I’m Sorry, Tim Ferriss

Moral dubiousness of the 4-hr Work Week

I owe Tim Ferriss an apology.

When “The 4 Hour Work Week” came out in 2007, I hated it without reading it. A high school friend (we’ll call him Don) read it and was inspired to follow Ferriss’ advice to the letter. Don slowly built up a business selling weight loss pills online– he was simply the middleman, automating the manufacturing and delivery. It took him a couple years to get the business to a profitable point, at which point he quit his job to run this business with minimal effort from a laptop while traveling the world. (Exactly what the book suggests.)

I was horrified. I watched Don set up a scam-y business (who thinks these diet pills work?) and assumed that “The 4-hour Work Week” had nothing good to recommend it. Recently though, I’ve been thinking about how it would be nice to have more free time, and the idea of a 4-hour work week (or even just a shorter work week) sounded more and more appealing. So I pulled the book out of the library to if there were any nuggets of wisdom there.

“The 4-Hour Work Week” does have some wise words, though a substantial middle-portion of the book veers off into the diet pill territory. So, sorry Tim Ferriss! I judged you too quickly. I think we have more in common than I realized and that I can learn from you.

The heart of the book is about maintaining freedom in your life. Ferriss starts with the premise that people don’t want to be millionaires, they want the experiences and lifestyle that comes with money. He also believe that we should have this lifestyle now, rather than spending all of our time unhappily working long hours, only to retire after 40 years to do the things we’ve always wanted to do.  He calls this “lifestyle design” and dubs followers “The New Rich”—people who create luxury lifestyles in the present focusing on time and mobility.

I couldn’t agree more with his basic premise, but I’m not sure about his solution—Ferriss advocates for minimizing and automating your work by creating an online business that you can manage remotely (like Don’s diet pills). Ferriss makes explicit that his book is not about finding your dream job or being happier at work, and assumes “that, for most people… the perfect job is one that takes the least time.” He goes on to provide advice for how to minimize your work.

“The 4-Hour Work Week” is organized around the acronym DEAL:

  • Definition: defining the “New Rich” lifestyle of mobility and freedom, enabled by cash flow from an automated or remote business.
  • Elimination: working more productively to free up time, getting rid of “work for work’s sake.”
  • Automation: automating and outsourcing your work.
  • Liberation: remote control of your work to achieve mobility (plus lots of travel tips).

I found the Definition and Elimination sections pretty compelling. Defining what you want and reducing the amount of time you spend on things that you don’t enjoy or aren’t important sounds great to me. There were several tips in the book that I will try to implement:

Use Pareto’s and Parkinson’s laws to work more effectively. Ferriss is a huge fan of the Pareto Principle, which states that 20% of work generates 80% of the advantage of the entire job (therefore you can eliminate the 80% of your work that is only leading to 20% of the results, especially difficult, time-consuming customers).  Parkinson’s Law states that a task will swell in perceived importance in relation to the time allotted. Combining the two, Ferriss recommends shortening your work day and your work week:  “1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20); 2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law).”

Eliminate work that is not meaningful or efficient. Ferriss’ emphasis on elimination was particularly striking to me. Instead of time management, he emphasizes creating more time by doing less. For me, this also sheds some mental burden—I don’t have to worry about doing everything or doing it all perfectly, I just need to focus on the most important things. Ferriss writes: “Doing less meaningless work, so that you can focus on things of greater personal importance is NOT laziness.”

He has some specific tips on how to do this; these are my favorites:

  • Make a to-do list at the end of the day for tomorrow so that you can start the day with purpose.
  • Don’t start with email first thing; first accomplish one of your most important tasks.
  • Ask yourself “if this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?”
  • Do not multitask. (How many times do I need to remind myself of this?)
  • Do not attend a meeting that doesn’t have a clear purpose and agenda.
  • Be ruthless about paring down your work to just the essential things. Ask yourself “if I could only work two hours a day, what would I do?”
  • Eliminate the tasks you do to fill time to feel productive. For me, this is often the bureaucratic things I need to do, like timesheets and invoices. I won’t eliminate them, but I often do them first to feel productive, when I should save them for when I’m tired.
  • Go on a “Low-information diet.” Ferriss is a fan of eliminating things like newspapers and learning speed reading. I do think that we could all save time by being more selective about the information and media we consume, and I’ve unsubscribed from a lot of blog and newsletters that I never end up reading anyway.
  • ”Practice the art of non-finishing.” He says to put down that article that sucks; I will!

Practice “The Art of Refusal.” Ferriss emphasizes eliminating distractions from coworkers, especially when they interrupt your workflow, and saying no to things that aren’t important to you.  He has some good points here (e.g. someone else’s priority doesn’t have to be yours), but he rubs against the border of being rude (he suggests wearing headphones even if you aren’t listening to music, just to deter interruptions).

Take Mini-Retirements.  Ferriss recommends distributing “mini-retirements” throughout your life. He focuses on overcoming fears and excuses that we make to put off doing this. He also has tips on travel and living abroad. I love the idea of taking periodic sabbaticals (like an extended seasonal reflection) to try new things (whether it’s living somewhere else, taking a class, or just focusing on your home life) and thinking more creatively about how we spend our time.


How I'd Like to spend my time... how Tim Ferriss spends his time

So, those were the things I found the most valuable about the book. And then, there are some suggestions that I will probably not try:

  • Using a Virtual Assistant: Ferriss devotes a lot of attention to using virtual personal assistants (e.g. Your Man in India) to do a lot of your work for you. Some of this could be helpful, particularly if you run your own business and your time is valuable, but the book also includes some ridiculous stories of personal assistants sending apology emails and “thoughtful” cards to spouses. Some things, in my opinion, should not be outsourced.
  • Automating an online business. Ferriss then goes through the steps to find a product, sell it online and automate the process. This is a large chunk of the book—and it includes a lot of detail on how to advertise, how to test ads, how to automate product fulfillment etc. Ferriss calls this business a “muse” because it gives you cash flow while freeing you to do other things. This seems like a misnomer to me, but if you are interested in doing creating a business of this sort (and they don’t have to be scam-y, there is an example in the book of a musician that automates sales of his music), the book is very specific and probably helpful.
  • Liberating” myself from my job.  Work has meaning for me and I’m not looking to stop working only to volunteer to contribute to the world. That said, I’m eager to be more effective at work, and would happily work fewer hours.

Ferriss ends the book with an interesting chapter called “Filling the Void,” where he describes that a period of depression after enacting his recommendations is normal. In essence, after stripping away the sense of business and our career identity, we are faced with the fundamental question:  what is our purpose in life? Based on the fulfilled “New Rich” he’s interviewed, Ferriss says that purpose comes from continual learning and service.

Ferriss is agnostic about how you make your money — there isn’t a sense of moral responsibility or getting satisfaction from your job. He would say that it’s preferable to work a few hours earning your salary and be able to volunteer most of your time on your passion/charity of choice. For me, doing something to contribute to the world is essential and gives my work meaning, as does the feeling of learning and growing in my job and career.

Just as Ferriss is pointing out that was have it backwards when we assume that we need to work hard for 40 years before we retire to a life of leisure, I think he has it backwards that we need to work as little as possible in order to have free time to learn and contribute to the world. Surely these attributes can be part of a good job.


  1. Benjamin Davis

    I get what you’re saying about how you like your job and don’t want to cut down on work time.. but someone out there has to do the dull paperwork and tax forms and so on. I bet they would love what Tim has to say :p

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