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Tim Ferriss and the Rise of the Email Miser

April 13th, 2017 · 17 comments

The Spark

Tim Ferriss’s first book, The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW), has been selling well in hardcover for almost a decade. In this time, it has resonated with so many audiences, and inspired so many trends, that it’s easy to forget the topic that first put the book on the cultural map: email.

In the spring of 2007, right around the time 4HWW was published, Tim gave a talk to a packed room at the SXSW conference. Though he covered many topics in the speech, there was one suggestion in particular that caught his audience’s attention: you should only check email twice a day (and explain this to your correspondents in an autoresponder).

This twice-a-day strategy created a buzz at SXSW: major business bloggers began to write about Ferriss, and his book soon became a phenomenon in Silicon Valley (the epicenter of communication overload). It was largely on this platform that 4HWW began to lay the foundations for its massive audience.

From Days to Weeks

The idea that you shouldn’t check email constantly sounds obvious to modern ears. It’s important to remember, however, that in 2007 this was bold.

(In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, people in the tech industry fully embraced the novel promise of rapid network communication. To check emails constantly was a mark of pride — an indication that you were cutting edge. By 2007, the excitement had diminished and the first adopters were growing weary. This is the context in which Ferriss’s message inspired a passionate response.)

I’m telling this story because I’ve noticed recently a growing number of people who are taking Ferriss’s original suggestion to a new level: checking email only once or twice a week.

These email misers, as I affectionately call them, have transformed their email inbox into something closer to a P.O. box — a collection of messages that build up until they occasionally stop by to sort through them, replying only when unavoidable.

These misers don’t make a big fuss about their lazy inbox habits. They don’t write autoresponders or issue elaborate apologies. When people complain, they simply note that they don’t always get to their email on any given day. After a while, their correspondents adapt.

To be fair, most knowledge workers would be fired if they followed this strategy, and to date I’ve only encountered a small number of these misers…but, keep in mind that in 2007 most people felt similarly worried about Ferriss’s much milder suggestions.

In other words, the fact that we’ve moved from a cultural moment in which Ferriss’s advice was revolutionary, to a moment where more and more people feel empowered to check email only occasionally throughout their week, is, to me, a sign of progress…

(Photo by Anne Helmond)

17 thoughts on “Tim Ferriss and the Rise of the Email Miser

  1. Abdul says:

    Cal Newport you’ve helped me a lot.

  2. Vishal says:

    People have scoffed at this suggestion by Ferriss in reviews of The 4HWW on Amazon.

    It’s true, just reducing how much you check email won’t reduce the communication you’re bombarded with. Instead, Ferriss suggested that people respond to emails in such ways that ambiguity is eliminated, as is the need for further correspondence on the subject.

    We also must let go of FOMO (feeling left out of the loop). For instance, I would often receive over 21 emails in less than an hour when a client corresponded with her PR team and kept me in the loop. I asked to be removed from this chain because my job was just to draft the content. I could’ve considered it important, but didn’t want that distraction. When they did, I worked better and felt less overwhelmed. From close to 50 emails a day, my mailbox now has 3-4, half of which are newsletter subscriptions.

    Inner peace!

  3. Kalpesh Patel says:

    I agree people adapt. I have started sending Jira/confluence/Gitlab and any auto notification to trash. At first, people complained but then I said I am always a phone call away so call me if you need me urgently and they have adapted. The key is to make others aware about the communication rules.

  4. Wow … so just this morning, I was telling a friend about Tim Ferriss and also (not in connection with that) this crazy idea I’m having that I’m only going to check my email once a week. Confirmation much? Thanks, Cal!

  5. Frank says:

    Thank you for this post. Some would call me a miser, but only some. Usually, because their email ‘ask’ seems to be too remarkable to be left to an email conversation. I suppose, what I’m saying is some would think of me as an email miser, but they’d be wrong. I still look at my emails a handful of times per day. I just choose to defer my writing of emails to some later date on most occasions.

    Perhaps I’m experiencing the worst of both worlds. People are frustrated sometimes, but adjust. I’m frustrated by email most days.

  6. Brian says:

    I’ve had good luck at work with the ‘twice a day’ signature line and auto-responder technique. I would “love” to only check work email twice per week, but I don’t think that’d be possible with my existing job duties. Time to pitch a different role?

    Also, I’m wondering if any of the ‘twice a week’ email misers have migrated over to Slack etc… to conduct daily business? In which case — not as impressive.

  7. Vincent says:

    We can all free each other from too much mail. I usually check mine once a working day (that’s usually around 100-150 now), and that’s fine for academics. Less tends to be impolite and inefficient for cooperation.

    My own adaptation of an e-mail charter is here http://www.sophia.de/email-charter.html

  8. Grace says:

    Hi Cal!
    I found this and remembered you, I think it is align with what you are sharing: http://www.timewellspent.io/

  9. W says:

    Ask Linus Torvalds…
    It really depends on the job nature and the they company’s setup.
    We have some IT support from the other side of the globe. I can call you in their middle of the sleep and write down my request; or they answer my email the next day…

  10. Nina says:

    First of all, when I picked up the book ” The 4-Hour Workweek”, I didn’t expect that he was literally working only four hours a week. I thought he was just talking about ways to spend less time working, but that “The 4-Hour” just sounded good (since he now has a whole line of books with titles that start that way). Nope. Turns out he really only worked four hours every week for a few years. I hate him. Now, with his series of books and everything, that’s not true so much, so I hate him less. Now his job is much more similar to what I actually want to do.

  11. Sean says:

    I’ve turned off all notifications which really helps. Unfortunately I have to send an email every morning to check in with the office when working remotely, which gets the ball rolling. So I’ve adapted to sorting emails then, again at lunch, then at the end of the day.

  12. Tim Greven says:

    With these posts on quiting social media, I have the following question:

    Would it be wise to not take your mobile phone to high school?

    In elementary, I was the hardest worker ever and got to the highest education path in my country. When I got a mobile phone though, I easily got distracted by it and never made homework/studied. Leading me to a lower level of education.

    Would there be a way to ditch it/it’s distraction, without missing WhatsApp messages?

  13. Peter says:

    I’m working on a Chrome extension for Gmail which helps people cultivate this habit.

    It lets you lock yourself out of your email inbox, but continue to access the rest of Gmail (e.g. to search your archive or compose new messages).

    https://inboxwhenready.org

  14. Mila says:

    Brilliant book! Thanks you a lot! I recommend every my friends to buy your books!

  15. Thanks for sharing this info which is giving some that kind of direction which will be give you new heights.

    I don’t think any other tips will work great more than this.

  16. Carl says:

    Great insight as ever Cal.

    Email is still a blackhole for many. I am a knowledge worker (aren’t we all?) as well as a writer and I’m still surprised how many colleagues choose to spend most of their day in their inbox, then complain they have no time for planning or hitting deadlines! Go figure.

    Technology is a tool that should help, not hinder us. How we use it is up to us.

    Tim has his detractors but that book was certainly bold at the time and one I have come back to many times. Twice a day email (batching) along with 1-2 big tasks per day are still my preferred approaches (directly from 4HWW). I also don’t feel guilty about hardly checking email at all if away travelling.

    Going off grid is underrated.

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