Ordinarily I steer clear of self-help books. Most of them seem to be setting you up to fund someone else's retirement and that's not a game I'm into playing. However I do have a daily commute that lends itself to being hacked; why wallow in the deja-vu of commercial radio when you can feed your mind? So I spend every commute listening to non-fiction audiobooks or interesting podcasts such as DotNetRocks and HanselMinutes.
An aside: I want to thank Cory House, and his excellent Pluralsight course on turning yourself into an Outlier Developer, for putting me onto this. I recommend jumping over to Cory's suggestions for 10 audiobooks that can change your life - The Multithreaded Commute.
Anyway I downloaded the 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW) with low expectations. I judged it typical of the genre in promising access to a life of untrammelled happiness in just a few easy steps and I don't think shortcuts like this work. Moreover most of the conclusions appeared to be based on a sample size of one: Mr Tim Ferriss himself. Still with nothing better to do while queueing in traffic than listen I realise now that my first impressions were wide of the mark. To my surprise I found Tim's unabated enthusiasm for lifestyle design engaging and surprisingly practical.
In a nutshell my 10-step take on his book is:
- Most of what we do is inefficient and based on taking the default option
- We go to work all day but we don't spend all day working
- We should cut out the unnecessary: email, meetings, chat and repetition
- Then our focus should switch to key daily goals; in priority order
- Do this and you'll be much more productive and won't need to work all day
- Unfortunately most bosses want you to be present for all office hours
- Therefore move to working remotely and you'll have time to do what you want
- With this time create some income generating businesses that rely on outsourcing
- Use virtual assistants to handle anything that is uninteresting to you
- Travel the world, learn new skills and become a member of the new rich
Sounds great doesn't it? A little selfish perhaps but nevertheless what a dream! Luckily while the 4HWW is rather repetitive at the start, with lots of anecdotes about how good or bad Tim was at certain jobs, it soon evolves into a fire-hose of usable tips, resources and scripts. Structured along the line of Tim's DEAL acronym (Definition, Elimination, Automation, Liberation) this is what you get for your money.
The beginning is perhaps the weakest section in that it's setting the scene and establishing Tim's credentials as a self-help guru; necessary groundwork for both author and audience though. These are the foundations on which you can start to believe that change is possible and dramatic change at that. Dream big! Slough off the fear. All decisions are reversible and nothing is final. The popular mantra of working to live is just plain wrong. Forget the common-sense rules because they are neither common-sense nor rules. Powerful medicine.
Here I began to really enjoy the 4HWW as the themes meshed with changes that I've personally made over the last year: eliminating mass-media, creating a cut-back inbox that no longer brims with the Internet and a renewed focus on learning through deliberate practice. These are all core subjects for Tim because our time is precious but more than that our attention is precious. Yes our attention is valuable because we have a daily allowance and mostly we fritter it by unwisely "multi-tasking"; we give few tasks the consideration they deserve.
So we should switch to a low-information diet and eliminate all unnecessary interruptions. These force us to context-switch and, while Tim does not explicitly mention this, destroy any sense of flow that we've accrued. According to Tim most of these "taps on the shoulder" are mere habit, rather than actual emergencies, and can be safely ignored. Which is not to say that Tim advocates being rude because he never promotes that attitude; instead be firm, explicit and conveniently somewhere else when colleagues drop by your cubicle.
I like the previous section but I love this one. Mind blowing it is. Here the real goal of 4HWW is made explicit - which isn't to get as rich as possible or create the biggest company or acquire the trappings of success. The goal is to give yourself choice and you achieve this by creating an income stream that requires as little effort as possible to maintain. If you want to nurture lots of income generators that's fine but only because you want to; equivalently you should be free to travel, to experience and to live.
The keys to this kingdom are a monomaniacal focus on finding a labour-light niche business (called a muse by Tim) and outsourcing just as much of the administration as you can. To be honest I had no idea that there were so many support service business out there. If you want someone to receive your mail, scan it and then email it anywhere then you can. If you need your business products manufactured, packaged, shipped and serviced then you're in luck. If you can't be bothered to research and organise a top-notch birthday party for your kid then someone else will. Anything is possible if you delegate!
Sounds a bit over the top? No doubt about it. However Tim is no dreamer. His approach is extremely methodical and scientific. All business model assumptions must be tested for value and Tim provides quantifiable advice on just how to do this. If you can measure something then it can be managed; for example use the Pareto Principle (aka 80:20 rule) to identify customers who cause the most hassle for the least profit and drop them. The target here isn't to get stinking rich - it's to free up the most time. I really get this but the advice is counter-intuitive.
The final flourish from Tim is in some ways the most audacious; the proposition that you can leave the office forever and turn yourself into someone who can work anywhere at any time. This is one heck of an attractive suggestion but with one big caveat in my view - you've got to be someone who hungers for novelty rather than stability. If, instead, you're like me and you find contentment in what you already do and in your friends then why aim to escape what you already have? Is the grass really any greener somewhere else?
That said, on reflection, I think that you can use the 4HWW principles to liberate yourself without actually bothering to relocate. It's all about freeing yourself from the shackles of "making a living" and leveraging the opportunity that our modern global and connected society provides. Everyone can be an entrepreneur and the risk of change is often much less than it appears. After all what is the worst thing that can happen when you follow your impossible dream?
Is it more than a hill of beans?
I ended up appreciating the 4HWW far more than I imagined and there were moments when I literally laughed out loud. While most of the ideas have been said before the repackaging here can only help them to resonate with a new audience. The simple fact is that most of us squander our precious resources (time, attention, priorities) and allow ourselves to be governed by the whim of a capricious world. This is a scary thought. I don't necessarily believe that everything that we've been taught is wrong but it should definitely be questioned.
So if you fancy being given the "red pill/blue pill" choice then I suggest picking up the 4HWW with an open mind. You may not choose to change anything in your life but at least you'll be aware that you have choices in the first place. There is an underlying ruthlessness here for sure - that you should jettison everything in your life that holds you back from doing exactly what you want - but it's not like Tim is the messiah! I've simply tried to take what I want from his book and I like to think that I'm no longer settling for the default option in life.