What Can You Learn from the 4-Hour Workweek?

Posted on Jan 10, 2010 | 137 comments


the-4-hour-workweekA couple of years ago I read the popular book, “The Four Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss.  It was recommended to me by my friend, Net Jacobsson, who was trying to do some basic Life Hacking.  If you’re not familiar with the term it’s basically trying to help all of us who are deluged with technology to find ways to cope with the masses of information without having it ruin our lives.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge business book cynic.  I think too many books are written by charlatans and have too much management jargon / double speak that I can’t stand.  So I don’t read too many of them.  You can imagine my reluctance to read a book with a title full of such bluster.  But Net had told me that he picked up some valuable lessons from the book, so I thought, “WTF? Can’t hurt.”

I’m sure many people have many take-aways (positive and negative) from the book.  But on balance for me the positive messages far outweighed the negative ones.  I didn’t go back and re-read the book or double check my exact language but the thoughts below are directionally correct (the fact that I remember anything a few years later from a business book is already a huge positive sign).

My 2 biggest positives:

1. The Deferred Life (DL) Plan - This point alone makes the book worth reading.   The concept is that in the “information era” the overwhelming majority of employees in the world have meaningless jobs pushing papers from one side of their desk to the other side from 9am to 5pm and really don’t have much of an impact on anything.  The problem is that most people in this situation know they are stuck in the position and never try to change or to do anything about it.

In America being in this type of job means that you get 2 (maybe 3) weeks of vacation per year.  So people diligently put in their hours every year, brag about how little vacation they’ve taken and try to save up for 45 years so that one day in their late 60’s (or in today’s era 70’s) they can do what they’ve always dreamed of.  They can travel the world, take classes in interesting subjects, spend time with loved ones or start new hobbies.  Of course when they get there those individuals are no longer young and after years of mental and physical atrophy they lack the ambitions to get these things done.

Tim Ferriss’ assertion is that you should try to pursue an entrepreneurial job where you can take control of your life and your hours.  You should make a list of the ambitions that you have in life and accomplish many of those things now.  Want to spend a year or more in Argentina?  Andrew Warner from Mixergy is doing it.  He’s not on the Deferred Life plan.

With the exception of rare circumstances most people could do this if they chose to.  I’m not saying there would be zero sacrifice but if it’s your dream what are you waiting for?  Want to take a year pursuing your dream to write a screenplay, travel through Asia, run a triathlon or start your own fashion line?  If not now, then when?

Of course the 4-hour work week and DL plan is a gross over generalization and meant to be shocking.  So in that context let me use it.  I often encourage people to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.  I wrote a blog post related to this called Is it Time to Earn or to Learn? If you don’t have entrepreneurial dreams no problem.  But if you do and if you sit on the sidelines waiting for the day when the circumstances are right for you to start a company you never will.  You’re on the DS (deferred startup) plan.

How I Avoided the Deferred Life Plan – And Why it Means So Much to Me

I worked for a large multinational for nearly a decade.  I learned much and had great experiences.  I used it as my “live now” vehicle.  After 3.5 years in LA (early 90’s) many of my friends left to start companies in Silicon Valley.  We were high tech at the very start of the boom.  I chose a different path.  I pushed for Accenture to transfer me to Europe.

It took more than a year to make this happen (I’ll cover how I did this in a different post) but January 2nd, 1995 I flew to France for 2 years and didn’t move back to the US for 11 years.  During this period of time I found ways to get my firm to staff me in Italy, France, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and the UK.  I got my firm to pay for 50% of my MBA and I did the international program at the University of Chicago.  Our European campus was in Barcelona where I rented a villa with 5 buddies.  I spent 8 weeks there per year as well as time in Chicago.  I did all of this while I had an income.

In early 1999 I made the decision to fulfill my lifelong dream to live and work in Japan.  I will also cover how I accomplished this in a separate post but in early 1999 I arrived in Tokyo for the first time.  I spent 6 months there (actually, I commuted between London and Tokyo 6 times in those 6 months).  I ran a team of 14 people (12 Japanese, 1 German and 1 Turk … both of whom were fluent in Japanese) who produced an Internet strategy for the board of Sony.  I got to experience much of the local culture and customs.  It was not a touristy experience.

