A Review of Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Work Week”

POSTED Wed Apr.18.2007 by Dave Seah UNDER Productivity, Reviews TAGGED

I had heard of The 4-Hour Work Week (T4HWW) at SXSW, where Tim Ferriss was presenting a panel on it. I was intrigued by the title (catchy!) but was skeptical; I passed on it to see something else. Then a couple weeks ago, I got a nice email from Ferriss offering to send me a copy of the book, no strings attached, because he suspected that we “shared some DNA”. Newly intrigued, I agreed. I’m certainly glad I did, because I think Ferriss has saved me two years of stumbling around in the dark by providing clarifying principles to steer my life by. I’ve had some of these insights myself, but I hadn’t been able to envision the logical culmination of change-producing action: the creation of a lifestyle that is both fulfilling and self-sustaining. What’s remarkable about the book is that it presents a multitude of subjects—goal setting, time management, business, marketing, and the pursuit of happiness—firmly within the context of what Ferriss calls lifestyle design. Why burn ourselves out, deferring our enjoyment of life, when we can redefine the rules of the game and live the life we want right now? It sounds ludicrous and maybe even irresponsible, but Ferriss argues that this reaction is merely a product of social conditioning and fear. We don’t need to play that game…we can beat it instead.

T4HWW is a remarkably transparent guide to achieving that lifestyle you’ve always wanted but didn’t dare admit, rationally presented as a series of steps predicated on a fundamental rule: reality is negotiable…outside of science and law, all rules can be bent or broken. Amen, brother! What makes T4HWW more than the typical self-help book is that Ferriss also names the names of the outsourcers, services and brokers he’s used successfully in the past to build the foundation of his automatic income-producing engine. It’s all part of his meta-approach to planning and getting away with the ideal lifestyle…it’s like the perfect crime!


Tim Ferriss’ DEAL

A lot of self-help books follow a similar presentational arc: starting off with a good story, followed by the making an incredible-sounding claim, establishing the credibility of the claim maker, tying the claim to the reality of the reader, and then presenting the first of many mnemonic devices. In the case of T4HWW, the mnemonic is DEAL. Here’s my vastly paraphrased synopsis of it:

  • Definition: Figure out what you want, get over your fears, see past society’s “expectations”, and figure out what it will really cost to get to where you want. It can be surprisingly cheap, costing less than what you’re paying now. Ferriss also provides a very personally-appealing insight regarding the nature of happiness:

The opposite of happiness isn’t sadness. It’s boredom.

Therefore, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of excitement. While this sounds irresponsible on the surface, if you can precisely define how you can take care of yourself and your commitments and then create a system to take care of that for you, then WHY NOT? You too can live the “eccentric billionaire lifestyle”.

  • Elimination is about Time Management, or rather about NOT managing time. Instead, apply the 80/20 rule to focus only on those tasks that contribute the majority of benefit. Also apply it ruthlessly to all aspects of your life to eliminate the small minority of factors that waste 80% of your time. Forget time management, focus instead on getting the really important and results-producing tasks done. There’s a difference, Ferriss says, between efficiency and effectiveness. Choose to be effective!

  • Automation is all about building a sustainable, automatic source of income. This is a section that is, practically speaking, about Business and Business Management. The trick is to avoid is building a business that requires your presence, because that just burns up all your time. Ferriss made that mistake once, generating lots of monthly revenue but ended up being chained to the machine to keep it working. Ferriss now has hundreds of people working on his behalf through multiple outsourced vendors, all operating under specific instructions that are designed to not create headaches for him while depositing those lovely monthly checks. This is a fascinating section of the book, and is well worth reading for its pragmatic approach to effective management. Ferriss also provides plentiful examples and resource listings; this is a mini-book in itself on how to define and operate a profitable business.

  • Liberation: Once you’ve successfully automated your lifestyle, liberate yourself from your geographical location and your job. It’s a lot easier than you think, once you’ve gotten through the previous three steps. With mobility comes the ability to leverage economic advantages across the world. Living in a tropical paradise and eating at 5-star restaurants everyday can be cheaper than watching TV in your house back in the States. Incidentally, Ferriss notes that if you’re in a job, your order of steps will be DELA, not DEAL, and he provides specific examples for that case. Like the time his friend spend a month in China getting married, but was just as productive as if he were working remotely so no one was the wiser.

