The 4 Hour Workweek

When I was in Columbus a few weeks ago I read the book The 4 Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss (mentioned briefly here: Ohio Ramblings).  After seeing Andrea’s review of it here: I realized that I really hadn’t given a real review.

I’ve already loaned my copy out, so I can’t reference specific chapter, pages, or text, but I’ll try to cover my impressions as best as I can.

Timothy definitely has an engaging and humor style of writing which makes the book a quick and pleasant read.  There is a lot of real “meat” in there though, make no mistake.  He starts off with a funny recounting of his own past in education and the workplace, and some of the things he has done.

He talks about ways to reduce distractions to enhance your productivity.  Things like weaning yourself off of e-mail, IM, and generally making yourself less immediately available in order to carve out protected blocks of time where you can focus on what you really need to be doing.  There are lots of studies of programmers (and probably other professions as well) that show it doesn’t take much to get you out of the “zone”, but once you’re out, it takes about 20 minutes to get back into it.  The “zone” or the “groove” are common terms for the psychology concept of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.

As someone who spends much of his time either writing code or writing documentation about code or architecture, I can certainly attest to not only the existence of the “zone” but also that it can be hard to reach and easily broken.  E-mail, IM, TV, people asking questions, etc… can very easily pull me out of a very involved mental place, shattering whatever ideas and connections I was building there.

There are some tasks which do not require or even lend themselves to that type of productive head-space, such as building a kit, deploying software, filling out time-sheets, etc…  When I was younger I used to be a huge proponent of multi-tasking.  I used to pride myself on being able to work, watch something on the TV in the background, chat on IM, talk on the phone, work on multiple tasks or projects more or less at once, bouncing from window to window and application to application.  Either it’s an ability which has faded with age, or I’ve simply gotten wiser and more realistic about my output. For tasks like writing code or developing an architectural plan I am far more efficient and productive when I’m in the “zone”.  Not only that, but I find that my end product is of a much higher quality.

For me, sometimes the “zone” is elusive, regardless of external interruptions (or really the lack thereof).  Some days or hours I just feel spacey, or flighty, or distracted, and I can’t really get into it.  Other days, or hours it’s easy for me to slip into a task and crank it out.

One of the things that I like about my current job (working from home as an hourly contractor) is that I have some freedom to manage my work based on my actual current aptitude for the task.  For instance, if I’m really feeling distracted or spacey, I can simply walk away for a few hours and take care of a task that doesn’t need much focus, like watering the plants, or running a few errands.  Then I can come back, when I’m feeling more productive and crank out the work then.  Obviously I only bill for the time I am working.  When you compare this versus being trapped in an office from 9-5 everyone wins.  The company isn’t paying for my time to sit staring blankly at my screen trying to make myself focus enough to produce something useable, and I’m not stuck torturing myself in a cube, making poor use of my time.  The company now pays me for my most productive time, and I can generally (meetings and deadlines aside) optimize my work based on my head-space.  The code or architecture that I generate in one hour of good “zone” time is better than the same task output from eight hours of distracted attempts.

So what do I do to help get into the zone?  First thing for me is music.  Headphones are a must if I’m not at home where there isn’t much to shut out.  I like listening to upbeat but smooth electronica, trance, less-heavy rave, nice DJ mixes, drums-n-bass, etc…  As I write this entry I’m listening to a new album, In Between, by Paul Van Dyk.  Either no lyrics, or lyrics I can easily ignore, good energy, good beat, heavy in the bass end of things, and having a good cohesive beat.  I can’t work to screeching guitars and wailing vocals.  I also try to minimize my distractions by quitting my e-mail client, quitting or going “Away” on IM, minimizing or closing applications I do not need for my current task, closing the door, turning the phone off, etc…  I also like to have a clean and organized environment.  If my desk is covered in clutter it creates some stress in my mind and makes it harder to focus.  It also helps to have a clear idea of the task you want to work on, the scope and extent, and ideally an idea of how you will get started.  Things like having a glass of water or tea, an ergonomic chair/keyboard/desk/monitor/mouse, being comfortable in your clothes and dressed right for the weather, etc… are important as well.  You want your body to be happy to just hang out for a bit while your mind kicks into high gear.