My big push to avoid the Deferred Life plan came from a bad experience at my first employer.  My first corporate job was at First Interstate Bank where I worked in Corporate Finance.  My boss and my boss’s boss made me all sorts of promises about how quickly I’d be promoted.  I’m sure they meant it.  I worked late hours but didn’t care because I was young.  But I was a bit depressed to see my boss’s boss there late every night.  He had 2 kids and seemed to stay late for mostly political reasons (or maybe he enjoyed it more than he enjoyed being home?).  His boss worked too much too.  We all did until the S&L crisis hit and I was laid off.  So was my boss.  And my boss’s boss.   And his boss.  And his boss.  Our bank was gutted.

I was 22 and unemployed.  It was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I had a nice severance check and secured a job with Andersen Consulting very quickly.  And it taught me at 22 to be my own man.  Large corporations can be soulless.  They are necessary and do much good but they do what they have to to evolve and survive.   You may be a ‘favored child’ now but when circumstances change radically, business is business.  And while I bounced back very easily, many of the bank elders did not.

I swore never to let that happen to me.  A rolling stone gathers no moss.  I wanted to be that guy who was always morphing.  Always developing.  Seeing new places, learning new things.  Always on take off, never at cruising altitude.  Not on the deferred life plan.  And so it was that I pushed to get jobs in LA, Miami, Rome, Barcelona, the South of France, London and Tokyo.

2. Getting Your Work Schedule on Your Terms – Many people in America sit at their desk much of the day and have email open.  When a new email comes in you see the little pop-up in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen and like Pavlov’s dog you feel an adrenaline rush and need to read that email.

We have become a reactive society where we feel beholden to those that want to contact us.  We owe them all something.  I am like this, too.  I feel guilt and stress when I don’t respond to people that reach out to me.  And from email we added IM, Facebook and LinkedIn where people contact us.  And, of course, now Twitter.

The 4 Hour Workweek sets out an extreme view of email and similar communications but it is directionally correct.  He says not to leave your email box opened all day and I totally agree with this one.  If you sit on your email all day you’re reacting to somebody else’s input rather than proactively getting your work done.  Tim recommends that you check email initially twice / day – at 11am and at the end of the day (if I remember correctly).  He doesn’t think you should check email first thing in the morning because you should start your day by getting the stuff done that is on YOUR important list, not somebody else’s.  He then goes on to recommend that you do email just once / week.  Yeah, right!

I wish I were good in the email category.  I feel the need to check first thing in the morning.  But then I tend to stay off email throughout the day as much as possible.  I check it when I’m between meetings or when I out and about because I can quickly read it on my Blackberry.  I try to do email at the end of each day but with so many evening obligations I find this hard.  Obviously if you’re in a customer support role, a sales role or a customer service industry this can be impossible.

Where I’m more disciplined is on Twitter.  I don’t leave Tweetdeck or Seesmic apps open during the day.  These are great products but if you have them open all day and see the pop ups telling you, “You’ve Got Tweets,” then you’re sucked in.  So my Twitter pattern is to check in the AM, check between meetings for 5 minutes max and check in the PM.  And, of course, I check incessantly when I travel, am waiting for a meeting or am sitting in a conference.  Blackberry satisfies this addiction.

My 2 biggest negatives about the book:

1. Not everybody is geared up to be an entrepreneur – Tim Ferriss is obviously a very talented individual.  I believe that he takes for granted that everybody can start their own company and run it a few hours / week and earn a decent living.  I think the overwhelming majority of people would not be good at running their own small businesses (but that doesn’t mean they need to work in mindless jobs or be on the Deferred Life plan).

When I counsel people on whether they should make the leap to running their own company I always give the honest truth that being an entrepreneur is hard, stressful, time consuming and a low-probability of making millions.  It’s not for most.  But if the person that I’m talking with seems unphased by this and has the passion to try then I become unbearable in preaching from my soap box how they should stop sitting on the sidelines.  I just don’t believe in coaxing somebody who may not have the right constitution or economic circumstance.   To me the book glossed over this.  You should buy it and read it anyways.