Ferriss calls practitioners of DEAL or DELA the “New Rich” (or NR), and practitioners of the more traditional “work really hard, save up and then retire” approach as “Deferrers” (D). He identifies three key ingredients of the NR lifestyle: time, income, and mobility. With them, you can take the time to travel the slow and enjoyable way, learn new languages. Learn how to salsa dance professionally. Live fully! You’ve arranged for the income to manage itself with minimal decision making required from yourself because you’ve built decision making into the system.

Ferriss notes that you’re likely to freak out and get bogged down in a lot of soul searching before you really get settled. Is it somehow wrong to just do this? I liked his method of resolving those big life questions, which he observes tend to generate stress because they’re just poorly worded. His solution:

  1. Ask yourself if you have decided on a single meaning for each term in the question.

  2. Ask yourself if an answer to this question can be acted on to improve things.

If the answer to either question is NO, then forget about it. Ferriss says that if you take away just one thing from his book, it’s to follow those two rules; he believes that the top 1% of performers in the world live by them.

Many Insights

I could spend a long few days writing about everything that I found noteworthy in the book, but I’ll just discuss some of the ones that have popped off my notebook.

PRINCIPLES

This is as much a book about Ferriss’ philosophy of life as it is a guide to freedom. It’s not an easy path, because we first have to rise above our preconceptions about work, responsibility, and society. THEN, once we’re able to peek outside the cubicle walls to see what’s really possible, we have to be BRAVE ENOUGH to do something about it. That’s a tall order. Ferriss has the attitude of an enlightened hacker or game designer; he’s fully aware that a lot of what we accept are rules are merely benefit-producing mass hallucinations. I first became aware of this principle when I was busy sucking at analog Electrical Engineering as an undergrad. After graduating and reflecting upon the experience, I had a burst of insight upon the nature of the field: IT WAS ALL MADE UP. The units, the processes, the conventions, the mathematics…these were merely convenient constructs that had evolved and/or stuck around out because of inertia and, in some cases, momentum. I had been seeking universal truths in the equations and the work, and couldn’t perceive them. The people around me generally didn’t care; they knew how to work the equations and extract the right numbers, and they were rewarded by the system with good jobs and big, stable companies. I always asked WHY all the time, and this was my undoing until I realized there was no WHY other than it was what people BELIEVED, what people had ALWAYS DONE, and that IT WORKED.

There’s nothing stopping you from creating another system that works for you, except your own perception of your limitations, and (to paraphrase Ferriss) the twin bogies of science and law. But even those can be gamed: witness the existence of the applied sciences and lobbyists.

Ferriss spends quite a bit of time deconstructing the nature of fear: by defining fear, you create the means to conquer it. A lot of us know that already, but there was one aspect of it that was new to me: fear disguised as optimism…the belief that things will get better if you keep doing what you are doing now, or don’t do anything. Oh crap, that’s me! I’ve been happily pushing forward on this blogging/writing thing, producing downloadable tools, thinking that if I keep doing this, thing will get better and take care of themselves. BZZZT! That’s a losing attitude; it’s far better to DEFINE and then EXECUTE to a measurable plan. I’ve started to do that with my Groundhog Day Resolutions and Review Days, though I think a large part of my motivation might be due to my amusement with large prognosticating rodents. A return to the basics of the original Printable CEO Concrete Goals Tracker might be in order.

TIME MANAGEMENT

One of my personal hurdles has been the need for better time management; I spend way too much time doing stuff that’s probably not important in the grand scheme of things, and I procrastinate on doing the really important things because they’re boring. T4HWW doesn’t let me off the hook, but it does through a mighty wrench into the be more efficient path toward productivity. GTD fills that need very nicely in terms of an algorithm for processing tasks and information, but in my heart I don’t think I want to be just a faster data processor so I have more time “later” to do something. T4HWW emphasizes prioritization over processing:

  • Apply Pareto’s Principle ruthlessly to everything, and eliminate the 20% that is causing 80% of the trouble. That could be troublesome clients, answering email, whatever. Evolve methods for dealing with them.

  • Apply Parkinson’s Law to task planning, which is to not let tasks absorb more importance than they merit by swelling to fill all available time. There’s some similarity to 37Signals approach to less leading to more effectiveness, though T4HWW takes it further to its ultimate conclusion. Ferriss also notes how Parkinson’s Law and the Pareto Principle in conjunction form an interesting recursive definition of effectiveness: Limit tasks to just the important ones to shorten your working time, and shorten your working time to limit tasks to the important ones. Groovy!

