‘The Four Hour Workweek’ from Tim Ferriss is one of the most popular self-help books of the last decade. The premise you should be able to discern from the title: it’s a book that teaches you to make a living working only four hours a week (or thereabouts) and to actually be much wealthier as a result. This then leads to more time to spend with your family, to spend doing the things you love, and to spend developing yourself and going after your dreams. That’s quite a promise, so it’s understandable that it has topped so many ‘best seller’ lists…
This is the central concept of the book, though there’s a lot more to it than that. The question I’ll be asking in this book is whether it really lives up to that main promise and whether or not it’s worth your time and money to read. We’ll take a look at some of the central concepts and see what works and what doesn’t to find out whether this book is the answer to your problems, or just another scam selling a promise that’s too good to be true.
A Good Argument
First let’s look at some of the good ideas in the book and at what works.
And the first place to start here should undoubtedly be the central concept itself. Tim Ferriss starts the book by defining the problem that most people have and the goals that they should aim towards. This change of priorities includes the aim to earn more money like most of these books, but that’s not all it’s about.
Rather, Ferriss is just as interested in getting you to look at your work/life balance differently, and to change your views on retirement. His argument is that most of us work incredibly hard eight hours a day or more all aiming towards a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We put in insane hours at work, because we believe that one day we’ll be able to retire and enjoy our freedom. The only problem with that is that it’s a) incredibly soul destroying and b) misguided. Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be – not only have you passed the prime of your life, but you’ll also be bored out of your mind if you completely stop working.
Wouldn’t it be better to spend less time working now? Rather than aiming to become a millionaire, instead aim to reduce your workload and just enjoy living a bit more like a millionaire now? You don’t have to be super rich to work less, to travel the world, or to just feel less stressed. In fact it’s probably only working incredibly hard towards retirement, and stressing about unimportant things, that is stopping you from enjoying your freedom now.
Ferriss goes into more detail in the book, explaining how we lie to ourselves to keep ourselves at work, and how we keep thinking things will just ‘get better’ even though they never do. This is a good argument and if reading this book only succeeds in getting you to open your eyes to your situation then it’s probably a good investment.
The ‘New Rich’
After talking about the problems with the modern world, Tim goes on to talk about a new ‘breed’ of people he calls the ‘new rich’. These are people who use ‘lifestyle design’ to create a work balance that works for the lifestyle they want. Their aim is no longer to become super-rich in ten years’ time. Rather it’s just to enjoy life now by reducing your work hours, by letting go of unnecessary stress and more. This is a great concept and I think this alone gives the book merit.
This Book Is Not Universal
That’s all good theorising though, where things are a little less plain sailing is the second half of the book where Ferriss starts telling you how to achieve this new work/life balance. The tips will work for some, but they’re certainly not universal and they make a few unhelpful assumptions.
The book is not just targeted at entrepreneurs. Though the path is a little easier for entrepreneurs, the idea is that ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ can apply to anyone working in any job.
So how can you work four hours alone if you have set hours that you spend in an office? Ferriss’ suggestion is that you ‘become indispensable’ to your workplace, and then use that as leverage in order to negotiate a ‘remote working contract’.
Sounds good, right? Well for some people sure, but for others it won’t really work. If you’re working on a building site for example, then I imagine you’ll struggle to negotiate a ‘remote work’ situation unless you first progress to some sort of management position. That in itself is not a problem, but then you’ll find yourself pretty much working harder than ever for more hours than ever before to try and get yourself into that position. Not ideal.
And many other organisations will simply flatly refuse to let you work remotely. Even if it would make more sense for them in terms of your output, some companies want to keep staff in their offices so that they’re more available, or simply for the sake of keeping up appearances (‘what if the big boss comes by and the office is completely empty?’). Other things like answering the door to take deliveries, or being on the switch board for the phones will also require your physical presence.
