“We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” —Archilochus
For the last two years, I’ve interviewed more than 200 world-class performers for my podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. The guests range from super celebs (Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.) and athletes (icons of powerlifting, gymnastics, surfing, etc.) to legendary Special Operations commanders and black-market biochemists.
During our recordings I absorbed a lot of their wisdom and my life improved in almost every area as a result of the lessons I could remember. But that was the tip of the iceberg. The majority of the gems were still lodged in thousands of pages of transcripts and hand-scribbled notes. More than anything, I longed for the chance to distill everything into a playbook.
The result was my new book Tools of Titans, the tools, tactics, and ‘inside baseball’ of the billionaires, icons, and world-class performers I have been fortunate enough to interview.
The Most Consistent Pattern of All
Of all the routines and habits, the most consistent among guests some form of daily meditation or mindfulness practice. More than 80% of the world-class performers I interviewed shared this trait. Both can be thought of as “cultivating a present-state awareness that helps you to be nonreactive.” This applies to everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Justin Boreta of The Glitch Mob, and from elite athletes like Amelia Boone to writers like Maria Popova. It’s the most consistent pattern of them all.
It is a “meta-skill” that improves everything else. You’re starting your day by practicing focus when it doesn’t matter (sitting on a couch for 10 minutes) so that you can focus better later when it does matter (negotiation, conversation with a loved one, max deadlift, mind-melding with a Vulcan, etc.).
If you want better results with less stress, fewer “I should have said X” mental loops, etc., meditation acts as a warm bath for the mind. Perhaps you’re a world-conquering machine with elite focus, but you might need to CTFO (chill the fuck out) a few minutes a day before you BTFO (burn the fuck out).
Meditation allows me to step back and gain a “witness perspective” (as with psychedelics), so that I’m observing my thoughts instead of being tumbled by them. I can step out of the washing machine and calmly look inside it.
Most of our waking hours, we feel as though we’re in a trench on the front lines with bullets whizzing past our heads. Through 20 minutes of consistent meditation, I can become the commander, looking out at the battlefield from a hilltop. I’m able to look at a map of the territory and make high-level decisions. “These guys shouldn’t even be fighting over here. What the hell is Regiment B doing over there? Call them out. We need more troops around the ridge. For objectives, we should be going after A, B, and C in that order. Ignore all the other so-called emergencies until those are handled. Great. Now, deep breath, and…execute.”
The Buffet of Options
If I could only choose one physical exercise for the body, it would probably be the hex-bar deadlift or two-handed kettlebell swing. If I could only choose one exercise for the mind, it would be 10 to 20 minutes of meditation at least once daily.
There are many options. Oddly, in polling readers, substantially more men end up at Transcendental Meditation (TM), and substantially more women end up at vipassana. Go figure. I currently use both in a roughly 60/40 split. But each person needs to find the shoe that fits.
How to figure out what works best for you? Try one or more of the following. I have used each successfully and so have hundreds (and often thousands) of my fans:
- Use an app like Headspace or Calm. Headspace’s free “Take10” will guide you for 10 minutes a day for 10 days. A number of my guests also use Headspace to help them get to sleep. Some of my listeners in the media, like Rich Feloni of Business Insider, have written entire feature-length pieces on how this app has changed their lives. Amelia Boone uses both Headspace and Calm, depending on the circumstances. I prefer the narrator for Headspace (Andy Puddicombe), but Calm features background sounds of nature that soothe the nerves.
2. Listen to a guided meditation from Sam Harris or Tara Brach. Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org listens to the same recording every morning — Tara Brach’s Smile Guided Meditation recording from the summer of 2010.