2. Four hours is unrealistic – OK, so if he called the book the 34-hour workweek I guess he wouldn’t have sold too many copies.  I guess the 70-Hour Workweek defeats the point of the book.  Let me assume that Tim Ferriss really only works 4 hours / week.  Then he’s the only person not born into wealth or not in semi-retirement that I believe can do this.  It’s just not realistic.  I believe you can choose not to over work, but 4 hours?  Meh.

My advice.  Whatever you decide to do about your career, find the little things to take you off the DL list.  If you always planned to study a second language – START!  If you have kids make sure you find ways to occasionally drive them to school or turn up at their school events.  Find a way to schedule meetings on Fridays out of town so you can merge work meetings and family adventure.

If you’ve always wanted to travel find a way to make this happen through your work or find work that will enable this.   When I went it was at the end of the last big recession.  I worked long and hard to make it happen.  You CAN do it.  It may not be your exact plan.  Mine was to live in Spain but I could only make France happen.  Close enough.  If you wait for the “perfect time” you’ll never go.  Trust me.

Next post: two “4-Hour Workweek” like hacks I started in 2009 to try and take back control of my life that are saving me hours.

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  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Unfortunately, Aviah, the venture industry is not open enough to people with non-traditional backgrounds, experiences or ages. I don't necessarily see this changing as an industry.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I believe in consensus building. At Accenture one of the most valuable tools they used when we were young programmers were “point sheets.” They taught us to write down questions when they came up and batch them together in point sheets. The logic was 1) you don't ruin the productivity of your supervisor or teammates and 2) questions have a way of sorting themselves out when you wait.

    I personally believe that in the interconnected, always on world that is 2010 people emphasize communicating too frequently over the productivity of others.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think 100 years ago the opportunities were more difficult to escape the corporate ladder. Today it's the norm. It's great to get trained but for many they stay too long. Yes, that is the most important take-away for me. Live your life now.

  • http://twitter.com/catchfriday catchfriday

    I learnt how to set up a call center in the Philippines, notably CatchFriday that would rival Getfriday and Asksunday. I also learned how to write a book, a best seller at that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: trips to the supermarket. That is the bliss that is accepting living outside of your normal life's routines. It's the small things – the journey, not the destination (to borrow from Coelho's “The Alchemist”). I remember my first supermarket experience in France. The foods were different, the experience was different. Lunch where it was assumed that I would have a glass of wine. I remember my first meeting in Italy where we showed up but everybody was at the cafe next door having THREE! espresso's with tons of sugar and starting the meeting 1 hour late because … there was no because. I remember my first karaoke night in Tokyo, my first rugby match in England and on and on. That's why Tim Ferriss's book resonated so much with me and why I was so pleased for you that you moved to Argentina. It's not living on the DL plan.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, as I'm sure Tania must have mentioned we are big believers in “Carpe Diem” in the Suster household. That, and not letting the little things get to you. One of my favorite clips from childhood that we often cite is “It just doesn't matter,” which is already planned as a future post. But the clip is a much watch (if and only if you saw this as a child ;-) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3S_k1dRbXY

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for the feedback. Luckily I read the book before it was a hit and on the personal recommendation from Net so I powered through it. Otherwise I would never have bought it. It was worthwhile if you can bight your lips during the more blustery bits.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good luck! Yes, I was laid off from my first job at your age, too. I took away more positives than negatives from the experience.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I have a very personal family situation in this category and it makes me all the sadder because you can't implore people to Carpe Diem. They either choose to or choose not to. My mom always did and I think that rubbed off on me.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Worth reading. Just don't be surprised if some bits frustrate you. But the overall take away I feel will be worth it. I hope so. Enjoy.

  • http://twitter.com/Net Net Jacobsson

    Mark, guess my surprise when checking out your blog today – thanks for the mention :). Happy that you read the book. Don't remember if I told you then, but I too was put off by the overly “happy camper” vibe that you get from the book. Clearly some of Tim's advice does not work for most people with family (I have 3 small kids) and special circumstances. However, the book is thought provoking, inspiring & certainly played a role on how I choose to do some of my work. Still, the overly happy trouble free dude attitude makes me sick sometimes ;). Especially the self-centered & self indulging parts that shines through on Tim's blog.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pearsonify Adam Pearson

    Agreed! I was part of the WaMu debacle, working in M&A and putting in 20+ hour days to try and get a deal done at the end. Then at 25, I was one of the first ones shown the door. Talk about working yourself out of a job. But looking back, that experience has been one of the highlights of my career and gave me the exposure and perspective I needed to take my career and life in a different direction…my own.

