Notes from 4-Hour Work Week

by Mike Shea on 1 January 2008

I've had Tim Ferriss's book, 4-Hour Work Week, on the back of my toilet for the better part of four months now, reading one or two pages at a time. That's about the right place to keep it. Overall I like the book and there are some great tidbits of information, some unique, some stolen from books of older and better stock. It's the attitude that bothers me. There's a lot of attitude in this book. Tim Ferriss makes David Allen look humble and submissive. Still, there are a lot of good ideas in this book that warrant further thought and discussion. The premise itself is so fantastic that it builds dreams that keep us warm in the coldest of powerpoint presentations.

About half the book is clearly focused on the topic of reducing the amount of effort one must expend to gain a clear output. Outsourcing is a big part of the book and a big part of the idea. I can't help but think that paying someone in China to farm me 5000 gold for my epic flying mount sounds more and more like a good idea. Other parts of the book, like the half-page lesson in speed reading or the section on good note taking, seem somewhat out of place. They're useful tips, so maybe we shouldn't care, but the book feels less like a straight forward topic and more like Ferriss's good business practices.

The book begins by describing the concept of "New Rich". This isn't rich from a monetary standpoint but rich in a lifestyle standpoint. The primary capital of "new rich" is time. Time spent doing what you want to do is more valuable than earning money above what you need to do what you want. Time is a commodity you can only lose and never gain. Only by reducing commitments to things you don't want to do can you increase spending time on things you do want to do.

Outsourcing is one such way to reduce time commitments. Take the elements of your life and your job that can be done by someone else and give it to them. Do so when it makes cost effective sense. Use the global market to your advantage. There's a reason all help desk support is being farmed out to India. It's cheaper and produces the same or better results. When we bought our house, my wife and I made a decision to hire a cleaning service that comes in twice a month. Though it is one of our larger monthly expenses, it is far cheaper than the amount of time and effort we would have to spend cleaning our townhouse to the same degree. What if you can outsource bill payment the same way? What about propane delivery? Outsource everything that can be outsourced.

Reduction is another key tenant to this philosophy. Reduce everywhere you can. Get rid of that extra storage container. Dump the amount of stuff you have. Get a smaller cheaper place that helps you focus on what is important. Reduce your commitments. Outsource those that remain. Clearly articulate and focus on the important parts of your life instead of wasting time and energy on things that don't matter. The 80/20 rule works well here. If 80 percent of your effort focuses on 20 percent of the job, reduce that 20 percent. Fire your customers if they're causing all your headaches. Find the elements that add to your stress and cut them free. Reduce and simplify everywhere you can. I believe in this strongly enough to keep track of simplification in my life every day. Every day I want to simplify or reduce something, whether that is cleaning out a desk drawer or unsubscribing from a pay website or magazine that I don't really use.

Ferriss digs into the concept of an "information diet" as well. Cutting down on the vast sources of information we pull in can help us save time and enjoy life more than the constant desire to suck in every last bit of data across the web. Much of this seems directly culled from Merlin Mann's 43 Folders articles. Use Google Reader instead of directly visiting sites. Reduce the number of sites to which you subscribe. Cut your internet surfing down to small scheduled times.

Email is another big topic in 4-Hour Work Week. Tim suggests cutting down on your email reading times to once or twice a week rather than the fifty times a day most of us follow. Use auto-replies to clarify how you use email.

This hits on another philosophy I like a lot: defining your own work environment. In today's fuzzy knowledge work, the jobs, goals, and structure are very poorly defined. Employees are often left on their own to figure out how to do what they do and sometimes with catastrophic results. It is possible to build a perception of competence with a totally chaotic work structure. This either results in poor performance or a poor work / life balance. Defining ones work environment to both supervisors and subordinates can fix all of this.

I'd tend to point it all back to Getting Things Done and point out that since so few people have a clearly organized structure to their work, they're likely to let you work as you wish as long as they can see that your structure is better than theirs. Define when and how often you check your email. Make it clear to your subordinates, your supervisors, and your customers how you use email. Build rules for yourself and stick to them. Set your start and end times. Don't work over vacations, holidays, or in your free time and make it clear that you don't. This isn't about showing what a slack ass you can be, it's about showing how productive you and those around you can be when you have a clear system for your work. You'll be more productive with less wasted effort and wasted time with a good system.

Tim Ferriss has a bunch of tips for corporate guerilla warfare. These tips seem right on the cusp of a poor work value including deception to ones management, but they can work and some of the smaller ones can help in big ways. Tim Ferriss has a lot of tricks like this as well; tricks that get you out of the office but build the perception of a higher work output. This is a hard concept to follow in a "knowledge worker" job where direct production numbers often don't exist. Like most organizational gurus, Ferriss also recommends cutting way way back on meetings.

A better model in this book, but one out of reach for most of us, is how to build a self-sustaining business that generates the income we need to live our ideal simplified lifestyle with little direct input from us. He uses the example of someone who sells CDs of industrial sound effects. This man sells them for twice the cost to drop ship them directly from the distributer to the customer. The whole thing is self sustained and generates a six figure income nearly on its own. How to find such a business is hard to do but with globalization, outsourcing, and the internet, the time has never been better for something like that to work.

Mini-retirements are another concept Ferriss discusses in 4-Hour Work Week. The idea isn't to work your ass off until you can retire at 65 and then you do what you want. The idea is to begin doing what you want right now and build your work into something you would like to do forever. His specific ideas are somewhat impractical for most people. If I'm working on a large project, I'm not likely to return to it if I decide to leave for Japan for two months to learn kendo. However, it is important to focus your life on what you want to do NOW instead of late in life. Sit down and write down the five things you want to do with your life. Instead of waiting until the time is right, do them this year. Weekends, two-week vacations, and a few long weekends help me do what I want to do and still maintain a typical career. The idea of taking a month off to do something important is good too, but I was able to write a novel in a month and still maintain my job.

I like the book 4-Hour Work Week a lot more than I'd like to. I nearly set it aside after the first pretentious chapter, but after hearing it referred to time and again, I gave it another shot. I'm glad I did. There's a lot of wisdom in it and it does help to get us thinking in new ways about the purposes of our careers and the focus of our lives. There's no better time to spend your time doing what you want right now. Very few people will be able to use all of the ideas in this book but just about everyone can use a few of them. I recommend it.