Back to the book.  So I think his suggestions there make a lot of sense.  Obviously there’s limits to how much you can do things like checking e-mail once a day based on your role and job situation.  For instance, I work remotely, and therefore most of my communication to and from my team is via e-mail or IM.  Lots of my time is spent identifying gaps and asking questions, waiting for replies, and gathering information I need to move forward with my primary deliverables.  Therefore ignoring e-mail and IM for hours on end simply isn’t reasonable.  However, once I have what I need to move forward on a given task, I can shut things down for a few hours, and focus on completing the task.  His situation is obviously a little different, and lends itself more to ignoring e-mail:)

He talks about outsourcing tasks both personally and professionally to cut overall costs and time commitments.  He also stresses how to remove yourself as the bottleneck and let the defined process flows of your business work smoothly.  This is all sage advice I think.  Unfortunately my current business relies completely on my selling hourly access to my head.  I’m valuable due to my knowledge, my unique experiences, and my approach to solving architectural problems.  I can’t outsource any of that.  I also don’t have many personal tasks that I both can and would want to outsource.  I like getting outside once in a while and mowing the lawn.  I like working on my cars or motorcycle.  I like doing something physical instead of virtual, and I like knowing that a given task was done well.  There are definitely other people though who could outsource lots of their day to day tasks and chores effectively, and gain lots of time and lose lots of stress, so I definitely recommend looking at your life to see what options you may have there.

The second half of the book covers lots of concepts and resources for how to optimize profit and efficiency of a company delivering products (like his company).  This includes outsourced support, drop-shipping and fulfillment companies, marketing tactics, shedding the difficult customers, and more.  This is really the core of the book and the core of the title.  He covers how he went from an overworked highly stressed head of a company, putting in long hours, involving himself in most aspects of the business daily, and generally being the critical cog for all operations, to pulling back, outsourcing, automating, defining and streamlining processes, and just getting out of the way.  Making the transition from the head of a company, to a business owner.  The business can run itself for the day to day operations, and only requires about four hours of input a week from him in order to continue with growth and keep evolving as time goes on.

I’ve always been a strong believer in having income sources that require very little time investment and can scale without scaling your time and cost at the same rate. is a great example of this.  It took a bit to write, and I do have to put some time into it to add new languages (the next release will support at least 26 different languages) and to change the e-mail domain every month or two, but for the most part it runs without intervention.  While it’s not a profit center it does pay for the server (which can be used to host other sites as well, such as this one).

Obviously none of this applies to the day to day work for a consultant like myself, unless I wanted to start running a consulting shop, which I really don’t.  However it did give me an idea that ties into an existing project I just started with a friend of mine.  So, if all goes well, I will have my own company selling real-world physical items, having the fulfillment handled by another company, having the customer support handled, and so on, with minimal involvement from me (after the initial setup anyhow).  If, and when, that happens, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Another big point of his, earlier in the book, but not related to work as directly as what I’ve just talked about, is the idea of taking your retirement throughout your life, instead of at the end of it.  While I’d love to not have to work anymore, I’m not the kind of person who could do nothing.  If I was given 10 million dollars tomorrow, I’d probably stop working for anyone else, but I wouldn’t stop sitting in front of my computer and writing code, creating new applications, learning new technologies, and generally doing what I do now.  As such the idea of retiring and hanging out at a golf course all day is amazingly unappealing.  In the book Timothy talks about taking frequent vacations throughout the year, each year.  Spending weeks or months traveling in his case.  If you want to spend a month surfing in Sri Lanka, it makes more sense to do that in your 20’s than in your 70’s.  There’s very little I’d like to do where it would be better to wait until I’m “retired”.  I love the idea of taking time off as frequently and for as long as possible.  Spending that time doing what I want.  Traveling, coding, reading, or whatever it may be.  I can only imagine how much that would lower my stress level, and I’m generally not a very stressed out guy.

He also talks about making a list of the things that you really want, figuring out what that would cost, and seeing how easy it would actually be to pull off.  In his case that’s things like travel and an Aston Martin.  What would those things be for you?

In conclusion, I would definitely recommend the book, and I think regardless of who you are, an entrepreneur, a wage-slave, a house-wife, or anyone else, there are good take-aways in the book for you.






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