Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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