- Take a TM course (tm.org). It will probably cost $1,000 or more, but this option offers a coach and accountability. For me, this is what kicked off more than 2 years of consistent meditation. I’m not a fan of everything the TM organization does, but their training is practical and tactical. Rick Rubin and Chase Jarvis convinced me to bite the bullet on the cost when I was going through a particularly hard period in my life. I’m glad they did. The social pressure of having a teacher for 4 consecutive days was exactly the incentive I needed to meditate consistently enough to establish the habit. Rick and Chase both effectively said, “You can afford it, and it might help. What do you really have to lose?” In this particular case, I was penny wise and pound foolish for a long time. I was also afraid of “losing my edge,” as if meditation would make me less aggressive or driven. That was unfounded; meditation simply helps you channel drive toward the few things that matter, rather than every moving target and imaginary opponent that pops up.
- If you want to try mantra-based meditation without a course, you can sit and silently repeat one two-syllable word (I’ve used “na-ture” before) for 10 to 20 minutes first thing in the morning. TM purists would call this heresy, but you can still see results. Aim for physical comfort. No crossed legs or yoga-like contortion required. The default is sitting reasonably straight on a chair with your feet on the floor, hands on your thighs or in your lap, and back supported.
How Long Does It Take to See Results?
Commit to at least one 7-day cycle. I hate to say it, but I think less is worthless. There appears to be a binary not-boiling/ boiling phase shift. If your doctor prescribes a week of antibiotics and you only take the medication for 3 days, the infection isn’t fixed and you’re back to square one. I believe there is a minimum effective dose for meditation, and it’s around 7 days.
If you need a kick in the ass, consider using accountability partners or betting through a service like Coach.me or Stickk.com.
Complete 7 sessions before you get ambitious with length. 10 minutes is plenty. Do NOT start with 30- to 60-minute sessions, or you’ll quit before hitting the phase shift. Start small and rig the game so you can win.
The Dalai Lama was once asked how long it took for noticeably life-changing effects, to which he replied succinctly: “Around 50 hours.” That really ain’t much, and it might be less. Based on a number of recent studies, a mere 100 minutes of cumulative “sitting” time appears sufficient to produce subjectively significant changes.
Curiously, for some outliers like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who wrote the foreword to Tools of Titans), it appears that one year of diligent practice can provide a lifetime of re-calibration, even if you never meditate again.
In my own sessions of 20 minutes, 15 minutes is letting the mud in the water settle, and the last 5 minutes are really where I feel the most benefit. For me, it’s much like training to failure with weight lifting. The benefits are derived from the last few reps, but you need all the preceding reps to get there.
But what if you think of your to-do list, past arguments, or porn for 19.5 minutes out of 20? Do you get an F in meditation? No. If you spend even a second noticing this wandering and bringing your attention back to your mantra (or whatever), that is a “successful” session. As Tara Brach pointed out to me, the muscle you’re working is bringing your attention back to something. My sessions are 99% monkey mind, but it’s the other 1% that matters. If you’re getting frustrated, your standards are too high or your sessions are too long. Once again, for 7 days, rig the game so you can win. The goal is not to “quiet the mind,” which will give your brain a hyperactive tantrum; the goal is to observe your thoughts. If you’re replaying some bullshit in your head and notice it, just say, “Thinking, thinking” to yourself and return to your focus.
Done consistently, my reward for meditating is getting 30% to 50% more done in a day with 50% less stress. Why? Because I have already done a warmup in recovering from distraction: my morning sit. If I later get distracted or interrupted during work hours, I can return to my primary task far more quickly and completely. (Tech nerd side note: Momentum extension for Chrome is also very helpful.)
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” —Abraham Lincoln
Whacking trees with a blunt axe is no way to go through life.
Try it for 7 days and sharpen your mind.
As Rick Rubin and Chase Jarvis asked me: What do you have to lose?
Tim Ferriss is an early-stage technology investor/advisor (Uber, Facebook, Shopify, Duolingo, Alibaba, and 50+ others) and the author of three #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers: The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef. Tim is also the host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, which has exceeded 90 million downloads and was selected for “Best of iTunes” in 2015. His latest book is Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, available now.