The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss is a fantastic book that goes beyond running a business or being productive and digs into how to live a fulfilling life. I loved this book and, after listening to it on Audible, I went out and bought a physical copy to flip through and take notes with. And then I bought the kindle version so I can better manage my highlights. It’s that good.
Conventional life goals:
- To work hard and become the boss.
- To amass a fortune.
- To retire early and relax for the rest of your life.
- To maximize happiness and eliminate sadness.
Better life goals:
- To be the owner and have other people do all the work for you.
- To make money for the sole purpose of being who you want to be and doing what you want to do.
- To distribute mini-retirements throughout your life.
- To maximize excitement and eliminate boredom..
When deciding what you want to do with your life, be unreasonable. The whole world is insecure and everybody aims for ‘reasonable’ goals which means the competition for these goals is fierce. In contrast, competition for unreasonable goals is often more relaxed because so few people even attempt them. Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis started a company that’s preparing to mine asteroids for valuable minerals. These guys don’t have a whole lot of competition.
If you fail to accomplish an impossibly big goal, you’ve met your expectations and if you succeed, you’ve wildly exceeded them. Besides, failure is a fantastic teacher. If you aren’t setting lofty enough goals that you fail frequently, you’re missing out on valuable learning experiences.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett.
“You won’t believe what you can accomplish by attempting the impossible with the courage to repeatedly fail better” – Ryan Marrinan.
Doing less work is not laziness. Not bothering to prioritize is laziness. Focus on getting important things done (effectiveness) rather than focusing on just getting a lot of things done (efficiency). When you’re overwhelmed, don’t work more; prioritize more. To do this, you should keep the following two questions in mind:
- If this task is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?
- Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the effects result from 20% of the causes. These two questions help you identify and focus on the 20% of your tasks which provide 80% of your success. This principle can and should be applied to other areas of your life as well (i.e. Which 20% of people provide 80% of your happiness? Which 20% provide 80% of your frustration?)
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands or contracts so as to fill the time available for its completion. This concept should be applied synergistically with the Pareto principle: Identify the 20% of tasks that provide 80% of your success and then set a short, strict deadline within which to complete each of these tasks. This time limit forces you to focus only on mission-critical aspects of the task and will prevent you from being side-tracked by perfectionism. This enhanced focus frequently results in higher quality work than would be produced by working for longer with less focus.
Being focused is simply a lack of distraction. This can come either from working on something so engaging that you don’t pay attention to anything or from removing everything else so that the only thing left to focus on is the task at hand. The elimination chapter of The Four Hour Workweek focuses very heavily on the latter: eliminating distractions and interruptions to facilitate productivity. Tim advocates a low information diet for supercharging your creativity:
- Completely avoid news, TV, Netflix, aimless web browsing, and aimless phone browsing.
- Don’t read more than one non-fiction book at a time. When you are reading for facts, ask yourself “will I definitely use this for something in the next couple days?” If not, read it later or not at all.
- Limit reading fiction to an hour before bed to unwind and get out of work-mode.
- Spend the time you save being creative and discussing ideas with others. The less time you spend consuming ideas, the more time available for producing ideas.
It is important to note that Tim has been reading non-fiction for nearly 15 years. For him, I believe that spending a week on a low-information diet would result in a massive boost to creativity but I have no intention of going on a low information diet at this point in my life. Instead, I try to consume as much high-quality information as possible because I believe that, in my case, the benefits of idea-consumption outweigh the decrease in idea-production. If you think about ideas as LEGO blocks, Tim has spent 15 years accumulating a massive number of LEGOs so taking a break from collecting new ones to build with what he has is certainly a valuable use of his time. In contrast, I’m a naive 22 year old who has a comparatively miniscule LEGO collection. Before I can build anything impressive, I need to make sure I have enough raw material so I’m going to spend the next several years collecting as many new ideas and concepts as possible (via both books and life experiences) before I take a break and dedicate 100% of my energy to creation. For those of you who already have a sizable LEGO collection, it might be worth experimenting with taking a week off of idea consumption so you can focus entirely on idea creation.