  • Cultivating selective ignorance means reducing the number of inputs you’re getting. More inputs leads to more distraction, and distraction is the killer of effective action. Most of them don’t add to your immediate goals of getting free; they just trap you where you are by sapping energy. This destroys your ability to effectively act, and Lifestyle Design is impossible.

Ferriss identifies three kinds of interruptions:

  1. Time Wasters — things that are unimportant that can be ignored. Ferriss has a lot of interesting ideas about how to get rid of meetings and unnecessary time spent answering email. He also discusses how to train the people around you; when I read this section, I realized that Ferriss had the mind of a master game designer, which is perhaps obvious in hindsight.

  2. Time Consumers — things that must get done, but take a lot of time. Personal errands, laundry, going to the doctor, etc. His solution is essentially that of GTD: batch and do not falter.

  3. Empowerment Failures — if someone has to ask you for permission or to get approval before moving forward, you’ve become a bottleneck. It also limits the scalability of your operation. Ferriss’ solution is to analyze the reason for the failure, then come up with a policy to handle it in the future. The example he uses is handling customer service complaints; by empowering the reps to fix the problem if it costs less than a certain amount of money, customer satisfaction went up and the time burden on him was vastly reduced. This reminds me of Joel Spolsky’s recent article on customer service and bug fixing.

MANAGING PEOPLE and PROCESSES

One thing I had never considered was hiring a personal assistant, or rather a virtual assistant (VA) through an outsourcing company. Apparently, they cost between $4 and $10 an hour from India, and after you find one that works well with you you can multiply your effectiveness. Ferriss provides two very powerful rules of thumb to make sure that you’re not just adding undue busywork:

  • Refine rules & processes before adding people.
  • Eliminate before you delegate.

Anything that makes it through that filter then must follow his GOLDEN RULE #1: be both time-consuming and well-defined, otherwise you’re not really doing anything. The presumes an ability to define well, of course, which may be the ultimate challenge in following all of Ferriss’ course of Lifestyle Design. A lot of people have difficulty defining things, because of a discomfort with writing, or because they don’t fully understand the nature of what they’re doing in context of other people. I’m not sure what can be done about that. However, GOLDEN RULE #2 also dictates have fun with it, as a reminder to not be so dire. So you screwed up the first directive…big deal. That’s how you learn. Ferriss provides an example of his first failed attempt to delegate a task to his Indian VA, and how he cleaned it up. It comes down to establishing metrics for success and limits; essentially, you are programming behavior in the most elegant manner possible.

CREATING AN INCOME MACHINE

This was the section of the book that got me to sit up straighter and take note, because it outlined what seems to be an excellent crash course in product test marketing, outsourcing, and fulfillment. The proof will be in my attempt to follow it, but certainly it’s given me a valuable reference case study against which I can compare my own product plans.

I hadn’t had the insight that the reason I wanted to create product was so I could spend more time doing something else; I was still half-clinging to the notion that my work would be my identity. Maybe instead it can be something I like that supports my adventurous lifestyle, to become an “ultravagabond” like Ferriss.

In Summary

I was just thinking that this is the rare book that I am going to recommend to all of my friends. This is probably a reflection on the kind of company I keep: I like to be around empowered, positive-minded people with dreams they’re actively pursuing.

There are some challenges in implementing Ferriss’ plan:

  • You have to define that end game unflinchingly
  • You have to be be able to communicate solutions.
  • You have to be a focused, hard worker when facing all the essential tasks.
  • You need to be a discerning person, otherwise you can’t tell if you’re moving or not

At minimum, I think one needs to be able to define a dream, and be able to measure the distance from and progress toward the goal of being one of the New Rich. Then, relentlessly following through with elimination, automation, and liberation will be possible. If you even get through one or two of these phases, I think one’s life will be measurably more productive. And remember: if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count.

There are some very helpful Q&A—Question and Action—sections after each chapter of the book, filled with great exercises designed to jog you out of your old perspective of fear and complacency. The entire dreamlining process, for example, is particularly delightful; it guides you through the difficult “uh, so what is it that I want to do?” part of the Definition phase.

There’s lots of good stuff in the book, and I feel that my personal bar has been raised. You can listen to Ferriss’ SXSW 2007 Panel Podcast for a taste, and visit the 4-Hour Work Week website for more information. It’s has a kind of “marketing” vibe to it, but you can download sample chapters and order the book via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and 1-800 CEO-READ. This review just scratches the surface.

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