Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

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Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

The 4-Hour WorkweekAlmost always, when I see a book with a title like The 4-Hour Workweek, I cringe, pick it up, leaf through it to a random page, see something with very little basis in the reality of most middle class people, close the cover, and promptly forget about it forever. When I saw this book in the bookstore about a week ago, I fully expected to do the same: I cringed at the title, picked it up, and began to leaf through it. But instead of cringing, I actually found myself seeing how some pieces of it could be applied to my life, and so I decided to give it a whirl.

What The 4-Hour Workweek Is About

First of all, I think the title of this book is a bit of a misnomer and is useful for grabbing attention. What this book actually is is the complete embodiment of the 80/20 principle into an individual’s professional life. The 80/20 principle is the idea that 80% of your productivity comes from 20% of your time, and the other 20% of your productivity eats up 80% of your time.

Ferriss argues that by eliminating that 20% of productivity that eats up most of your time, you can live in a much more efficient fashion, and the entire book revolves around that concept in various ways, hence the title The 4-Hour Workweek. In some ways, the book itself reads like a blog, as it’s broken down into lots of little pieces: some of them step-by-step advice, some of them anecdotal, and some of them philosophical.

At the bottom, I’ll give my nutshell thoughts on whether this book is worthwhile, but let’s walk through it piece by piece and see what’s worthwhile.

Walking Through The 4-Hour Workweek

First and Foremost
Right off the bat, the book makes it clear that you should pick and choose from the material presented within, and that’s a vital caveat for any personal productivity book – but especially this one. A personal productivity philosophy created by someone else is designed around their own lives and the lives of the people they associate with, but not necessarily your own. Thus, when you read a book like this one, you need to be able to pull out the pieces that work for you.

Why is that idea more true for this book than for others? Here, the different pieces of the book apply differently to different people. This is not like Getting Things Done, where the pieces can be applied in any life; many of these tips assume that you’re already wholly into the information age and that your methods of earning money are, too (or at least are comfortable enough with technology to easily move to that sort of approach).

As we keep going, you’ll see why this is really important.

Step I: D is for Definition
Most of this section is devoted to divorcing yourself from the idea of working yourself to death for a gold watch and a pat on the back. Instead, you should abandon a few concepts such as retirement as a holy grail and that absolute income is the most important thing (relative income – i.e., the amount you earn per hour of work – is the most important thing in this book). These are assumptions that actually have a lot in common with books like Your Money or Your Life and the voluntary simplicity movement.

Here’s one key exercise from this section that really shows what he’s talking about. Spend about five minutes and define your dream. If it wasn’t for the things you had to do, what would you be doing with your life right now? For me, at least, I would be a stay at home dad, writing during my spare time (like the evenings and so forth).

Now, spend another five minutes and define your nightmare in as much detail as possible. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if you followed that dream? For me, it’s mostly a fear of not being able to support our children due to inadequate income.

If you take the dream and compare it to the nightmare, is that possible nightmare really bad enough to abandon your dream? For me, it’s not, and that’s why I continually inch closer to becoming a full time writer – in fact, I would probably make that leap if a significant portion of our home was paid for right now.

From there, the book goes into a very detailed process of breaking down that dream into tangibles and seeing how close you really are to that dream – and sets up the remainder of the book, which identifies things you can do to reach that dream.

Step II: E is for Elimination
In terms of techniques that you can really use to improve your day to day life, this section has the best advice. It focuses on some very straightforward techniques for eliminating most of the regular mundane activities that fill our professional lives. Here are seven examples that I particularly liked:

Make your to-do list for tomorrow before you finish today. When you add an item to this list, ask yourself if you would view a day as productive if that’s the only thing on the list that you got done. Then, when you start in the morning, just attack that list with vigor knowing that all of the stuff is worthwhile.

Stop all multitasking immediately. This means when you’re trying to write, close your email program and your instant messenger program and your web browser and just focus on writing, nothing else. This allows you to churn out the task way faster. For me, this was a huge step forward in my life.

