I could be one of the founders of a cool tech startup, working on fun projects with my smart friends, in one of the most exciting industries on the planet. The Draw Something app had recently been acquired for $250 million, then Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion. I thought, This gig might make me a millionaire by the end of the year! This is it…
I was so relieved to feel productive again. I strolled into the office each day to work on my laptop until late in the evening. I sat down, stared at my computer screen for several hours, and drank coffee. When I got home, I worked on my laptop until 4:00AM, slept for a few hours, then started all over again.
We spent the first month putting together an online course called App Empire, which walked people through the entire process of starting their own app business. It required many sleepless nights to get it finished on time, but we managed to pull it off.
The launch of the course was a success, raking in $2 million dollars in revenue over the course of 10 days.
If you said “WTF!” after reading that last sentence, I don’t blame you. But our results were somewhat typical in the high-cost information product world. When you combine a $2,000 course with a huge list of potential customers (and three guys who know a lot about online marketing), you get a multi-million dollar product launch.
We spent the next two months doing weekly webinars, walking customers through each lesson and answering their questions. In our spare time, we worked on our app ideas.
At some point in the third month, I realized: I didn’t care about apps. I knew how to make them, and I knew how to succeed in the app market, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t really use apps and I never got excited about them.
I asked myself, Why am I really doing this work? Well, the job gave me an excuse to hang out with my friends during the day, rather than being holed up alone in my apartment. But that was only a small part of it. The honest answer was:
Status. Money. Guilt.
I wanted to impress other people with my “success” of founding a company. I wanted to be rich. And I wanted to avoid feeling bad for not working.
The problem was… I didn’t really care about what I was doing. There was this weird disconnect, like apps should have been the natural progression in my career. But it just never felt right. It felt forced.
I quit my job that week.
Once again, I experienced “success” and walked away from it. Only this time, I was riddled with anxiety.
I started to think I was going to be punished for not being productive, for not making money, for not having my life figured out. I didn’t know how or when, but I was certain it was going to happen. Everything was coming to a head. It was only a matter of time before something terrible happened…
# # #
I was in a bad place for a long time after I quit those jobs.
I was too ashamed and proud to reach out to anyone for help, so I bottled my feelings up and stumbled around for the next year. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.
It’d be very easy for me to manufacture a villain in this story. I could tell you that I was pushed too hard, or that no one cared about how I felt. But that’s not the truth. I was the one who chose to stay up until 4:00AM. I was the one pouring caffeine down my throat four times a day. I was the one who secretly ordered brain pills. I was the one who isolated myself from friends and kept my feelings hidden. Everything I did that fueled my anxiety was my choice.
The truth is that all of my emotional issues would have unfolded for me at some point in my life, regardless of whom I was working with. I was the creator of my own anxiety, and I was the one who broke myself with my workaholic habits. I just didn’t recognize how destructive my behavior was because I thought it was normal.
I wish someone had held up a mirror to show me I was the problem, but that never happened. No one knew the full extent of my situation but me, and I was in denial. It’s worth taking a moment to ask yourself:
— Do I feel guilty or anxious when I’m not working?
— Have I stopped playing with my friends?
— Do all of my daily activities revolve around building a more successful career?
— Am I always sleeping fewer than eight hours per night?
— Am I consuming stimulants multiple times per day to hide my exhaustion?
— Am I sitting still and staring at screens for most of my waking hours?
— Do I interact with people primarily through screens?
— Am I indoors all day long, depriving myself of fresh air and sunlight?
— Do I depend on alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations outside of work?
If you said ‘yes’ to most of those questions, you are not alone. When I was at my worst, I was doing all of these things on a daily basis. I was fueling my own anxiety and I couldn’t even see it.
My perceived lack of productivity, lack of money, and the unknown future kept me in a constant state of panic. Every day was a haze of fear and exhaustion. For more than a year, I tried everything to pull myself out of this state of living death. Nothing seemed to help, and I nearly lost hope.
Then one night, I had my first major breakthrough, which laid the foundation to cure my anxiety. This breakthrough happened in a flash. The emotional burden of non-stop worry was lifted, and I could finally breathe again.
It wasn’t hard. It didn’t cost me anything. It was only a choice.
TIM: To be continued in Part 2, where Charlie will describe the step-by-step process he used to reverse his descent into darkness (and we’ve all been there, including me).
I also learned a lot from Charlie’s struggles. First and foremost: As a boss, you cannot assume that someone is resting and recovering properly. You must ensure it. Employees out of sight does not equal employees out of the inbox.
Don’t want to wait for Part 2? Take a look at Charlie’s new book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, which includes all the techniques he used to get his life back on track.
(Photo: Aaron Benitez)
Would you like to win one of four laptops (and a dozen other items) that I used to write three bestselling books?
This post details how to get them.
All funds raised will go to the EFF. More on this important organization later…
To start off, let’s take a look at the laptops.
They’ve traveled with me through more than 20 countries. Nearly all of my biggest successes since 2004 can be traced to these machines. Hard drives are not included (sorry!), but good karma and mojo is.
Pics are below, and here are basics:
The Acer with “Brazilian Top Team” sticker — This was used for all the notes that became the original 4-Hour Workweek. It was bought in Berlin in 2004 and traveled with me for nearly 18 months around the world, including the Tango World Championships in Buenos Aires (in the “Intro” to 4HWW) and much more.
The Sony Vaio with California sticker — This was used for the very first full draft of The 4-Hour Workweek.
MacBook Pro with tons of stickers — This was used to write The 4-Hour Body, start to finish.
Before the pics, please note that I’m offering more than laptops. More than a dozen other items will be available starting tomorrow (2/13/14), including a brand-new (never opened) GoPro Hero3 Black Edition, a pair of LSTN Ebony Wood Troubadours headphones, high end digital scales, and a ton more.
How to Get This Stuff
The auctions will start at noon on Thursday, February 13th on FOBO.
If you’re in San Francisco and haven’t tried it, it’s a slick new app for selling electronics in less than 2 hours; I’m an investor and love it.
Rather than their normal 97-minute auctions, in which everything posted is guaranteed to sell, FOBO is doing special 4-hour auctions. It’ll be a lot of fun, and every dollar goes to the EFF.
Please note – Since FOBO is currently limited to San Francisco, be sure to:
- Join from within city limits, or
- Have a friend in SF make your offers for you.
Hope to see you during the auctions!
More About The EFF
I’m a long-time supporter of the EFF, The Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Simply put, they defend your rights in a digital world, where companies and governments can monitor and abuse you. They’re currently fighting the NSA’s massive phone and online surveillance activities. Even if you don’t participate in the above auctions, I hope you donate to support them.
More — Based in San Francisco, the EFF is a donor-supported membership organization working to protect fundamental rights regarding technology; to educate the press, policymakers and the general public about civil liberties issues related to technology; and to act as a defender of those liberties.