The Magical Power of Flipping a Routine on Its Head

To make a breakthrough, ask yourself, “What if I did the opposite?”

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

LLong before Tim Ferriss became the bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek and the host of a wildly popular podcast, he had a day job selling enterprise technology — and he was struggling at it. He knew that if he wanted to stay employed, he would need to change his sales strategy. Except he had no idea how.

Then one day, as Ferriss writes in his book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, he noticed something: All of his colleagues were making their sales calls between 9 a.m and 5 p.m., the same hours potential clients were likely stuck in meetings and racing to get their projects done. So he asked himself, “What if I did the opposite?”

He decided to try an experiment. For 48 hours, he would make sales calls only from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and 6 to 7:30 p.m. Then, for the rest of the day, he would focus on sending cold emails.

The results? “It worked like gangbusters,” Ferriss writes. “The big boss often picked up the phone directly.”

Thrilled by this outcome, Ferriss recalls in Tools of Titans, he began performing more experiments at work that started with the question “What if I did the opposite?” He asked himself: “What if I only asked questions instead of pitching? What if I studied technical material, so I sounded like an engineer instead of a sales guy? What if I ended my emails with ‘I totally understand if you’re too busy to reply, and thank you for reading this far,’ instead of the usual ‘I look forward to your reply and speaking soon’ presumptive BS?”

Shaking up his practices paid off. In the last quarter of his job, Ferris writes that he “outsold the entire L.A. office of our biggest competitor.”

I’ve read plenty of productivity advice in my life, but after I came across this particular piece of wisdom, I kept thinking about it. A friend of mine once told me, “If you keep doing what you’ve done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten.” And I believe it’s true: Sometimes, in order to make breakthroughs, we need to flip our habits, routines, and rituals on their heads.

So recently, I’ve applied Ferriss’s suggestion to my own life: What if I did the opposite? Here are some ways I’ve used this guiding question:

  • I used to write infrequently, only when I had a free two- or three-hour block of time. Since this summer, however, I’ve started writing in 15-minute bursts, and have seen a huge benefit in both the quality and quantity of my work. Making use of each and every small fragment of time has improved my writing and editing processes, as well as my output.
  • Another one related to writing: I used to write and edit drafts entirely on the computer, as most do. But then I tried an experiment: I started typing out each draft as quickly as possible (occasionally using voice transcription software), giving it a quick first edit, then triple-spacing the document (an idea I got from Robert Caro), printing it out, editing it again with a pen, and finally adding all the changes on the computer version. It sounds like a lot of extra work, but I’ve noticed my articles get much better after a pen edit.
  • I would always go to the gym in the afternoon, figuring the morning was better spent working, but I’d always get caught in the after-work rush. In an attempt to avoid the crowds, I decided to start hitting the gym right after waking up. I’m not sure if it’s the peaceful vibe of the morning gym, or something that happens in my brain as a result of the workout, but now after I leave the gym in the morning, I feel good and productive the whole day.

There are plenty of variables you can change in your own life. If you draw with your right hand, try your left hand. (As Miyamoto Musashi says in A Book of Five Rings, “Never have a favorite weapon.”) If you work in a quiet office every day, try a louder, more exciting workspace one morning. If you’re used to spending an hour or more on certain tasks, try doing it in half — or a quarter — of that time. If you’re used to responding to emails within five minutes, try going a whole day without checking your inbox. You won’t know what will come out of the experiment, but at the very least, trying something new will remind you that you — and the world — are much more flexible than you think.

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’

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