Force yourself to end your day at 4 PM or end your week on Thursday. Even if you have to come in on Friday, do nothing (or, even better, focus on something to develop yourself). The goal here is to learn to compress your productive time.

Go on a one week media fast. Basically, avoid television (other than one hour a day for enjoyment/relaxation) and nonfiction reading of any kind (including news, newspapers, magazines, the web, etc.). By the end of it, you’ll discover that the media and information overload was giving you a mild attention deficit.

Check email only twice a day. I actually do this with The Simple Dollar, especially as the email volume has ramped up, and I’ve found it to be incredibly effective at reducing the time sucked down by dealing with mundane emails. Combining this with the “no multitasking” principle enables email to only eat up a sliver of my time when it used to seemingly bog down everything.

Never, ever have a meeting without a clear agenda. If someone suggests a meeting, request the specific agenda of the meeting. If there isn’t one, ask why you’re meeting at all. Often, meetings will become more productive or, if they were really time wasters to begin with, they’ll vanish into thin air.

Don’t be afraid to hang up a “do not disturb” sign. This was something that seemed very natural to me, but for many people it’s not. If you’re being interrupted regularly by people popping in, you’re effectively multitasking and multitasking is a time waster, so if you have a task that requires your focus, literally hang up a “do not disturb” sign. People will get the message.

The section has a lot more tips along these lines, but the idea here is to compress, compress, compress so that the unnecessary is squeezed out and you’re left with much more dense and effective use of your time.

Step III: A is for Automation
This section is, to me, the least valuable part of the book, because it is in essence a lengthy description of how to become a little or no-value-added entrepreneur – in other words, a middleman. The idea is that if you set up being a middleman appropriately, you can create a stream of passive income that permits you to make money with very little effort.

While this is interesting to some people, the truth is that it’s not quite as easy as the author makes it out to be. It relies heavily on salesmanship (the ability to convince people you have a product that they want) and luck (stumbling into a market). If you have both (and the examples he uses have both), you can do quite well, but such things are never a guarantee.

My approach is instead to figure out what I was good at (writing) and what I was passionate about (personal finance) and what I had knowledge of (the web) and combine the three. To me, that’s what makes a great entrepreneur, not the program defined in this section as it is far too specific for many people to succeed at. I have no doubt it worked well for Tim and for others, it’s just not something that everyone can do and be successful at.

Step IV: L is for Liberation
The final section ties the pieces of the puzzle together into an overall picture. In essence, it takes the dreams defined in the first part, the enhanced productivity of the second part, and the passive income of the third part and creates that titular four hour workweek.

The first step is to change your job so that you can work remotely. You can do this by getting efficient (as described in the second step), then demonstrating your efficiency during sick or vacation leave, then requesting some time away from the office as part of your routine, then gradually shifting to an all-remote life. This way, you can tackle the work from anywhere on your own terms. Of course, this may also lead you to quit your job if you are able to build up new opportunities (like those from the third section).

What do you do with the free time? That’s the entire point of this book, that time is the really valuable asset we have in our lives, not money. Time allows you to follow your dreams, and this entire book’s purpose (at least steps two and three) has been about moving more and more time into your own personal life so you can do these things.

I found the entire discussion to be inspirational, but also risky. I worked with an individual that did this over time, and after about two months of working at home, even though she was productive, she was basically deemed to no longer be part of the team and was removed from her job. I basically think this is a great way to make a healthy life transition, but unless you’re the head of the business, it won’t work over the long run unless you provide something remotely that no one else could possibly provide in-house.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Giving a straightforward buy or don’t buy recommendation for The 4-Hour Workweek is difficult, because it has a lot of good core ideas surrounded by a whole truckload of marketing hype. We get the memo, Tim: you’re a big fan of marketing and salesmanship.

If you are capable of taking a book and pulling individual ideas out of it while leaving other ideas completely alone, this book is worth reading. However, if you pick up a book and expect it to be your bible, you’re going to be in deep trouble with this one, because while there are a lot of interesting pieces in the box, it takes a very specific kind of person with a lot of individual skills already in place to put them together.

