Book Review: The 4-Hour Work Week

Rating: 5/5

Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week is one of those books that straddles the line between business and lifestyle advice. Like fellow boundary-straddlers I Will Teach You To Be Rich and How To Win Freinds and Influence People it  discusses ways of running your business life better whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur, giving concrete, actionable advice on a range of topics.

Ferriss’ advice rests on one simple principle: that to enjoy life you need to do more of the things that are productive and cut out the things that might feel productive but aren’t. The Pareto Principal – or 80/20 rule – has become immensely popular over the past decade or so and in this book Ferriss applies it to everything from attending meetings to buying present for your friends. The result of following this idea to its conclusion is, according to Ferriss, a huge increase in productivity and a lifestyle that lets you realise your dreams.

Changing Your Personal Culture

For most people “doing lots” and “being productive” are pretty much the same thing. But Ferriss’ examples show that this is not the case. One thing that this is especially true with is email. It’s a huge interruptor, often for no good reason. I’ve known people – mainly people who work in sales – who receive both audio and visual notifications from several devices at the same time. That derails their train of thought and even though they are doing the same amount of work as others makes them much less productive.

Then there are meetings. I’m pretty sure that everybody I know has complained more than once about how useless meetings are. You do the same amount of work as you would normally do but create far less value. Ferriss has a number of other examples, from long deadlines to complaining customers, of things that make you work hard rather than be productive. Fortunately he has a solution:

Get rid of them.

That’s right. Ferriss’ suggestion is to stop answering emails except at one allotted time per week; have someone give you a precis of a meeting instead of attending it yourself; and fire your customers if they are more trouble than they are worth. We have probably all had the idea on different occasions of doing one of these things but The 4 Hour Work Week tells us to actually do all of these things.

While you might at this point already have decided that perhaps Ferriss should use some of the proceeds from the book to visit a psychiatrist, I would have to disagree. Because one of the things that makes this book stand out from others is that it describes not only the step-by-step process of getting there but also how to make sure your colleagues and your boss are happy with it. This is one of the great points about The 4 Hour Work Week: it addresses all of the reader’s fears and objections head on before they have a chance to raise them.

There are all sorts of other changes to your personal culture that Ferriss describes and that aim to make your working life more productive. His framework of:

  1. Definition
  2. Elimination
  3. Automation
  4. Liberation

can be applied to almost any aspect of your working life (as long as you remove the last part). Want to make your paid search advertising more effective? Define what that means; get rid of anything that isn’t performing as you want it to; then automate as much bidding and testing as possible for what’s left. Want to make your meetings more efficient? Define what a good meeting means, stop going to the ones that don’t meet these criteria, get included on summary emails instead of attending the ones that do, and feel free to do actual work.

This framework makes it seem simple to change your personal culture and attitude towards everything you work on. Although in this case “simple” and “easy” are not the same thing.

Ferriss’ Advice Is Difficult To Put Into Practice – And That Is A Good Thing

From the outset Ferriss insists that The 4 Hour Work Week is not for the faint of heart. That much is certainly true: any book that includes exercises like saying no to every request made of you for two days and examples like trusting a virtual assistant to say sorry to your girlfriend for you is going to contain some ideas that sound near-impossible to put into practice yourself.

An awful lot of what he recommends falls into the bracket of “well that’s nice for some people but I could never do it”. The thing is, as noted previously Ferriss manages to address the different ways of voicing this objective each time it might come up. That leaves only one objection: “this is hard”.

That is very true. It will be hard to trust sales people to spend money for your side company while you’re doing your day job so cannot be contacted in any way; it will be hard to get a virtual assistant to put together the data for your big board presentation so you can get on with the rest of your job. But if your lifestyle can become anything like the one Ferriss leads you to believe in then pain and reward are definitely balanced.

People are generally scared of putting other people out or looking as though they’re not working hard enough or of trusting others to make important decisions. This book sets you a challenge: to do all of these things. Because unless you do then you’re not going to live the life you want to.

Actual Examples From Ferris And His Friends

Where this book excels is where others such as Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup fail: after introducing abstract concepts Ferriss gives highly relatable supporting examples. Not only does this help you to believe in the book’s premise – even after 290 pages it can be difficult to believe that anyone can have the lifestyle Ferriss claims, let alone potentially everyone – it also helps you to understand how you might go about it. I think the strict definition of what the book aims to teach you – how to create a company that needs almost no involvement from you to grow and expand – helps in this since it gives Ferriss a very concrete platform on which to build his more abstract concepts.

This combination of a hard challenge, a framework for meeting it, being able to meet the reader’s objections, and excellent examples combined with the always positive, encouraging tone of Ferriss’ writing make The 4 Hour Work Week and a brilliant and brilliantly useful read.