    Thanks for sharing Ben – good luck!

  • hhorner

    I've read tons and tons of these business books and, although I always take something from them, I agree that they are often filled with a lot of jargon and muddled advice. Your blog is always concise and direct to the point. I have referred many friends to your blog and recently reached out to a former professor to encourage him to reference it in his Venture Initiation class. Thanks for the great advice and clear direction.

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    OK, hysterical. Thanks for (re-)sharing. We used to say it all the time! Even funnier now than when I was nine watching it on my friend's Betamax….particularly the Soviet Union and East/West Germany part. Oh, and the hot girls.

    The retro & feel look has me looking forward to this trailer I just saw: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1318257689/

    Looking forward to the post, when it happens.

  • hhorner

    I've read tons and tons of these business books and, although I always take something from them, I agree that they are often filled with a lot of jargon and muddled advice. Your blog is always concise and direct to the point. I have referred many friends to your blog and recently reached out to a former professor to encourage him to reference it in his Venture Initiation class. Thanks for the great advice and clear direction.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    I might be an example of a different type of entrepreneurial career: using a decade in big corporate enterprises to create a unique professional skill/personal micro brand, marketed via the Internet. Really interesting work, total control of your life, and an ability to take on the world's best in your specific niche.

    In the next decade, I expect more and more specialized corporate functions to go to experienced freelancers, and I am not talking about commodity white collar services going off shore to low-wage countries.

    Obviously, this model has scalability issues and your enterprise is unlikely to turn into the next Google.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, agreed. Hope I didn't imply to anybody that Net took the book “hook, line and sinker!” But some of the more powerful stuff you were experimenting with included offshoring personal admin / research. And that was initially what got me excited to learn more.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you, Hope. I definitely try to steer toward the practical versus the theoretical.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, but the point of the 4-Hour Workweek is EXACTLY your decision. It's not telling people to build the next Google but to find a way to leverage your skills to build a business where you control outcomes and your life versus “working for the man.” Seems your skills at McKinsey are very relevant to people who don't have them and you can market them on a global basis while allowing you to live in Israel and not spend your entire life on an airplane and in hotels working on someone else's strategy deck. No?

  • http://twitter.com/CamiloALopez Camilo Lopez

    Mark, Thanks for your personal experience.

    I had a similar liberating experience. After working for one year on my first job I was laid off. Realizing that I can sustain myself and get another job was so valuable for the rest of my career. It allowed me to travel around the world and make the decision to do an MBA in Barcelona's ESADE Business School. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

    The DL plan is an important lesson that reminds us to never loose the feeling of wonder that all of us used to have when children. Life is exciting, the world is amazing, We can live more of it as long as we step out of our comfort zone.

    -Camilo

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  • http://twitter.com/fvu_babelway Francois Van Uffelen

    I love your posts, Mark. Cheers.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    I might be an example of a different type of entrepreneurial career: using a decade in big corporate enterprises to create a unique professional skill/personal micro brand, marketed via the Internet. Really interesting work, total control of your life, and an ability to take on the world's best in your specific niche.

    In the next decade, I expect more and more specialized corporate functions to go to experienced freelancers, and I am not talking about commodity white collar services going off shore to low-wage countries.

    Obviously, this model has scalability issues and your enterprise is unlikely to turn into the next Google.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, agreed. Hope I didn't imply to anybody that Net took the book “hook, line and sinker!” But some of the more powerful stuff you were experimenting with included offshoring personal admin / research. And that was initially what got me excited to learn more.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you, Hope. I definitely try to steer toward the practical versus the theoretical.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, but the point of the 4-Hour Workweek is EXACTLY your decision. It's not telling people to build the next Google but to find a way to leverage your skills to build a business where you control outcomes and your life versus “working for the man.” Seems your skills at McKinsey are very relevant to people who don't have them and you can market them on a global basis while allowing you to live in Israel and not spend your entire life on an airplane and in hotels working on someone else's strategy deck. No?