That being said, I enjoyed The 4-Hour Workweek a lot. It was a fun read and there were some very good personal productivity ideas sprinkled throughout the book. If the title seems appealing to you, give it a shot – just be sure to look past all of the self-marketing that Tim does throughout the book.

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31 thoughts on “Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

  1. I’ve heard a lot about this book including reading an interview with the author over at problogger.net I think the book might have some interesting ideas in it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts always nice to read a few reviews before diving into a book like this.

  2. I haven’t heard about this. I appreciate your review. I really think I’ll just go with what you’ve taken the time to outline and bag the buy. It seems more frugal to me!

  3. Great review.

    Working 9 to 5 is the major problem for a lot of people. I know many friends, who happily do that, and as many others, who’d be happy to sit their butts off at home or doing something really great with their lives.

    We all just fantasize about greater lives for ourselves and our close ones, and Trent helps us getting there.

    Thanks :-)

  4. I’m always looking at these sort of books trying to pick out where it won’t work for me. In this case, from your review, I’d say that at work we effectively bill by the hour, so I can’t just not work on Fridays. Also, I don’t want to work remotely, one of the great things about work is coming in to the office and seeing the people I work with – I’d hate to work from home more than 2 days a week, and I’d dislike it more than 1 day a fornight.

  5. Helen and Scott Nearing advocated the 4-hour workday in the early 70s in their first homesteading book, though they called it “bread-labor”. But note that they were homesteaders workers for themselves, completely removed by then from corporate, service or academic life.

    In my recent experience in a s/w company setting, the remote employees were not given raises last year; they are almost always the first to be cut in downsizings; they are perceived to be less productive by colleagues. This goes for the HR, sales and marketing employees who are the most likely to be working remotely in my company.

    An occasional day working at home seems reasonable, but otherwise I think this is a wildly impractical idea unless you really don’t care about compensation or job security.

  6. Trent,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! You wrote an excellent critical review of Tim’s book. I was so upset with the BS reviews on Amazon and the marketing HYPE of Tim that I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to read a critical review that explored the themes and subjects Tim writes about. You do this and make me better understand whether or not I should purchase this book or just get it from the local library. Tim comes across like a real SMART ASS. He is lots of MARKETING and SALES HYPE! That’s not to say he hasn’t accumulated a certain level of knowledge which he smartly decided he could “sell” as a book. Kudos to Tim for showing how an entrepreneur can make it in the USA. But Tim’s life is no model for anyone else’s. Each person has to figure life out for themselves. Americans buy self-help books in DROVES. And Tim is just hopping on the self-help bandwagon. I envy his marketing savvy. But I don’t appreciate or care for his salesmanship.

  7. Great review Trent, very well done! Tim’s book is really a good book. It would never been Best Seller in Amazon if it’s not. Anyway, the concept here is not really to imitate the life of Tim but to apply it to our own his concepts and ideas towards life. Of course not all of us can be a Tango dancer, or a cage fighter, instead we can live with life we had. In his book, he was just trying to share his proven insights about The 4-Hour Work Week.

  8. Your review is very complete. The reader does need to pick and choose the advice to implement. However, the advice will work with a large number of lifestyles, not just with Tim Ferriss’s. One comment I got from a friend when I was talking about the book was “but I LIKE to read email”. The book doesn’t say you can’t read it. But if the reader finds it onerous, it gives ways to cut it down on email and other time wasters. Also, the ideas of outsourcing are really good. We are currently working with a team found on elance.com to develop our corporate logo.

    The forum on the 4hourworkweek.com website is also very active. There are about 200 members, and about 20 active posters. These are people implementing the ideas in the 4hww book. Some are trying to quit their day job, some are trying to get some passive income going, some are trying to reorient their lives to what’s important.

    I guess that’s the real focus of the book. It’s not that the 4 hour work week is the goal. It’s that work should support your life. If you love your work, 4hww will give you the tools to do that work more productively. If you want more time in your life for your family or other pursuits, 4hww will help you achieve that goal. It’s not about the 4 hours, is about how you spend the rest of your time

    Joann

  9. It helps to slip into Princeton with 40% below average SAT scores, and then start up a supplement company that rakes in 40k a month like Ferris did.