No matter what, it is valuable for anyone to minimize the consumption of low-quality information (tragic news, outrage/clickbait articles, most TV shows, etc)
Unnecessary detail can also be considered low-quality information. When you are conducting research on how to do something, it’s often a waste of time and energy to bury yourself in books and articles. Instead, skim a how-I-did-it book and then contact experts for specific advice. This personal contact approach will not only get you better information more quickly but it provides powerful alliances and mentors who may be valuable in the future. Remember, it’s more reasonable to learn how to swim by conducting your own research. Don’t be reasonable. Go ahead and try to contact Gary Hall Jr. for advice, the rewards are far greater and most people don’t think it can be done and therefore don’t even try. One caveat: Don’t go for someone who’s currently in the lime light (i.e. Michael Phelps). Contacting a previous gold medalists (i.e. Gary Hall Jr.) who is no longer well known will provide similarly high quality advice as a current gold medalist but it will be far easier to get in touch.
In addition to living a low-information lifestyle, Tim also advocates living a choice-minimal lifestyle to enhance focus. On it’s own, making decisions hardly drains your “focus energy” but deliberating does. When you’re making small, reversible decisions, don’t deliberate. Just make the decision as quickly as possible. If you can’t decide whether to have this or that for dinner, you obviously don’t care that much so just flip a coin and be done with it. Additionally, don’t strive for variation when you’re doing something to achieve an outcome (Eat the same few healthy meals for breakfast and lunch. Wear the same few outfits to work everyday.) Save variation for things that you’re doing for enjoyment (Go out with friends to lots of different restaurants. Wear cool, new outfits every time you go out to celebrate).
A solid chunk of decision making can be eliminated by batching small, repetitive tasks, into a single larger time-block. This is especially useful for managing email, voicemail, paper mail, groceries and laundry. Instead of trying to fit these small tasks in throughout your day, wait for as long as possible for them to accumulate and then do them all at once. For example: set aside one hour a week when you will process all of your paper mail and don’t even look at it until then. Gradually lengthen the time between batches until the cost of delaying is equal to (time saved) x (your hourly earnings). If checking paper mail weekly results in an average of one $30 mistake but saves you 2 hours and you make $20 per hour, that’s a net gain.
Email: Avoid checking email first thing in the morning to ensure you have a few hours to focus on predefined tasks before the chaos of the day derails your plans. Do not check email more than twice per day and move to checking it once per day as soon as possible (batch!). Implement an auto-responder if you have traditionally been expected to check email constantly. Include an “If __, then __” structure when asking questions to minimize follow-up discussion.
Phone: If you don’t have to deal with emergencies (you probably don’t) then put your phone on silent and put it away. Don’t check it more than once every 30 minutes. If you have to deal with emergencies, use two phone numbers, a work number (non-urgent) and a cell phone (emergencies). Always let the work number go to voicemail. Let the cell phone go to voicemail when it’s an unknown number or someone you don’t feel like talking to but check the voicemail immediately. Open calls with “This is __ speaking, I’m right in the middle of something. How can I help you?” to minimize chitchat. Don’t let them call you back, they called your emergency number so find out what the emergency is. If you need to, interrupt with “Sorry to interrupt but I’m expecting a call in five minutes, what can I do to help you (or can you send me an email)?” Always try to move in-person meetings to phone conversations. Always try to move phone conversations to email.
Meetings: Meetings should only be held to discuss a predefined agenda with a well defined end time. Request an agenda in advance to ensure that this agenda has been defined and to give you an opportunity to solve the problem via phone or email and prevent the meeting entirely. If the meeting is predicted to take a long time, try to leave early and have a colleague catch you up afterwards.
In-Person: Always work with headphones in. Say “Can you hold on a sec?” into your phone when someone requests your attention. Ask the interrupter how you can help and don’t let them get back to you later, find out what’s going on. “A big part of GTD (Getting things done) is GTP (Getting To the Point).” – Tim
Permission: Remove yourself as a decision-making bottleneck to prevent those under you from having to constantly ask you for permission. Empower them to make small-risk decisions and gradually increase the value of decisions they have power over until the cost of mistakes equals (time saved) x (hourly earnings). Develop a flowchart and FAQ to make sure those under you are capable of making as many decisions as possible without bothering you. If you are an employee who needs to request permission excessively, have a heart-to-heart with your boss to try to get more decision making power. See below for tactics.
