Uncommon lifestyles and the truth about the 4-Hour Workweek: An interview with Tim Ferriss

One of the fundamental premises of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy is that by making sacrifices and smart moves now, you can create a better life in the future. It’s a philosophy of deferred gratification.

But what if you don’t want to wait to enjoy life’s rewards? What if you want to take advantage of opportunities while you’re still young? Is there a way to do this while still maintaining a smart approach to money?

Timothy Ferriss says there is.

In The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich [my review], Ferriss describes creative approaches to career and retirement. He advocates taking radical action to increase your productivity, which in turn gives you more time to do the things you really want. It almost sounds crazy — and it may not be for everyone — but the book’s ideas are helping me to mold my lifestyle.

Ferriss recently agreed to field questions from Get Rich Slowly readers. This interview will appear in two parts. Today he shares thoughts on productivity and lifestyle design. In the second part — to be published at an undetermined point in the future — he’ll discuss new notions of retirement.

Kathleen writes: “I loved the stop-dreaming-and-do-it attitude of the book. But Ferriss comes from a starting point of already having a successful company and his goal was for it to not consume him. This doesn’t speak much to the majority of us who are trying to reach a point where we can keep afloat without selling our souls to the 9-to-5 gods. I would love to hear his thoughts on how to achieve freedom without that starting point.”

It’s true that I had a business, but it’s important to note that The 4-Hour Workweek is actually an examination of case studies, including employees and even single mothers.

“Lifestyle Design” as an alternative to retirement-based career planning is much like investing: there are dozens of options, each customized for your individual situation and risk tolerance. The first objective isn’t going to be tangoing in Buenos Aires or scuba diving in Japan — it’s eliminating unpaid overtime on the weekends and evenings. Small steps, no matter the situation, sum up to enormous changes and uncommon lifestyles. Step one is defining your ideal lifestyle based on the associated costs.

Some people have complained that a four-hour workweek is impossible based on their situation or their job. “How do you work a four-hour workweek in retail?” asks one of my readers. “We have two small children,” writes another. “How can we take baby steps to a freewheeling lifestyle, and how free can we realistically be? Any tips, insights or examples of families taking Tim’s advice?”

The vast majority of readers who write in with stories like “I just took the first four-week vacation in ten years” have families. Jen Errico from the book took a five-month around-the-world trip with her two children in tow, and there are many similar examples. In fact, there are entire blogs created by mothers and fathers who are using the 4HWW principles of lifestyle design.

In the retail example, it’s true that some jobs and positions will not allow for time abundance, and for such situations, there is a process for killing your job and upgrading your work-life ratio instead of killing your career. Lifestyle design is a buffet of options. I don’t expect anyone to use time the way I do — I’m an extremist. I expect people to create time and use it as they see fit, whether sitting in a hammock with their kids or racing Lamborghinis on the autobahn. I’ve seen both.

Many critics of The 4-Hour Workweek have focused on the Automation section. Some don’t like the notion of virtual assistants, for example, and they’re not convinced that everyone can automate their income. Are these specific details important? Can your system function without them? What are other approaches could people consider?

Having a virtual assistant or exploring personal outsourcing (“offchoring”), as amazing as it is, is not required at all. Like I said, the book is a buffet of options. I don’t expect anyone to use all of it. Pick and choose to optimize your situation. That said, let me make a couple important points on personal outsourcing.

$10 USD buys groceries for a week for someone in Bangalore. I pay my assistants there $5-15 per hour. Do two hours of your friends’ (or your) wages pay for their (your) groceries for a week? Not likely — so who’s really getting paid more? This is an example of the concept of “purchasing power parity”, often called the “Big Mac index”. I’d encourage people to take a look at the research of real economists instead of the propaganda of politicians.

I’m helping to build a middle-class in the countries that need it most, while simultaneously creating new consumers of US and other countries’ goods, for example. There is absolutely no slave labor or exploitation in how I recommend using virtual assistants — none whatsoever. It strengthens the global economy.

Bob writes: “I would like to know as best he can give, what Tim’s average NON-mini-retirement day entails.”

Good question.

My days almost never look the same. I ask my assistants to avoid phone calls on Mondays and Fridays, in case I want to take a long weekend on either end, and I almost always allocate Mondays for general preparation and prioritizing for the week, then any administrative tasks that I need to handle (paperwork for accountants, lawyers, etc.).

I put very few things in my calendar, as I do not believe most people can do more than four hours of productive work per day at maximum, and I loathe multi-tasking. For example, my day tomorrow looks like this, with items in my calendar preceded by an asterisk (*):

  • 10am — get up and eat high-protein breakfast of 300-400 calories (I’m typing this at 2:22am, as I do my best writing from 1-4am)
  • 10:30-12* — radio interviews and idea generation for writing (note taking)
  • 12 noon — workout involving mostly posterior chain (back, neck extension, hamstrings, etc.) and abdominals
  • 12:30 — lunch in a restaurant of organic beef, vegetables, pinto beans, and guacamole (I have this almost every day. Here is my diet.)
  • 1-5pm* — write piece for very large economics publication (I’m not writing this whole time, but I block out this period)
  • 5pm* — review my designer’s latest updates on planned blog redesign
  • 5:30pm — first dinner
  • 6:30-8:30pm — Brazilian jiu-jitsu training
  • 9pm — second dinner
  • 10pm — ice bath and shower
  • 11-2am — chill out and do whatever, probably reading for enjoyment or drinking wine with friends

Before you ask “but what happened to the 4-hour workweek?!” realize that the goal was never to be idle. I hate laziness and make this clear in the book. The goal is to spend as much time possible doing what we want — by maximizing output in minimal time. I don’t have to do anything in this schedule. I choose to do them because I like them. None of them are financially-driven. If the chance to do something fun comes up last-minute, I can cancel all of them. This is true time-freedom.

One of my favorite tips in your book — I have it heavily underscored in red ink — is “emphasize your strengths, not your weaknesses”. Explain this concept. Why is it so important?

It’s very simple. If you try and fix all of your weaknesses, you will be — at best — mediocre at most things you’re inherently poor at. This is inborn talent or weakness. Progress is incremental when you attempt to fix all the chinks in the armor.

Focus on leveraging and amplifying your strengths, which allows you to multiply your results. Fix any fatal weaknesses to extent that they prevent you from reaching your goals, but perfection isn’t the path to your objectives; finding ways to cater to your strengths is. This is also, for example, how you end up documenting and showing improved results to your superiors if you need to negotiate things like remote work, flex-time, paid time off, etc.

I also like your notion of a low-information diet. How does one cultivate selective ignorance? What is the value in it?

Information consumes attention. In a digital world, you then have the potential for infinite minutiae and interruption. Consuming and organizing the excess deluge of data is not a scalable or sustainable model, so we look instead at the only viable option: strategic elimination.

How do you check e-mail once per day or once per week? How do you reverse the self-defeating impulse to “stay informed” and instead catch up when action requires it vs. keeping up? Selective ignorance is one of the few common traits among the top performers I’ve interviewed. Learn to single-task and accept that — ironically — limiting your options is often the best method for improving your results and outcomes.

Timothy Ferriss, nominated as one of Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Business People of 2007,” is author of the #1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek. The second part of this interview will appear at Get Rich Slowly sometime in the future.

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