    Other than that, yeah, you may want to keep working 9-5 to save up for your “mini-retirements”. If you don’t have a company that makes you around 40k a month (around $2,500.00 for Ferriss), then don’t feel saved by this book.

    Picking and choosing “advice” in this book is STRONGLY recommended.

  10. > If you are capable of taking a book and pulling individual ideas out of it while leaving other ideas completely alone, this book is worth reading.

    Thanks for the great review. And this is *exactly* how I’d describe it. For me, that’s not a problem, but I know people who avoid the book just based on its title, for example.

    I liked the idea of personal outsourcing. In fact, I tried a little 4-hour workweek experiment:

    The 4-hour workweek applied: How I spent $100, saved hours, and boosted my reading workflow
    http://ideamatt.blogspot.com/2007/08/4-hour-workweek-applied-how-i-spent-100.html

    I continue looking for other ways to apply the 80/20 principle, which was clearly a big influence on Tim Ferris (I’m reading Koch’s book now). I’d like to hear about experiments you’ve tried.

  11. But let’s face it the only reason people would read such a book is because they want to be able to spend less hours working!! Hard to do unless you work for yourself, and hard to do then as well.

    So saying the 4 hour work week won’t help you work 4 hours a week (or anywhere near) but might make you more productive at work is a pretty strong indictment of it. Noone would be buying the book if it was called a representative title. Makes me resentful to spend money on such a fraud, however if it’s at the library maybe.

  12. Just a quick note of encouragement: You have a knack for review-writing, IMO! I’ve not read this book yet, but suspect just from your intro that my assessment would be similar to yours. I may read / skim it yet, but in the meantime, just wanted to say “thanks” for the thorough and balanced-feeling review. Keep up the great work! : )

  13. Now THAT’S a comprehensive review! Fantastic.

    I’ve read the book, and listened to the audio – both great, IMO.

    Some of the comments above do apply, but I also believe the marketing and hype doesn’t take away what might be the best part of the book: giving unhappy, overworked cubicle dwellers a new way to think about work and life.

    While the solutions in the book might not work for everyone, I think it should be required reading for anyone who’s miserable in their current work. Sometimes it only takes one idea to help people make a change for the better!

  14. Thanks for the excellent review…with caveats pro and con. Tim is definitely unabashed about self-promotion, but who isn’t these days ;)?

    I have both the print and audio-book version and really enjoyed it. I have implemented some of the productivity tips and am busy searching for a viable muse (or muses).

    I instituted many of the “liberation” elements prior to reading the book – such as negotiating a 4-day/week remote work arrangement with my employer and outsourcing most functions of a small private professional practice I run on the side.

    Taken with a grain of salt, I feel many of the recommendations in the book can significantly free up time (and energy) to devote to other pursuits.

  15. I appreciate your review and the comments of others here. I am trying to decide whether to get the audiobook and honestly was having a hard time on making the decision. The opinions / reviews seem so varied, some very good, some very bad.

    I just got this suggestion from a business partner who has read the book – “I think the people who don’t like the 4 Hour Work Week can’t get past the “it’s not possible” feeling. You, on the other hand, have already defeated that and I think will enjoy the book.”

  16. Pingback: 4-Hour Workweek -- anyone read it yet? - Wise Bread Forums

  17. I was three-fourths through the book (just finished E and parts of L), and thought to check on your review on it.

    It was basically the same conclusion I got to, but nice to hear from someone else. :) Thanks!

  18. As a long time simepledollarr.com reader I think it’s really cool that your review for a “best seller” is now the de facto one!

    At any rate, I am currently reading this book. I like it a lot but went into the book knowing full well that Tim is a borderline psychopath (not necessarily a bad thing).

    I think it has a lot of very inspiring parts. One that you didn’t mention was the whole business about “Parkinson’s Law” which Tim explains is that the amount of time a task takes is directly proportional to the amount of time alloted. I find this very true in my work and have made changes (i.e. I set a deadline for myself, I do not stick to our group’s deadline). I also like the bit reminding us that “you are going to be working 9-5 for the next 40 years”. Ugh! By the way, is it a business-job thing to work 9 to 5? I have had several engineering jobs and never once had the luxury of counting lunch (if you take it or not) as an hour. It’s either 8-5 or 9-6 in all places I have worked.

