Tim Ferriss: How to Work the Four-Hour Week

The business and lifestyle guru explains his radical approach to work-life balance.

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Tim Ferriss, 31, sprang to fame when he published The 4-Hour Workweek, which has become the go-to guide for entrepreneurs and business leaders looking to improve efficiency -- and their lifestyles. Ferriss says most of us think about our careers the wrong way. Instead of working hard for 40 years and then retiring, we should consider a series of mini-retirements interspersed throughout our working lives. He argues that by outsourcing, disconnecting from E-mail more, and setting our own schedules instead of responding to others' "crises," we can be more successful while also living more fully. I spoke with Ferriss about how his philosophy can apply to younger workers. Excerpts:

Can the four hour-work week apply to younger people who work for other people?

It absolutely does. In some ways, it applies to them more than it does to people who are more progressed in their long-term career planning. The for-hour work week isn't about idleness, it's about measuring things that matter and focusing on lifestyle design versus retirement-based career planning. It's become especially clear in the last 10 months or so with the economic downturn. The hypothetical questions that I used to ask people -- how would your decisions change if you could never retire -- are no longer hypothetical.

Is starting your own business or working for yourself a big part of getting to the four-hour workweek?

You don't need to start working for yourself, but you need to begin creating leverage. The way you create leverage is by becoming more effective and documenting your results. This provides you with tremendous leverage to do things like work remotely and ask for promotions. Being effective is about doing the right things versus being efficient, which is getting good at performing a task whether it's important or not.

The starting point for all of that is understanding how you effect a business on its profit and loss statement. Even if you may not work for yourself, you need to think of yourself as part of a business, and understand, almost as a business owner, what function you serve. It might mean reducing the time required to bring in certain accounts so you can affect quarterly revenue. You could set those metrics for yourself and document your improvement. Then you can make a compelling case for promotion or for taking a day off per week to work outside of the office.

How should someone go about working from home more?

Offer to voluntarily work two Saturdays from home. Document the decreased number of interruptions, the higher number of billable hours completed, then propose that based on those results, you'll work from home on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Don't make it a Monday or a Friday, because it looks like a three-day weekend.

For 20 and 30-somethings, what's different about the work world now compared to our parents' generation?

There are a few immediate differences. The first is that location is becoming less and less relevant, meaning that if I want to hire the best designer I can for a project, I don't care if they're in San Francisco, Ohio, or Romania. Number two, people of my generation and younger don't necessarily expect to be at the same job for 10, 20 years. They also aren't willing in most cases to postpone all of what they want to do for retirement. That's why companies like Google, which is well-know for not overpaying their employees, still have tremendous brand equity and appeal to employees. They offer gourmet food, personal trainers. That's an effective shift from a focus on retirement to a focus on some semblance of work-life balance.

Why did you write this book -- did you see something wrong with how people are working?

I was working 14 hours a day and managing my own company. I had a long-term girlfriend break up with me with a plaque that said business hours end at 5pm. That led me to basically redesign my entire business and go on a walkabout around the world for almost two years. At the end of that period, a few of my students [Ferriss guest lectures at Princeton] jokingly suggested that I should write a book.

  • For more, read: "How to Start a Business in a Recession."