Rethink Your Relationship to Work: Ideas from The 4-Hour Work Week

The Four Hour WorkweekCount me as skeptical of Tim Ferriss and his book The 4-Hour Workweek. A self-described serial entrepreneur, Ferriss’ ventures include the BrainQUICKEN nutritional supplement sold online (“a lab-tested performance product scientifically engineered to quickly increase the speed of neural transmission and information processing”).

His book’s subtitle “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” makes me think he’s trying to get rich by the age-old technique of selling get-rich-quick books. I fully expect to see Ferriss join the ranks of motivational infomercial giants like Tony Robbins and Carleton Sheets one day.

Yet there’s something appealing about the ideas he outlines, though his approach goes against my more sober and conservative instincts. His suggestions align well with the burst culture of work enabled by the Web, where output matters but where, when, and how much you work doesn’t.

Don’t write this book off just because you’re not aspiring to the lifestyle of the New Rich, pursuing international adventure while minimizing your work time and annoying colleagues with email auto-replies announcing that you only check email every two weeks. You can get a lot out of this book even if you’re happy with a forty-hour work week and don’t have any intention of tango dancing in Argentina.

Here are a few of the unconventional ideas you’ll find in The 4-Hour Workweek.

Shorten your work time to limit your work to only the important. This flows from Parkinson’s Law which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Writing blog posts conforms to Parkinson’s Law. If I need to do one on a deadline, I will get it done faster than if I don’t do it on a deadline. With limited time, I skip the extra surfing and checking email. I focus on the most important task: writing a solid blog post.

Some tasks, however, benefit from more time and more work, not less. Sometimes blog posts, for example, benefit from being set aside for a couple of days and then revisited with a fresh eye. Besides that, there are many pleasurable work activities that suffer when squeezed down to their most minimal effort. Ferriss takes the stance that you should work for income, not for satisfaction. That perspective won’t suit everyone, as many find flow and engagement in daily work.

Practice the art of nonfinishing. Ferriss addresses this in the context of his recommended low-information diet recently taken up by Brian Oberkirch; he aims it specifically at our reading habits. However, it’s wise to practice it in all aspects of our lives. If you start a project or task — or even a full-time job — and the value isn’t there, you shouldn’t continue just because you’ve already put time in. That time is what economists know as a “sunk cost.” You can’t recapture it, but you can better allocate your time going forward. Get in the habit of checking in with yourself as you go about your day, and don’t slavishly stick with an activity just because you started it.

Try the hourglass approach to creating a remote work arrangement. If you’re working as an employee and want to free up some time and give yourself some mobility, Ferriss suggests demonstrating to your manager how productive you can be when you work remotely. He calls one pattern for doing this the “hourglass approach,” where you fabricate a reason to work remotely for a chunk of time, then return to the office and make your case for working remotely on an ongoing basis.

While I found some of his suggestions overly manipulative and wonder if they’d really overcome managerial reluctance to allow telecommuting, he does offer a concrete approach that gets beyond the standard “write a memo to your boss about why and how” advice.

Build a self-sustaining virtual architecture for a company. The 4-Hour Workweek leads you through the steps from figuring out a niche market that you can effectively address given your interests and background, to finding or creating a product to sell, to gauging demand with pay-per-click advertising, and then eventually setting up online order management and automated fulfillment capabilities supported by virtual assistants.

This section of the book fascinates and enlightens, especially if you thought that building a Web 2.0-style to do list application was your best bet at startup success. I’m not about to go launch my own online store but after reading his tutorial, I feel like I could. Ferriss walks you from gleam in your eye to embryonic startup to full-grown income stream, making it seem feasible for anyone with the nerve to try it.

If you’re skeptical about The 4-Hour Work Week, start with Tim Ferriss’ podcast from SXSW and see what you think.

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