  19. Picked up this book in the airport for a read. Got inspired and scared at the same time. Inspired because it was providing encouragement for change, scared because it kind’of teased me to dabble with bold ideas like leaving a job and traveling around the world.

    It is a good book to read and also filled with practical ideas.

  20. Trent, you should write for Soundview or Cliff Notes. Very nice summary and review.

    I personally recommend the book for its somewhat controversial principles such as the author’s call to demolish our retirement-worship culture and our life-long delayed gratification patterns.

  21. Great Review, i wanted to buy the audio book, but some restrictions on the laws only allowing Philippines US and Canada. So I am going to buy this book, and see if i can add it to my golden reference of great books.

  22. I read this book a couple of months ago and the one big thing that stayed with me, other than the fact that I want to adopt Tim, was “Working effectively as opposed to efficiently.” I had read about making your day a successful one by completing the tasks you set out to do. But after one too many days with hours wasted on responding to emails, phone calls, texts and my beloved internet and finding myself further and further away from my goals, it finally clicked.

    Cheers,

    I even use it when watching TV or a movie. If I find myself not truly enjoying whet I am watching, where in the past I would still watch just to see the end, I stop and watching, I simply stop and use my time more effectively even when I am wasting time.

  23. To be honest, I was a little embarrassed to be seen reading such a “get rich quick” book. But, after having read it, I thought there were two very interesting points in the book that your review doesn’t touch on:

    1. Mini-retirements: changing your idea of retirement from something that happens once at the end of your career to something that happens many times during your career.

    2. The idea that by traveling you could dramatically reduce your cost of living, and thus afford these “mini-retirements”.

    I do think the author comes off as a bit obnoxious, but that may just be good marketing. And I think the particular techniques in his chapter “A is for Automation” worked well in 2004-2005, but would be substantially harder to do today. All told, I would compare this book to “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. Both are inspirational and both force you to change your perspectives. But I don’t know that I’d follow the specific entrepreneurial advice in either.

  24. Hmm – my question regarding Tim’s ideas is what you do when your boss values time in the office more than productivity. I have no doubt that if I reduced my productivity 25% but came in the office from 8-8 every weekday and for 4 hours on Saturday, my employer would be ecstatic and would likely give me a raise. This type of view is common in the culture of my profession (legal profession). My father calls it “waving the flag” – being in the office, just to show you are there, not to actually do anything. And personally, I hate it.

    But, that IS the reality for a lot of people. Most people don’t work somewhere where they just have to get X, Y, and Z done. They are also required to work a certain number of hours each week. At least 40, often more. VISIBILITY To the boss, not PRODUCTIVITY, seems to be key. If the goal is to have a more balanced life, how does increasing productivity help that, if you are going to be expected at the office anyway?

    Anyone who can answer that with something other than “work for yourself” (which not everyone can, or wants, to do) has found the holy grail.

  25. Thanks for this review.

    I just read the book and was feeling a little awkward with some of the ideas there. So I tried to search for reviews of this book and found yours.

    I agree, the book is enjoyable and worth reading BUT you need to know how to pick up what’s good and important from those that are simply not possible and practical for your life.

  26. This book was recommended to me by my daughter. What I find most interesting is that about 80% of the workforce do not want to reduce their hours because they cannot imagine what else they would do with their time. They LIKE to complain about the number of hours that they work but they really do not want to work less. This book will annoy them. For the other 20%, this book is a great introduction to the larger community of the successful lifestyle designers and they will quickly jump into Fourhourblog!

  27. The author makes a statement that seems to be false…He mentions IRS form 2555EZ concerning American Citizens that live out of the USA for 330 days in a year…That they can benefit from the foreign earned income credit of about 80,000USD, even though this income comes from the USA…
    I called the IRS and they dont seem to validate the authors statement.
    If the statement is true please let me know…

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