The 4-Hour Work Week

I’ve just finished reading the ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ by Tim Ferriss. Actually, I sped read it skipping over some of the typical hype that these popular books tend to have. Being very selective of what we read is actually one of Tim’s recommendations, so I’m sure he won’t be upset to learn that I didn’t feel the need to read his entire book. I found some of his business advice overly simplistic and similar to Robert Kiyosaki: “I made money in this one way so now I’m writing a book about it”. However a lot of the concepts in this book resonated with me. The book originally appealed to me since a number of these ideas are conclusions that I’ve already been considering and applying, though he brings a fresh perspective to these and has taken some to radical limits. The following is a brief overview of the interesting concepts:

Time is the scarce resource: Many people live life with the assumption that money is the scarce resource instead of time. In reality, it is time that you only have a set amount of and nothing can create more of it. Therefore we should really be maximising our time resource.

Definition of work: He defines work as being anything that you would like to do less of. I think the way he phrased this is an excellent definition. Therefore applying this definition personally, work includes commuting to work, mowing the lawn in the weekend, doing the dishes, and doing the laundry. That is why we have chosen to live in a city apartment, which avoids any commuting and lawns to mow. Last year we experimented with hiring a cleaner to come twice a week to do general cleaning as well as unstack the dishwasher and wash the dishes. It worked better than I even expected – we no longer vacuumed, mopped, washed the dishes, or unstacked the dish-washer.

Outsource your life: Anything that is work that you don’t have to do yourself, you can probably outsource. This is a concept I had come across in time-management before. That is, traditional time management may make you slightly more efficient but you still only have the same amount of time as before. Therefore the only real time management solution is to determine what really doesn’t need to be done and stop doing it, and then of the rest determining what someone else could do and stop doing it yourself. Tim Ferriss takes this to an additional level. He has even followed the traditional big corporate model of employing someone in Bangalore in India to be his personal assistant. Now if he needs to book air-line tickets, research a topic on the Internet, or pay his bills online, he just outsources it.

Mini-retirements: The typical life plan is based on the assumption that you don’t enjoy working and will some day be able to quit completely and never have to work again. Many people really enjoy their work, and it provides additional meaning and an extra social network to their life. Completely stopping this, leaving your social network, and doing something else doesn’t necessarily make much sense. And the consequence is that to achieve this and support yourself for the next 25 years, you need to save up a significant amount of money which requires a lot of focused work and saving. Instead he suggests taking mini-retirements. These may be a 3 month trip somewhere or a 6 month break to do something completely different, with the expectation that you will take mini-retirements throughout your life instead of retiring permanently at 65.

Money requirements: A lot of literature calculates how much we need to retire – and it is a lot of money. That is because it assumes that we’ll retire at 65, live until 90, and will need to save up enough money so that we can afford this. Tim suggests that if we assume that we won’t ever retire permanently, then retirement saving is more like a life-insurance policy. It is a back-up in case you become physically and mentally unable to work. Therefore if you don’t plan to retire at 65, you need to save a lot less and therefore you may be wealthier already than you consider. He also points out that if we take mini-retirements instead of binge-travelling (spending 3 months in Thailand in simple accommodation instead of a 2 week period of travelling through 5 different countries at a flat-tack pace) then the cost of these experiences are significantly less. Tim mentions an investment banker, who is working ridiculous hours, with the hope to be able to retire in 10 years time. When Tim asks him what he plans to do once he retires, he says that he would like to spend a few months just sitting on a beach in Thailand, and would like to ride a motorbike across China. Tim points out, that he could do both of these for a few thousand dollars.

Become comfortable with a simple life: His point here is that you don’t need a lot of money to live a rich and enjoyable life. We need to overcome our fear of losing what we have, and to do this we need to realise that we don’t need most of the stuff we have to enjoy a good life. I personally, don’t find this concept very hard. I recommend that anyone who does, to walk the Camino de Santiago. It is a 800km walk across Spain, and something that I gained from it was a reconfirmation of perspective that all you need is a good company, simple food, and a glass of cheap wine with dinner to be happy. The sun-rises in the early morning and the fields of wild flowers can be enjoyed for no cost.