Putting It Into Practice: When making the above changes, ask forgiveness rather than permission. “Most people are fast to stop you before you get started but hesitate to get in the way if you’re moving.” – Tim. When you do have to ask permission, request it “just this once” or “just as a trial” to make it seem less permanent but don’t fall for this when others try to use it on you (“can you work overtime just this once?”). Ask “does this seem unreasonable?” because people are reluctant to label things as unreasonable.
“Subtracting the bad does not create the good. It leaves a vacuum.” – Tim
So maybe you do follow the above steps and subtract all the wasted time from your life, then what? Conventional wisdom might recommend you fill that time with more work and make more money so you can retire that much sooner. One problem: retirement as a goal implies that you’re doing something you don’t like for the 40 most healthy years of your life. Nothing can justify that sacrifice. In addition, inflation and increasing life expectancy means your savings will be worth less and less over the years. Your standard of living will likely decrease and even if you have managed to save enough money to live a long, comfortable life, you’re a hard worker who will be bored to death when you suddenly stop. Conventional retirement is often paired with conventional travel: touring 7 countries in 14 days. Saving all your travel time for later in life leads to bingeing. This is not recommended, Tim describes it as “taking a starving dog to an all you can eat buffet. It will eat itself to death.”
Instead, sprinkle several mini-retirements throughout your life and prepare for retirement as ‘worst-case-scenario’ insurance. Alternating periods of activity and rest is more fun and productive than hoarding all your free time until the end. Relocating to a new place for 1-6 months doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if you travel outside of the US. Even including travel costs, living for a few months in Thailand will almost certainly save you money over paying rent and car insurance in a large US city. Leaving on a mini-retirement is also a great excuse to perform a ruthless 80/20 analysis of all your physical stuff to clear out both physical and mental space. During this mini-retirement, don’t try to eliminate all your time commitments and stress; that will only lead to an existential crisis. Instead, learning and service work are two fantastic ways to fill your time. Start with learning the native language and practicing something kinesthetic (sport, instrument, dance). In doing so, you will hopefully experience the stress of a hard workout or escaping your comfort zone (eustress ie good stress) and be free from the stress of deadlines and unpleasant people (distress ie bad stress).
On Money and Fear
Money alone does not grant power. Having control over the “four W’s” grants power: What you do, When you do it, Where you do it, and with Whom you do it. The presence/absence of these freedom multipliers can provide a $500k/year lifestyle from $50k/year or vice versa. Work on getting your absolute income above a certain critical minimum necessary to start pursuing your dreams and, from there, the goal should be to minimize the hours worked while maintaining the same income. Focus on maximizing your relative income ($/hour) rather than your absolute income ($/year).
The blind pursuit of absolute income is often a form of procrastination. Assuming you’ll be happy once you’re making $x per year is just an excuse to not critically examine your life and determine how you can be happy right now. Frequently, what someone needs to do to be happy is scary (quitting a boring job, meeting more attractive men/women) and trying to make more money is a far more comfortable course of action. Tim notes that “what we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
Fear can be overcome by clearly defining what you’re scared of as this removes the fear of the unknown; this is usually the worst part. Clearly defining and recording the risks, consequences, and benefits of a scary action allows you to assess them rationally rather than emotionally. This especially applies to things you’re already planning on doing someday. “Someday is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you… If it’s important to you and you want to do it eventually, just do it and correct course along the way” – Tim
A more rational fear: boredom. A boring job is much more sinister than one that is pure hell. The latter forces you to take action while the former allows you to be optimistic and tell yourself “things will get better.” If you aren’t happier now than you were a month ago, things aren’t improving quickly enough. It’s time to stop being optimistic, face your fear, and make a dramatic change. The worst case scenario is not crashing and burning spectacularly. It’s having your life slowly sucked from you by never ending boredom. “The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain.” – Colin Wilson.
The 4-Hour Workweek goes on to walk the reader step-by-step through starting their own business and becoming financially independent but this review is already long enough so I’ll leave the rest for you to explore on your own. If you were interested in this post, I strongly suggest looking into The Tim Ferriss Show, I’ve listened to about 80 episodes so far and am still tearing through them. If you don’t know where to start, check out his hilarious conversation with Samy Kamkar about hacking Myspace and OkCupid.