Time Management: The 4-Hour Workweek — Is It Really Possible?

“There is nothing that the busy man is less busy with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.” — Seneca, Roman philosopher

“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” — Bertrand Russell, British philosopher

“The commonsense rules of the ‘real world’ are a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions.” — Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek.

In 2007, Timothy Ferriss created a sensation in the business world with his provocatively titled book, The 4-Hour Workweek. In it, he outlined his philosophy that once you’ve worked hard to build your business, it’s possible to maintain that business at a profitable level by working for just a few hours per week.

Ferriss believes that the rules that bind us to the 9-to-5 grind are a pointless legacy of a time that’s long past, because in the modern knowledge economy, what matters isn’t how many hours you work—it’s how well you perform. Furthermore, he asserts, it doesn’t matter how much money you make if you don’t have the time to enjoy it.

How Does It Work?

Using his personal example, Ferriss outlines a method of ruthless time management using (among other things) the 80/20 principle, extreme outsourcing, and what he calls “cultivating selective ignorance”—that is, not trying to constantly keep up with every little thing at all times. Instead, he suggests, you should just catch up whenever it’s necessary to do so. This allows you to narrow your focus to the critical few items that really matter, so you can cut your workweek to a length that seems ridiculously short to many of us.

All this seems to work for Tim Ferriss— but can it work for you? Is a 4-Hour Workweek really possible? The answer is…well, kinda.

Working the Plan

I’m with Ferriss on the basics. My entire business is based on teaching people how to develop their time management skills so they can boost productivity, and I agree wholeheartedly that it’s an excellent idea to delegate/outsource everything except the few tasks that are the most profitable and valuable to you. As for selective ignorance, that’s basically the process of eliminating distractions and interruptions—which I’m all for as well.

Certainly, all these things can help you decrease your work load, especially when you apply them as rigorously as Ferriss apparently does. But does he really have a 4-Hour Workweek? I doubt that. First of all, the title of his book is clearly a catchy exaggeration, intended to drive sales. And Ferriss appears, in fact, to work much more than four hours a week, not just in promoting his book (and a recent sequel) but in maintaining his business interests and an informative blog.

Love It or Leave It

But here’s the thing: Ferriss’s construct works for him, and for many of his disciples, because he’s redefined the concept of work. In the context of the 4-Hour Workweek, work is anything you don’t like doing. That means that anything productive and profitable that you enjoy doesn’t count as work—no matter how long or hard you work at it. Some observers consider this specious reasoning; to them, work is work, even when it’s fun—because no matter what, it takes time, effort, and focus.

I can see their point, but I can see Ferriss’s as well. In fact, one lesson that I think you should take away from The 4-Hour Workweek is that if you truly want to maximize your productivity, you have to enjoy what you do. So yes, go ahead and use his methods (and others) to pare your work life down to its essentials, the critical few things that all of us time management gurus tell you to focus on. Then look at them critically; and if you don’t love them already, learn to love them—or change careers.

As you’ve probably learned by now, there’s nothing as soul-crushing as grinding your way through a job you just don’t like.

The Bottom Line

The concept of the 4-Hour Workweek is a valuable one, but like so many other business concepts, it only works under specific conditions. Remember, Ferriss had already built his existing business to steady profitability before he was able to arrange life so that he could abandon his 80-hour workweeks for 4-hour ones. So this is a maintenance concept only; if you’re still building your business, don’t expect it to work for you.

Moreover, this method can’t possibly work for every business, no matter how well-established. The concept of “fun work isn’t really work” aside, a business that requires your constant presence—especially service businesses where you are the product—can only be pared down so far. If, for instance, you’re a musician and you have to be present at your gigs every night, there’s only so much that you can delegate. The turning point of a business like this, of course, comes when you’re so much in demand that you can charge what you like for your services. Then you can scale back to the number of hours that suit you.

Ultimately, the concept of the 4-Hour Workweek is somewhat misleading, but the basic concepts underlying the Ferriss method are sound. You may never cut your workweek back to just four hours by following it, but you can certainly trim a lot of unnecessary fat from your schedule.