“The 4-Hour Workweek”, Timothy Ferriss: Personal Effectiveness

The 4-Hour Workweek is a guide to reducing one’s workload to the point that it can be handled with 4 hours each week, so that the free time (and surplus cash) can be used to live one’s dream lifestyle – learning martial arts, travelling, that sort of thing.

Is it engaging? Yes. Is it plausible? I suppose. Is it advisable? That depends.

If you were serious and you read this book you would:

  1. Find a premium niche product (e.g. yoga guide for rock climbers)
  2. Style yourself as an authority, market the product effectively, and generate significant custom.
  3. Automate the entire business model so that every stage operates independently of you.
  4. For good measure, you have a “virtual assistant” in the Majority world who handles your email etc. They can’t go to the toilet for you but you can get them to do anything a PA would do, as well as other even more inane things.
  5. Let the money come in.
  6. Live the life you want.

That’s about it. I can hear the sceptics gathering out there, but whatevs. The book actually had a lot of interesting and useful ideas that I think are useful even if you discount the central proposition.

For example, Ferriss argues that most employees are paid to spend a lot of time doing wank – trivial work that doesn’t justify the time it takes. This occurs because people need to be seen as doing important and high-brow things and thus waste time in meetings and communication etc. when they could just be getting stuff done:

“People are poor judges of importance and inflate minutiae to fill time and feel important.”

Ferriss advocates using the Pareto Principle to pick the two most valuable things to do, doing those things, and then basically leaving it there. All the other stuff can go to buggery. (Note that the steps above apply to entrepreneurs – if you are an employee, you can still reduce your workload, but you are also required to liberate yourself from the office environment to avoid discovery.)

There are a few other really valuable ideas I feel:

  • Being a hard nut about meetings. Avoiding all meetings and, if you attend one, insisting it have a clear agenda and last no longer than 30 minutes. Communicate as much as possible in writing and deliberately schedule commitments when the meeting is meant to end to avoid its going overtime.
  • Never be interrupted. Interruptions destroy effectiveness. If you get interrupted you are unlikely to finish tasks. Thus, let calls go to voicemail and check twice daily. If people approach you pretend to be in a call and get them to give you a 15 second summary and/or email you. If you answer your phone, pretend to be in the middle of something and cut directly to the chase. Says Ferriss, “The cubicle is your temple -don’t permit casual visitors.”
  • Check email infrequently. Twice a day he reckons.
  • “Fear disguised as optimism.” Ferriss uses this phrase to pinpoint an unwillingness to act that is based on optimistic denial – not realism. In the context of the book he is talking about people who don’t take the entrepreneurial risks he describes. More broadly, the idea is relevant to many employees – especially managers – who may often put off making uncomfortable decisions due to a misplaced hope that things will sort themselves out.
  • “Being busy instead of being effective.” Ah such a common phenomenon. I’ve known this beast all too well. In the past I’ve self-importantly crowed about the number of tasks I had listed, or the number I had completed. I took delight in polishing off lots of tasks – even if they weren’t particularly important. The simple truth here is that doing a lot doesn’t mean achieving a lot.
  • Tasks swell in perceived importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for their completion. Ferriss calls this Parkinson’s Law. I love it. I imagine many of us have experienced it in relation to essay due dates. The application of this idea is to allocate less time for completing tasks and thus do them without any nonsense. It could also include a rigorous commitment to working no more than the defined hours of your job.
  • Using people as a solution to a poor process multiplies problems. That is, pouring time in to a flawed process does nobody any favours. I experienced this far too much last semester in Engineering when my team would despair at not having enough time to complete deliverables. Rather than aim for good process, the method instead was “let’s all sit in a room for 8 hours and hope something emerges.” These sessions often featured no leadership, no delegation, no purpose, no set of intended outcomes. Oh god. Good process comes first, people!

Next question: how applicable is this book if you, say, like your work. If you work in the not-for-profit (NFP) sector as I do and are motivated by, say, passion?

The book is still highly applicable. The tools for “elimination”, for reducing frivolous work, are intended to be used to reduce the overall workload. In an NFP context, they could still be used to reduce frivolous work…except the time saved would then be spent on non-frivolous work. There is also the option of following the book’s advice and finding a way to automate income, and then to continue to roll in the NFP sector – but without necessarily requiring a wage.

I don’t know many entrepreneurs but I know many people who are interested in how they can work more effectively. To all you I say – this book is worth reading. You may not quit your job and begin making a living marketing hugely-overpriced items to a niche market, but you could certainly learn how to use your time better.

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6 Responses to ““The 4-Hour Workweek”, Timothy Ferriss: Personal Effectiveness”

  1. I’ve always found the whole work for yoeruslf, be your own boss thing a bit silly. Unless you’re a mountain man living off the land, you are working for someone. Specifically, you’re working for whoever is giving you money.Usually the people who give you money expect something in return. If you don’t produce something that someone else wants, they won’t give you any money. Everyone who gets money works for someone, except for the trust fund babies.What is different in the various work situations is who is giving work direction. For the self employed, they are doing their own work direction. Even then they are doing so in response to the needs of the money giver. The only difference from conventional employment is that for the self employed there is more flexibility, maybe.For myself, I’ve always worked for large organizations and I pretty much have to do that in order to do want I want to do. I’m an engineer and I need millions of dollars worth of equipment and facilities to do my job. This is not the sort of thing that you can do in your garage or home office.Not only do I need a large organization for support, I actually like working in that environment. I get all sorts of really neat and very expensive toys to play with. Toys that someone else buys for me. I use these toys to solve some interesting problems and I do this with all sorts of very interesting people from all over the world. On top of that, I actually get paid to do it. How cool is that?Most self employed jobs are in some sort of services or sales. For that sort of job, self employment is often a good fit. Not everyone can do that sort of work. I don’t mean that not everyone is suited to that sort of work but rather that the economy would collapse if that’s all anyone did. At the base of society there has to be stuff produced somewhere.Stuff is real things. Things that you can hold in your hand. Stuff is things like food, tires, concrete, electronic gismos, 2×4’s and much more. Even software, which is only somewhat like stuff, still needs a computer in order to perform its function. Stuff comes from collective human activity and none of that activity can be done in a home office.Society cannot exist if everyone is counseling and selling each other insurance.

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