If your business does allow you to work from home however and you manage to start operating out of your front room, Ferriss then assumes that you’ll be able to apply his tips in order to start working less and to mostly automate your output. This can be accomplished through a number of tips and even through outsourcing and in many cases the advice will work. Then again though, if you work in administration answering e-mails that require your specialist knowledge… then you’ll never get your work down to four hours. If you provide a service – like writing articles – then you’ll never get your work down to four hours.
Some jobs will let you finish work incredibly quickly and certainly could be done much faster if you weren’t forced to sit in an office 9-5. The nature of other jobs however make this largely impossible – you have an endless to-do list that you continuously work through and little of it can be outsourced.
Then there’s the way that Ferriss assumes your spare time will allow you to go travelling, learn martial arts or drive around in fancy cars. For most of us there are other attachments that keep us grounded – such as relationships, children and energy. Even if you worked remotely and only for four hours a week, would your partner be happy if you spent months away exploring the world? And would you want to give up that relationship if they did protest?
For Single Entrepreneurs
So despite claims, this book is really aimed at a very specific type of person. Ideally that’s a single entrepreneur, or someone who works in an office as part of a large corporation. If you don’t fall into either of those categories then the book might be useful in helping you to rethink your priorities, but it won’t necessarily be able to liberate you in quite the way you might have hoped/it may have promised.
Assuming you do fall into one of those categories then, how do the tips in the book hold up? Again, they will have merit for some people, but in other cases they won’t necessarily be that applicable.
For example, at one point Ferriss quotes the ‘Pareto principle’ which is also known as the ’80-20′ rule. Here he claims that for most entrepreneurs and businesses, 80 percent of the profit will come from 20 percent of the clients. Likewise, 80 percent of your stress will likely come from 20 percent of your clients. His advice is to cut the 20 percent of the clients who are causing the 80 percent of your stress, and to focus on the 20 percent bringing you the profit.
What Tim doesn’t consider is that the 20 percent of clients who cause the stress might also be the 20 percent who bring in the most profit. Likewise he doesn’t address the fact that it’s a good idea to have multiple clients as an entrepreneur in case one stops being able to pay. If this advice makes you stop and reconsider the ‘work to payoff’ ratio of your various clients then that is very good. But you can’t take this advice literally as it’s a little too simplistic for most real-world situations.
Likewise the idea of outsourcing and automating your work is great if you do a job that can easily be outsourced. If on the other hand you sell an incredibly complicated piece of software to big businesses, then you might well be the only person capable of doing your job – and there might well be very little way you can save yourself time through outsourcing or other means.
Another thing he doesn’t consider is that for some entrepreneurs the goal is neither money nor time. Rather they want to contribute something worthwhile that they can be proud of. I work incredibly hard creating apps that probably don’t earn enough to really be worth spending the time on when I could be writing. But I do it because I love being a part of new technology and having people download and review digital products I created. If you put your whole business on auto-pilot then you’re hardly going to make any kind of big splash or change the world…
On top of these central ideas, Ferriss goes on to share numerous different time-saving tips which include things like writing to-do lists at the end of the day, not checking your e-mail right away, and avoiding working for the ‘sake of working’. Find what works for you in terms of productivity and stick to it. Accept that you aren’t always going to be completely productive and time your working day around when you are. Don’t put things off due to fear. Do give yourself less time to complete tasks in order to force yourself to work faster.
Are these tips helpful? In some cases yes. Are they going to be that easy to stick to and are they likely to cut your work down to four hours a week? Absolutely not. Same old, same old.
So in conclusion, is ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ worthy of all the attention it receives? And can it work for you and help you to change your life? The answers to those questions are ‘probably’ and ‘perhaps somewhat’.
Yes, the central idea of ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ is a strong and important one. Most of us do work too much just so that we can feel productive and do kid ourselves into thinking that life will just ‘get better’ if we keep slaving away like caged rats. This does need to change and the mental exercises in the book are a great way to force yourself to get that wakeup call.
On the other hand though, you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much in thinking you can definitely work just four hours a week. The tips in this book should not really be taken literally and are certainly aimed primarily at a very specific crowd. Be smart, don’t expect too much, and there is real value to be found here.