"It pays not to be puritanical with incentives. Shame, humiliation, peer pressure, financial loss—these things are effective."
“I’m making the call to skip the IV drip,” Tim Ferriss said when I answered the phone. “Let’s get black coffee and go for a hike.” The plan had been to meet about a half-hour north of Ferriss’s home in San Francisco, at a Marin County clinic where he was scheduled to receive a massive intravenous dose of vitamin C to test its potential to aid with fat loss and muscle recovery. But there was an accident on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, and Ferriss, whose 2007 surprise New York Times bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, railed against wasted time, was not going to idle in traffic.
Forty-five minutes later, I walk into a café in the city’s Glen Park neighborhood and find him in front of a laptop while talking on his iPhone headset. He’s wearing jeans and a green long-sleeve waffle-knit T-shirt that bulges around his weight lifter’s shoulders. At 33, he looks supremely fit and healthy—stout body, smooth skin, clear eyes—and if we’re to believe what he writes in his even better-selling follow-up, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, published last December, you can look the same with little effort. The 571-page book is packed with shortcuts to just about everything overworked Americans wish we had more time for: trimming fat, building muscle, hitting a baseball like Babe Ruth, holding our breath longer than Houdini, sleeping better, living longer. It even claims to help non-orgasmic women achieve climax. Ferriss has divined prescriptions that, for example, enable you to lose 20 pounds in 30 days without exercise. For every objective, he consults experts (top scientists, elite athletes, porn stars), subjects himself to intensive experimentation (injections, batting cages, a meat-and-nuts diet), collects data (blood tests, scales, video), and then shares what works to see if others can replicate his results. The goal is to find what he calls the minimum effective dose—the easiest (and usually quickest) path to a desired outcome. The key to hacking your life, he argues, is closely monitoring your progress with the appropriate tools so you can be inspired to keep going or change course.
As we begin talking, Ferriss leans in and cradles his right biceps in his left hand, his index and forefinger fidgeting rhythmically. Must be the caffeine.
ROBERTS: If The 4-Hour Body is full of hard science and all kinds of serious life advice, why does it look like another six-pack-abs book?
FERRISS: Most people just want to look better naked, which is what a CEO friend said I should have called it. The book is very much a Trojan horse in that respect. I don’t think that’d be a terrible title, but there’s a lot more to it. If you look at behavioral change, selling health doesn’t work. I can sell the six-pack, and someone can come back to me and say that they’re a type 1 diabetic and have cut their insulin in half. I’m getting them where I want them to go, but it’s a very indirect sell.
But isn’t the greatest hurdle just getting people motivated in the first place?
I would actually say that motivation is not the question. The real question is: What are the incentives? Let’s say I created a gym where you pay $400 the first of the month, and for every visit I refund $25. And before you sign up, we take unflattering photos of you in your underwear, and if you don’t make a certain number of visits, we post those photos to a public website. I guarantee you that would be one fucking fit gym.
Meaning we should use cash and vanity as incentives?
Absolutely. It pays not to be puritanical with incentives. Just look at what’s effective. We like to talk about reward, positive thinking, positive reinforcement. But the sad or useful fact of the matter is that shame, humiliation, peer pressure, financial loss—those things are all more effective.
How does this work if your goals are really better health and performance? A lot of elite endurance athletes don’t exactly look good naked.
Quite frankly, I wouldn’t consider a lot of endurance athletes healthy. But then again, running ultramarathons or, say, squatting 1,000 pounds aren’t necessarily what the human body is designed to do.
Are you saying elite endurance athletes aren’t fit or that they aren’t healthy?
I dislike both words, because they’re poorly defined. Ultramarathoners are fit in the sense that they are well-adapted organisms for long-distance running. But do I think that female 100-milers won’t experience reproductive problems? Not necessarily.