The Four Hour Workweek is Brilliant, Misbranded, and Misunderstood

The picture on the cover of The 4 Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris makes it look like this is a book for people who don’t want to work.  In reality, the book is a radical time management model and a strategy book for people who have more important things to do than think about money all the time, (which in my opinion, is everyone).

Quick Summary, in case you haven’t read it

The fundamental hypothesis is that most people spend most of their time at the office just putting in their hours and trying to make it look like they are working.  Only about 20 percent of what people do at work contributes any progress to the world (or the worker), and the other 80 percent is tragically wasted on busy-work and sad, meaningless tasks.

Mr. Ferris offers a 4-step plan to cut down the amount of time that one is working to just that 20 percent of the time that you are actually being effective.


First, Mr. Ferris says that you need to define what you want to have, do, and be.  (For me, that involved going to burning man, being able to make anything, going to costa rica, buying a new computer, and buying some new clothes.  Once you have defined what you want to do, you estimate the costs for doing those things and divide those costs down to a “target daily income.”  Mine was a little over $200, which is insane.)

Mr. Ferris then gives some strategies on how to reduce the cost of getting the things you want and some advice on how to start and market a business that will generate a cashflow equal to or greater than (you hope) that target daily income.  More on his advice after this outline...


Mr. Ferris then spends the next couple of pages talking about strategies to eliminate the huge amounts of time that you waste everday.  For example, instead of checking your email all the time, you should only check it once in the morning and once in the evening.  You should try to batch other activities as well, because a large amount of time is spent transitioning between successive activities.  


One of the stranger recommendations in the book is that you should find a personal assistant or a team of them in India or Bangladesh who will work at $5 / hour to take care of the monotonous tasks of your work.  Eventually, you want to outsource everything.  

I’m pretty agnostic about this one, to be honest.  Since reading the book, I’ve been paying very close attention to what I am doing everyday, looking for things that are frustrating and which I can outsource.  I honestly haven’t found anything yet, which must be a good sign about my life I guess.  And am I hurting the world if I assign my mundane tasks to an some industrious person on the other side of the world who will do those tasks for next to nothing by US compensations standards? (Probably not, more on that below). 


Once you’ve got your work automated, you need to step back and let the gears do their turning, so to speak.  Go do the things that you have always wanted to do and let the automated cash flow machine that you’ve set up continue generating money for you while you start the futuristic business that you’ve always wanted to start, go fight Ebola, write a book...


One thing that I want to talk about a little bit is the presumption that some people should be able to work a four hour week while having other people do the busy work for them.  It seems like doing this merely purveys the cycle that you are trying to escape.  

The tempting, and possibly tenable answer is: no, it is not presumptuous to have people do your drudgery so that you can pursue your dreams because most people are not yet in tune to the fact that you can be free.  Most people are groveling around looking for things to do in order to keep them busy, so keep them busy.  

However, for me at least, the notion that other people are picking up my slack is misleading.  This book is not about how to be a slacker; it’s about how to be a leader.  Other people are doing the things that you cannot be bothered with as you try to carry out your vision.  In reality, this is how any business works.  Even your more traditional startup--the visionary leader can’t be involved with figuring out what happened to the missing shipment, or with programming some simple user interface feature on a website.  The leader needs to value his or her time more than that in order to keep her eyes on the horizon.  

Your average startup, Ferris would argue, operates on the assumption that you’ve got to make a dent in the universe, and in order to make a dent in the universe, you’ve got to work all the time, 24/7 in a race other companies also competing for attention.  I think that a lot of great innovations happen for the world as a result of this race, but I also personally think that there is something insane about it all.

The kind of startup that Mr. Ferris explains how to start (in a rather pre-social-media nd generally out-dated way) is a little bit more modest.  It doesn’t assume you are going to change the world with this business.  It assumes that you are going to provide a much needed service to an underserved population for a fee.  (It’s daring to be traditional).

The ultimate goal is to make a “cash flow machine”.  And then, once you’ve got that going, it’s like the money question is not a problem in your life and you can go on to do some of the things that you want to do.

To me, that is what life is all about.  A lot of this “do the work you love” stuff is bullshit.  Start a small business in an industry that you know and love, of course, and by all means be conscious about what you are bringing into the world.  But, contrary to what the start-up culture that I am among would make me think, you are not defined by your work.

When asked what their dreams are, most people will say something that has to do with an accomplishment they would like to achieve at work.  Why?

What I want to do is live a happy life, and brighten the lives of those around me as much as I can.  When I die, I think that I will eventually disappear, and all of the energy that I have put into the world will blend into all of the other energy in the world.  What that means to me is that my dreams for myself suddenly come into focus and become important.