How would you like to make more money, while freeing up 90% of your time to pursue your passions? Sounds pretty good, right? It’s that dream that drove millions of readers to pick up Tim Ferriss’ 2007 book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Ferriss, who has gone on to write several other bestsellers and host a popular podcast, is something of a life-hacking guru. And in this, his first book, he offers a step-by-step guide to escaping the rat race and living your dreams now.
Read on for five key insights from The 4-Hour Workweek. To listen to the audio version of this Book Bite, download the Next Big Idea App today.
1. The New Rich
Who exactly are the New Rich? Simply put, they’re those who shake off the traditional career structure of working until middle age to earn retirement. Ferriss calls this typical pattern the “deferred-life plan” and those who follow it “Deferrers.” Why put off travel, experiences, and truly living life until our twilight years, when we begin to wane physically and mentally? That’s the question the New Rich ask, and to which they defiantly say, “Not for me!”
Instead, the New Rich—or as Ferriss abbreviates, the NR—aim to restructure their work-life balance so that they don’t live to work, but instead work to live. They follow Ferriss’ “DEAL structure” to free themselves from the office and take mini-retirements throughout their entire life, rather than saving it all for the end. The NR are financially stable and well-off, but they don’t work for work’s sake, and their true resources are time and mobility. As such, the NR make a distinction between absolute income, or a pure number such as a salary, and relative income, which factors in time and asks, “How much time do I need to put in to get x amount of money?” For the NR, it’s all about relative income.
Because time is such a precious resource for the NR, they’re all about maximizing their output while working. Some might be tempted to say, “Well, the NR just sound lazy to me.” To counter that, Ferriss would say that the NR shoot not for less work, but for less meaningless work. It’s all about being productive, not being busy. Ferriss pushes readers to “leverage your strengths,” using what you can do to your advantage, and not worrying so much about trying to fix what you can’t do. That would just be time wasted that could instead be used more productively by maximizing your strengths.
“Why put off travel, experiences, and truly living life until our twilight years, when we begin to wane physically and mentally?”
2. Lifestyle Design
The NR work to live, and the “live” portion of that mantra should be fulfilling, enriching, and based on our passions and dreams. Ferriss advises maximizing work productivity in as little time as possible, so that then we have free time available to design our lives how we want. However, the time created isn’t meant to be wasted free time, which Ferriss explicitly calls “poisonous.” Instead, the goal for the NR is to create “positive use of free time,” filling the void formerly held by draining work with passions that drive us. Indeed, the D in Ferriss’ “DEAL” structure stands for Definition—defining what makes you happy and what a good life looks like for you.
Ferriss argues that energy and interest are cyclical, and that to do our best work, we need to tap into those cycles and work with them, not against them. However, the typical 9-to-5, seven-days-a-week work life encourages us to work constantly, with maybe two weeks of vacation a year, if we’re lucky. That pattern is utterly unsustainable according to Ferriss. Instead, we should inject mini-retirements into our working lives and use those times to take stock of our health, follow our passions, and reenergize for the next stint of work.
Lifestyle design and following our passions takes some planning though, or else they’ll fall flat. This is what Ferriss calls dreamlining. Dreamlining starts with the perhaps counterintuitive notion of setting unrealistic goals. Ferriss argues that many of us set realistic goals, which just means we end up competing with everyone else. So we should shoot for the unrealistic, which for Ferriss doesn’t mean “impossible,” but instead means something closer to “extreme.”
Once the goal is chosen, we should plan specific, actionable steps that build to the larger goal. In fact, dreamlining is all about action and specificity. Too many of us set “be” goals, such as “I want to be a good cook.” Ferriss argues that we should change “being” to “doing.” So using the same example, he defines a do-oriented version of that goal as “to cook Christmas dinner without help.” A specific and measurable goal is easier to achieve and provides us with clear benchmarks on our progress, a piece of advice that carries over to the work side of life as well.
“We should inject mini-retirements into our working lives and use those times to take stock of our health, follow our passions, and reenergize for the next stint of work.”
3. The 80/20 Rule
The E in Ferriss’ DEAL mantra stands for Elimination, and this entire section of the book is built on an idea borrowed from Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto’s Law, also known as the 80/20 Rule, is summarized by Ferriss as “80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs.” Pareto originally applied the law to wealth distribution in society, but Ferriss argues that we should extend the rule to every aspect of our lives. He urges us to find the 20% of sources that cause 80% of our unhappiness (or inefficiencies, problems, etc.), and eliminate them, no questions asked. On the flipside, we should find the 20% of sources that bring 80% of our happiness, profits, etc. and lean into them, giving them as much of our time and energy as possible. The law applies to both work and play; we maximize the good and minimize the bad, no matter what area of life they’re in.
One key step toward achieving Elimination is to put ourselves on a low-information diet. Ferriss argues that we waste so much time taking in trivial information, be it television, social media, or even aimless “how’s the weather” water cooler talk. Instead, we should distinguish “just-in-case” from “just-in-time” information, an idea taken from game developer Kathy Sierra. We should always ask ourselves if we will use the information for something “immediate and important.” If the answer is yes, consume away. If not, eliminate immediately.