Selective Ignorance: Essentially his point is that we spend a lot of time reading the latest updates online, reading newspapers, checking our email, etc… and it is actually a poor use of our time. He has stopped reading newspaper completely, apart from checking the headlines as he passes a newsstand. And he only checks his email once a day. He points out that for the important things that are going on in the world, he can gather the majority from the brief headlines in the newsstands and from other people – a good conversation starter is “I haven’t been able to keep up with the news recently, what is going on in the world?” This is a concept that I find difficult to reconcile with my values. But I do acknowledge that I spend far too much time reading the latest news, checking my email, and the latest share-market movements and announcements.

So he has some fresh perspectives on some interesting concepts. Now you need to consider that you have just finished reading this blog entry. Was this really a good use of your time? Do you think that Tim Ferriss will be reading other people’s blog entries – if he felt that keeping up to date with blogs about himself was important I’m sure there is someone somewhere in the world that he has outsourced that task to. And for me, was writing this blog a good use of my time, or could I outsource the writing of this blog to someone else?!

10 thoughts on “The 4-Hour Work Week”

  1. I’ve either picked up or thought up most of these ideas before. I’ve partly done what you describe here, for example, I do relatively little work as you define it.

    My main problem seems to be a lack of time. There is just so much that I want to do and so little time each day to do it. Besides trying to shut more of the world out, or “selective ignorance” as you call it, I’m currently experimenting with something called “timeboxing”.

    The basic idea, at least in my version of it, is that things have set periods and amounts of time. For example, work is 9 am to 12 pm, then 1 pm to 7 pm every day. No more, no less. Then, maybe, 7 pm to 11 pm is strictly non-work time. 11 pm to 7:30 is bed time. At a finer grain, a task might get a specific time slot. Then I just do the best job I can in the period of time.

    For me, this seems to help counter act the problem where I don’t have a clear work vs. non-work distinction. Partly, I suspect, this is because I don’t really “work” in the sense you advocate as my job is also what I like to do. Anyway, the point is that relaxation time tends to bleed into work time, and work time tends to bleed into non-work time… to the extent that I feel like I’m not being maximally efficient in either. Or put another way, it’s better to work 9 hard hours and then head out for tango and drinks with friends, rather than 11 hours at work sort of working and sort of chilling out and mucking around.

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  2. I completely agree Shane. When I was doing my Masters in Auckland, I remember that one of the girls on the same course as us was extremely disciplined and applied herself to her study as if it was an 8-5 job. She did enough during the days that she never studied in the evenings or the weekends, which I was very envious of. I on the other hand was the complete opposite. I seemed to fritter away quite a bit of time during the days and hence I studied every day of the week and quite often in the evenings, and I felt like I was working and thinking about study all the time though I think in reality the sum total of my productive hours were probably less than hers. So I completely agree; I think that being disciplined and having a clear structural separation between work-time and recreation-time is important.

    Concerning time-boxing, that is something that I have thought a bit about too though in a slightly different context. If you consider the traditional project management triangle, the constraints are Schedule, Scope, Cost, and Quality. If a project begins to slip then one of these must slip. So one concept of time-boxing is to fix the schedule and then ensure that it is the scope that slips. Well, I’ve been thinking about that and myself personally. I’ve come to the late realisation that I’m actually quite pedantic and have prided myself on “if something is worth doing then it is worth doing well”. Therefore for anything I’ve done personally, I’ve tended to fix the scope and quality and I’ve allowed schedule (time used on the activity) to slip. However, I think I’d be more effective if I time-box myself. Applying the 80-20 rule, I can achieve 80% of my objective with the first 20% of effort and maybe I should just stop being so pedantic and be more effective.

    Obviously this isn’t something I’ve learnt to apply yet. This comment has taken me a while to think through and type and maybe by time-boxing this activity I could improve my effectiveness!

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  3. Oh yeah, I know who you’re talking about. Good example.

    One of the hardest parts to this for myself is simply defining what is work vs. what isn’t work. Tango, clearly not work. Writing parts of this finance paper, clearly work. But what about replying to comments on my blog that are about one of my research areas? Work, sort of? It’s a cold rainy Sunday in London, what if I read an interesting book on machine learning. Kind of maybe work? This might sound like a minor issue, but I’m finding that it’s a serious problem. With fuzzy boundaries semi-work things tend to creep into both work time and non-work time, causing the whole thing to come unstuck.

