Five Lasting Impressions of “The 4-Hour Workweek” as it’s Five-Year Anniversary Approaches

A quick Google search will reveal that Tim Ferriss is quite the controversial character.  He’s generally either loved or hated.  I personally am in the minority in that I’m square in the middle.  Tim has lots of interesting ideas, thoughts, experiments, and experiences.  A lot of his ideas are also ridiculously embellished or downright implausible, and he is an endless self promoter.

For this post though, we’re going to focus on the positive.  It’s crazy to think, but it’s been almost five years since The 4-Hour Workweek was released in April of 2007.  I remember seeing it promoted on some of the tech blogs I read, later learning that I was right in Tim’s target market so the book likely appeared to me to have a much grander launch than it did.  I was curious, but it also sounded a little over the top, so I didn’t pick it up immediately. It wasn’t until I saw it on sale that I grabbed a copy.

2007 was a pivotal time in my life.  It had been over a year since I left my job. We had just formed Pure Adapt, but we were still trying to find our way.  We were running Detailed Image from Greg’s basement, running the site on osCommerce (this is prior to our decision to even create our own shopping cart software!), relying on SEO clients to stay afloat, pursuing all sorts of side ventures to see if something would “hit”. Essentially, it was sink or swim for us.

And then this book comes along.  As I mentioned above, I’m not a fan of all of it, but I have to give credit to Tim where credit is due.  There are several lasting impressions that the book has left on me that have all made a hugely positive impact on my life and our business.  Very few books still have that kind of impact five years later.

So, with that, here are my five huge takeaways from the book:

#1 – Consume a Low-Media Diet

In Tim’s words:

I never watch the news and have bought one single newspaper in the last five years, in Stansted Airport in London, and only because it gave me a discount on a Diet Pepsi.

I read the front-page headlines through the newspaper machine as I walk to lunch each day and nothing more. In five years, I haven’t had a single problem due to this selective ignorance.  It gives you something to ask the rest of the population in lieu of small talk.  And, if it’s that important, you’ll hear people talking about it.

It’s imperative that you learn to ignore or redirect all information and interruptions  that are irrelevant, unimportant, or unactionable.  Most are all three.

How it’s helped me:  

I’ve always found it immensely stressful to think about all of the things I should know about.  I’ve never been a big news-watcher – I’m not a huge local/national/world news guy.  It just doesn’t interest me on a day-to-day basis.  This helped me realize that I shouldn’t feel guilty for that.

I read sports news for fun, but I curate it heavily with LockerPulse.  I read business and tech news because it’s important for my/our success, but I aggressively curate that with Google Reader and Twitter, and I tend to skim rather than sit down and read for hours.  I listen to podcasts while I drive to fill in the gaps.

And when it comes to the rest of the news, the stuff that’s likely irrelevant to me, I do the 2012 version of reading the headlines through the newspaper vending machine:  I skim Google News a few times per week.  If something interests me, I read about it.  Otherwise I move on with my life and focus on what I can control.

#2 – Email Can be a Huge Waste of Time if Not Managed

In Tim’s words:

E-mail (and all of its Crackberry/digital leash/Twitter cousins) is the largest single interruption in modern life. In a digital world, creating time therefore hinges on minimizing e-mail.

How it’s helped me:

Tim’s idea of autoresponders and answering email once per week just isn’t practical for me or our business.  However, his writing on email forced me to think about making email as efficient as our other business processes.  I did some more research, and eventually made some pretty big changes.  In 2008 I wrote a post Making Email Efficient in which I cited a pretty interesting study:

How bad is it really? A Loughborough University study “found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 1/2 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.”

This led me to drastically overhaul my/our email practices.  I started checking email only twice per day, focusing the rest of my time on getting stuff done.  I beefed up our FAQs and inline help sections on the website to reduce emails.  We fixed bugs that would cause people to contact us. I’ve set up countless Gmail filters to separate out the email I need to see from the email that I only need to check occasionally.  All of this culminated in  our Creating a Better Customer Service Workflow project, which has drastically improved our efficiency even further and helped integrate our first customer service employee.

#3 – Firing Shitty Customers is Not Just OK, it’s Smart

In Tim’s words:

[After reading Pareto’s Law and making the obvious cuts] that left the two larger [wholesale] customers to deal with, who were professional ball breakers but contributed about 10% to the bottom line at the time.  Up to that point, I had taken their browbeating, insults, time-consuming arguments, and tirades as a cost of doing business.  I realized during the 80/20 analysis that these two people were the source of nearly all my unhappiness and anger throughout the day, and it usually spilled over into my personal time.  I fired their asses and enjoyed every second of it

How it’s helped me:

As a business owner you’re taught that customers are your reason for success, that they’re your lifeblood.  Which is 100% correct.  But that doesn’t mean that the customer is always right.  Nor does it mean that every customer is right for your business.  Some customers are douchebags.  Some customers will cost you far more than they’ll make you, all the while stressing out your team and eating away the few precious resources you do have.

Countless decisions over the years have been made with this in mind.  We stopped phone support, in part because people would call with hours of questions and never make a purchase.  We killed off our client services, stopped shipping internationally, stopped selling on Amazon, and killed Tastefully Driven, all because they weren’t worth the effort despite being profitable aspects of our business.  On a daily basis we reject working with businesses or people because they’re not a good fit for us.

I think that this mentality has helped Detailed Image grow by freeing up time and allowing us to focus on our most profitable customers, but that can certainly be up for debate.  What’s not up for debate though is how much less stress we’ve encountered.  Chargebacks being down is just one huge example.  On a day-to-day basis we’re all happier people because we all know that we feel empowered not to work with anyone that we don’t want to.  That’s priceless.