The low-information diet applies not just to news and media intake, but to work communication as well. Ferriss advocates for training our coworkers, employees, and customers to communicate with us in ways that we deem appropriate—and when we deem appropriate. Cut out phone calls and meetings that could have been emails. Funnel as much communication as possible to email, making sure that all contacts know that direct communication should be for emergencies only.
Once you’re on the low-information diet, the next step is to eliminate interruptions. Ferriss splits interrupters into three categories: time-wasters, time-consumers, and empowerment failures. Although he argues for funneling as much communication as possible to email, he also recognizes that email is hands-down the most common time-waster. The solution? Limit how often we check email, and let our coworkers, employees, and customers know about our email schedule with an autoresponse. We should do the same with all time-wasters: eliminate or limit our exposure to them as much as possible.
“Maximize the good and minimize the bad, no matter what area of life they’re in.”
For time-consumers—unavoidable tasks that require high setup time—we should complete them in batches, so that we eliminate repeated setup time. Finally, empowerment failures are solved by giving others, be they employees, coworkers, or customers, the information they need to solve their issues without having to bother us. The major offender in this category is customer service, and Ferriss urges businesses to have detailed online FAQs and other means of giving customers all the information they need, so that they don’t have to make a phone call over simple questions.
4. An Automated Life
The next phase of the DEAL is A for Automation. Ferriss argues that the NR don’t just work smarter—they eventually aim to replace themselves entirely in the work structure. As mentioned earlier, this step is a bit mobile in the DEAL process, because if you’re an employee rather than a business owner, you’ll likely have to achieve Liberation before you can reach Automation.
This section of the book opens with Ferriss’ advice for what he calls “outsourcing life.” This involves hiring a remote personal assistant to handle as much of your mundane work tasks as possible. He points specifically to affordable options in India as the most successful for him, but also mentions services based in China, the U.S., and Canada. These remote assistants can handle anything from email (he recommends creating different email addresses for different purposes and funneling each to a different assistant), writing drafts of reports, managing appointments—really anything you can think of. But he makes an important caveat that you should eliminate before you delegate, because even these assistants can get overwhelmed. Managed properly with specific instructions, short deadlines, and achievable tasks, remote assistants can work wonders.
The bulk of this section then moves to talk about automated income, a key feature of the NR lifestyle. The NR seek out passive income sources that, once set up, can generate maximum income with minimum effort. Ferriss’ advice for reaching this goal is to sell a product, not a service, and make it aimed at the most niche market you can imagine. Think of your own specific hobbies, and sell what you and your fellow hobbyists would want to buy. Even better than a purely physical product is an information product, some intellectual property that only you can sell, and he points to an example company selling instructional yoga videos for mountain climbers.
“Sell a product, not a service, and make it aimed at the most niche market you can imagine.”
Businesses like these start out entirely self-operated. But as you grow by reaching out to your niche market and taking advantage of search engine optimization strategies, you can eventually contract an end-to-end fulfillment center that can take care of most of the shipping and customer service, and you can kick back and relax. Passive, automated income is also a means by which employees can eventually become business owners, starting a side hustle until it grows to the point where they can leave their 9-to-5 and live solely from the “Income Autopilot.”
5. The Mobile Manifesto
The last section of the book is “L for Liberation,” which means freeing yourself from the physical office space and living life wherever you want. The first portion of this section is aimed more at employees in a traditional 9-to-5, and details the first crucial step needed for liberation: remote work. Once you’re free to work from home—or abroad—you can automatically eliminate many distractions of typical office life (commute, random coworker interruptions, pop-ins from the boss… the list goes on). Without those interruptions, you can easily condense an eight-hour workday into just a handful of hours, making sure that you’re making the most of your productive time, and then freeing the rest of your day to follow your dreamlines.
Of course, remote work is now much more common due to the coronavirus pandemic, but if you’re still stuck in an office with a job you think could be done remotely, Ferriss suggests ways you might be able to free yourself. You could prove your value to the company by increasing your in-office productivity following some of the Elimination advice from earlier, then with a test run (possibly by using a sick day) show that you can maintain that productivity at home. And finally, ask for the remote option, starting with one or two days a week and eventually working to a full week through continued high-efficiency productivity. Make it too costly for the boss to refuse.
Once you’ve achieved remote work, you’ve opened the door for the mini-retirements mentioned earlier. You can travel the world following your dreamlines, even while “on the clock.” Spend your few hours working from an oceanside hammock in Thailand, and then enjoy the free time you’ve created through Elimination and Automation. As mentioned earlier, though, these mini-retirements should also fit into a plan for yourself. They’re times for relaxation, but also for self-examination and following your passions, learning a new skill, or giving back through service opportunities. You want to fill the void with meaningful, positive experiences, or else you risk the temptation to fall back into old, unhappy patterns.
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