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  • http://twitter.com/CamiloALopez Camilo Lopez

    Mark, Thanks for your personal experience.

    I had a similar liberating experience. After working for one year on my first job I was laid off. Realizing that I can sustain myself and get another job was so valuable for the rest of my career. It allowed me to travel around the world and make the decision to do an MBA in Barcelona's ESADE Business School. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

    The DL plan is an important lesson that reminds us to never loose the feeling of wonder that all of us used to have when children. Life is exciting, the world is amazing, We can live more of it as long as we step out of our comfort zone.

    -Camilo

  • http://twitter.com/fvu_babelway Francois Van Uffelen

    I love your posts, Mark. Cheers.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I read that book randomly in a bookstore one day between some classes. I realized that fundamentally, it was about keeping your deck of cards that is dealt to you at life in order. Your first battle, and your last battle is always with yourself.

    It's one of those reasons I (usually) carry around a small notebook with me for random ideas about things I want to do. Some are banal. Some sound incredible. It seems that though, the more that I write them down, the more likely I will do the things I want and get direction to do them, slowly, over time.

    That seems to be the main message to me, or at least it was at the time…

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  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I read that book randomly in a bookstore one day between some classes. I realized that fundamentally, it was about keeping your deck of cards that is dealt to you at life in order. Your first battle, and your last battle is always with yourself.

    It's one of those reasons I (usually) carry around a small notebook with me for random ideas about things I want to do. Some are banal. Some sound incredible. It seems that though, the more that I write them down, the more likely I will do the things I want and get direction to do them, slowly, over time.

    That seems to be the main message to me, or at least it was at the time…

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Pretty much correct.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Pretty much correct.

  • http://twitter.com/Franko Francesco Giartosio

    I read somewhere a blog post titled “I want to start my company but my wife won't let me”, or sort of. And believe me, it's often so!
    The post end suggesting a foot massage …

  • http://twitter.com/Franko Francesco Giartosio

    I read the book and overall liked it, it's candid and passionate and the general concept is right.

    I think the 4 hours count is not totally fake. I launched an online accounting service and now I'm working 14 hours a day (most weekends included! But no kids around) … mainly on my second startup! The accounting services take now actually a couple of hours a day on average, mostly to answer calls and mails and collect payments. (Talking about answering calls and mails, I believe my customers LOVE my real time answers. So it's customer service but it's also useful marketing.)

    I'm not doing the work myself, I've outsourced most of it except for customer contact and invoicing. I believe I view myself as an entrepreneur rather than a freelancer. And by the way, much of my working hours are really just keeping up to date with the news in the area I'm working on.

    Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/Franko Francesco Giartosio

    I read somewhere a blog post titled “I want to start my company but my wife won't let me”, or sort of. And believe me, it's often so!
    The post ends suggesting a foot massage …

  • http://twitter.com/Franko Francesco Giartosio

    I read the book and overall liked it, it's candid and passionate and the general concept is right.

    I think the 4 hours count is not totally fake. I launched an online accounting service and now I'm working 14 hours a day (most weekends included! But no kids around) … mainly on my second startup! The accounting services take now actually a couple of hours a day on average, mostly to answer calls and mails and collect payments. (Talking about answering calls and mails, I believe my customers LOVE my real time answers. So it's customer service but it's also useful marketing.)

    I'm not doing the work myself, I've outsourced most of it except for customer contact and invoicing. I believe I view myself as an entrepreneur rather than a freelancer. And by the way, much of my working hours are really just keeping up to date with the news in the area I'm working on.

    Cheers.

  • http://richineverysense.blogspot.com/ scheng1

    It's true that large corporations are soulless. The “human” part of human resources is less important. The “resources” part is the more important word. All employees are resources.

  • http://richineverysense.blogspot.com/ scheng1

    It's true that large corporations are soulless. The “human” part of human resources is less important. The “resources” part is the more important word. All employees are resources.

  • http://richineverysense.blogspot.com/ scheng1

    It's true that large corporations are soulless. The “human” part of human resources is less important. The “resources” part is the more important word. All employees are resources.