#4 – “Retirement is Worst-Case Scenario Insurance”

In Tim’s words:

 Retirement as a goal or final redemption is flawed for at least three solid reasons:

  • It is predicated on the assumption that you dislike what you are doing during the most physically capable years of your life. This is a nonstarter – nothing can justify that sacrifice.
  •  Most people will never be able to retire and maintain a hotdogs-for-dinner standard of living. Even one million is chump change in a world where traditional retirement could span 30 years and inflation lowers your purchasing power 2-4% per year.  The math doesn’t work. The golden years become lower-middle-class life revisited. That’s a bittersweet ending.
  • If the math does work, it means that you are one ambitious hardworking machine. If that’s the case, guess what? One week into retirement, you’ll be so damn bored that you’ll want to stick bicycle spokes in your eyes.  You’ll probably opt to look for a new job or start another company.  Kind of defeats the purpose of waiting, doesn’t it?

How it’s helped me:

I agree with this mindset, but I never thought about it really until Tim brought it to my attention.  As he goes on to mention later in the book, this doesn’t mean “don’t save” or “don’t have disability insurance” or “don’t plan for the future”.  I do all of those things. It does mean that our generation likely can’t plan to save  a bunch of money and retire at 65.  Or rely on pension plans or social security.  That we’ll probably have to keep making money for much longer than that.

This actually is very relieving to me.  Maybe even a little liberating.  I think it’s another “vote” for the entrepreneurial lifestyle that I’ve chosen.  I enjoy accomplishing things – I cannot imagine life without it.  I hope that I can keep running a business in some capacity until the day I die.  If you have stock in a profitable business though, and you’ve structured it so that you receive a distribution of your profits, you don’t necessarily need to be working to be making a solid income.  You can have a say in how much or how little you contribute, all the while reaping a benefit that non-business owners could only dream of….and if all of that falls apart, then you rely on savings, your 401k, annuities, and the like.

But trying to cram your lifetime of professional accomplishments in to a 43-year window from age 22 – age 65, while saving an unimaginable sum of money that needs to last for decades upon decades, seemingly becoming more difficult the longer you live, well to me that’s stressful.

#5 – The Parable – Keep Perspective

Maybe the most important takeaway for me is the parable of the Mexican fisherman that I posted back in July of 2007.  It’s easy to lose touch and spend your entire life focusing on making more money. I’ll read this from time to time, and it always provides great perspective.

An American businessman took a vacation to a small coastal Mexican village on doctor’s orders. Unable to sleep after an urgent phone call from the office the first morning, he walked out to the pier to clear his head. A small boat with just one fisherman had docked, and inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of the fish.

“How long did it take you to catch them?” the American asked.

“Only a little while,” the Mexican replied in surprisingly good English.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family and give a few to friends,” the Mexican said as he unloaded them into a basked.

“But….what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican looked up and smiled. “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Julia, and stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American laughed and stood tall. “Sir, I’m a Harvard M.B.A. and can help you. You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. In no time, you could buy several boats with the increased haul. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

He continued, “Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell them directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village, of course, and move to Mexico City, then to Los Angeles, and eventually New York City, where you could run your expanding enterprise with proper management.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, senor, how long will all this take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years, 25 tops.”

“But then what, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

“Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll through the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

6 comments on Five Lasting Impressions of “The 4-Hour Workweek” as it’s Five-Year Anniversary Approaches

  1. Another great post. It is scary when you have a young business and losing even an troublesome customer is painful. However, there will always be more customers and you will most likely replace that customer with one that is much better. It takes a leap of faith and confidence but it is a true principle.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Aaron. You’re definitely right, it’s hard and it takes a huge leap of faith to fire that first customer. Once you do it a few times it feels so good though 🙂 You realize you can spend more of your time on more of those better customers.

      By the way, is a new venture of yours? Saw it in the link and was curious.

  2. Mark W. says:

    I think I need to read the book. Of course, you left the best for last (#5) but they were all good.
    Just in case you missed it, Syracuse beat Louisville on a nail biter. Great game for a great team. I’m hoping for a great March outcome for the Orangemen.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I missed the game but I caught the highlights this morning, it was a great finish. Louisville certainly had their chances. It’s always more exciting around here when the ‘Cuse is winning.

  3. Tim says:

    Great post, I thoroughly enjoyed the 4HWW and it definitely has changed the direction my life went in. That said, as I ALWAYS tell people who I recommend the book too, don’t take it literally. I would go crazy with a 4 hour work week, I don’t want to work much more than 40 on average, but I really LOVE what I’m doing and think 40 hours is a great balance. The points you bring up are strong points for the book, most people can’t grasp knowingly being ignorant, but freeing up time with items that literally have no impact on you or are totally beyond your control is fairly wise. No TV, no radio, no newspapers or magazines in my world and it’s glorious! I follow 60-70 people/businesses on Twitter and I get all the top news and information and spend minimal time on it. Same is true with reducing email and time spent on it, all of these points are great!

    I think the biggest point of the 4HWW is to find a career path you enjoy and turn it into the lifestyle that you want. As simple as that sounds it was a revolutionary concept when it came out.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I think the biggest point of the 4HWW is to find a career path you enjoy and turn it into the lifestyle that you want. As simple as that sounds it was a revolutionary concept when it came out.

      Well put Tim. I may have overlooked the most important takeaway!

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