Tim Ferriss and the Rise of the Email Miser

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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…

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