    I’m not sure what to do about this. Maybe I need 3 categories? “Core work” which is stuff I really have to do: writing papers, trying to solve equations, reading papers relevant to my current research tasks, writing experiments for my research. “Play work” which is stuff that is good for my work, but that doesn’t have a deadline and is more fun and not stressful: writing blog posts about research, reading an interesting book or online article about some AI research that isn’t directly relevant to what I’m currently trying to do, dreaming up new research ideas and where I want to go in my research in the future. These things have long term importance, but whether I do them today, tomorrow or next months doesn’t matter much. Rule of thumb: if it feels like a weight on my shoulders, it’s not in this category. Finally, stuff that is clearly non-work like going to the movies or for a run. Then try to time box the “core work” part, perhaps?

    The other thing I wanted to say, before this turns into a book, is about the 80-20 rule. The problem with this is that you can have a highly non-linear return with respect to achievement in some situations. Take our second year programming course. We made a computer calculus system and I made a neural network. These things went beyond what was required. When the CS department wanted to employ an undergraduate student to do machine learning for the summer, I was top of the list. As a function of the time that I spent to go from good to great to being the best candidate, I had a large long term pay off. I think this happens in quite a few situations. Sometimes, “going the extra mile” is enough to make the difference between getting the deal/promotion/new job/etc… and getting, well, often next to nothing.

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  4. After a long hot bath I’ve changed my mind about the middle part of my last comment! I think you and Ferriss have the right idea about work, though I’d put it slightly differently: I think work is anything I wouldn’t do if I was as powerful as Bill Gates. Call this the “Gates metric”.

    The “like to do less of” metric seems a bit odd in some cases. For example, I’d like to do less “work”, but at the same time I’d also like to do more “work” due to benefits longer term. Maybe that’s not a very good example, but the point is that I often have opposing desires about things. Imagining myself to be Gates and asking what I’d still do seems easier to me.

    Applying the metric to myself, it’s clear that some of my research activities are “work”, and some are not. The work stuff consists of things that I have to do to keep myself in this line of business now and hopefully into the future. If I was Gates I wouldn’t care about these things. Writing on my blog about AI is not work, even though it’s very close to what I do for a living. Taking the bus on a rainy morning is work (if I was Gates I’d take a cab). Walking to work on a sunny morning isn’t work. Going for a run isn’t. Reading a book on neuroscience on the couch in the evening with a warm drink isn’t work. Hanging out with friends on the weekend talking about the future of AI isn’t work. Tango isn’t work. And so on…

    Ok, great, so what’s the point of all this? I think it’s important to distinguish between when I’m working vs. when I’m not. Both for efficiency and for my own psychology. For efficacy I need to schedule, say, 5 hard hours of work a day with the idea that long term I should hope to ideally reduce this down to perhaps 1 or 2 hours a day. On the other side, a key thing when I’m not “working” is to be aware of this fact so that I’m sure that I don’t stress or somehow feel that I am working. Most of the really interesting things that I’ll do will most likely be during non-work time, including my most interesting bits of research. I’ll also need to fit a variety of non-research things in their for my own psychological well being.

    I currently have a “to do” list for things I want to get done, and a “done” list for what I actually did each day. It works ok. I’m now going to try 3 lists: “Work”, “Play” and “Did”. Scheduled work time is only for things on the work list that I wouldn’t do if I was Gates.

    Will all this theory translate well into reality? Ask me in a month :-)

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  5. I really like your “Gates metric”; I think that is a better way to conceptualise work.

    I think another element that you touch on in your comment is the need for balance. Just because something isn’t work doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t limit myself in the activity. To be effective and to function well I have come to realise that I need balance between the different areas in my life.

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  6. This is something else I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. I think one of the productivity killers for me later in my university years was a unhappiness at the limited state of my social/personal life. It was one of those cases where trying to spend more time working to fix the lack of progress, and feeling bad if I was doing other stuff because I knew I wasn’t getting much done, actually meant that I got even less done.

    My hope is that with boxed serious work time, and a clear sense of freedom outside of this time, it will be quite easy to find sufficient balance and diversity in my life. Let’s see how this experiment goes…

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  7. I am not sure I agree with Tim Ferris’s definition of work. Also I am not sure that things that are defined as work should always be avoided.

    Often the things that give us the greatest satisfaction are some of the hardest things to do.

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  8. Also agree with Shane in that the distinction between of work and play can sometimes be very fuzzy.

    But do agree in optimizing the use of both time and money.

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  9. Just to clarify I would probably define work as something that requires effort but don’t think all things that require effort to be unpleasant or a waste of time.

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