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Interview with Tim Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweek – Part 1

Interview with Tim Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweek – Part 1
Tim Ferriss

If you heard of a new book called The 4-Hour Workweek, you know who is Timothy Ferriss. Tim speaks six languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, a national champion in Chinese kickboxing, and has been a popular guest lecturer at Princeton University since 2003. Recently his book caught my attention. The title itself is very attractive to me who work at least 40 hours per week (if not more). There are positive reviews about the book around blogosphere, and it is currently on #9 of the Amazon best-seller list. So I sent him a quick email to setup this interview and just get to know him more.

In Part 1 I ask Tim about some general questions, including his view on productivity and 20/80 rules. In Part 2, Tim gives me some great answers on his views on lifestyle, work life, and outsourcing.

Q: Tim, you have done a lot in your life – you are a kickboxing champion, a world record holder in tango, as well as running a multinational firm. What other things have you done in the last few years? Which are the things that you are most proud of?


TTT: There are a few fun ones that stand out, like finally training in kendo in Japan, where I killed myself last September and fulfilled a life-long dream, but I’m definitely most “proud” of conquering two fears.

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Learning to surf in Florianopolis, Brazil, was a huge win for me because I can only use one lung fully (due to being born prematurely), and I’ve always been deathly afraid of drowning. One good friend and I actually reserved a VIP table at the world-famous night club Confraria there — $60-100 USD per night — so I could finish editing my book over red wine and dancing locals at night. It was incredible, and I owe a lot to my friend, Chris, for keeping me from panicking in the water.

Second, writing this book required me to conquer serious inner demons. I was mildly dyslexic at a young age and still have a lot of trouble with dygraphia: miswriting and mixing up letters. Finishing my senior thesis in college almost killed me, and this book was more than twice the length. I’ll just remember the advice my former professor and Pulitzer prize winner John McPhee gave me when I first sold the book: “When it seems like writing is really, really hard, just remember: writing is really, really hard. I sit in front my my typewriter from 9 to 6 each day, and most of the time, I get nothing done.”

      Q: Your launch of your book, The 4-Hour Workweek, is extremely successful. Why do you think it is so popular and the idea is widely accepted?

      TTT: There are a few reasons. First, the topic hit at the right time. Forbes recently reported the new average workweek as 70 hours, and this will only increase. It’s unsustainable, just as I realized in 2004, and people want alternatives to postponing life for 20-30 years for a nebulous “retirement”. The 4-Hour Workweek offers a different menu of options — mini-retirements, outsourcing life, etc. — many of which people haven’t really seen before.

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      Second, I didn’t follow a top-down, Oprah-as-messiah PR and marketing plan. I’d love to be on Oprah, but seeking that stamp of approval is a gamble for a first-time author. For those familiar with Glenn Reynolds book “An Army of Davids”, I embraced a few groups of Davids and took an bottom-up approach, embracing thought leaders where possible, to harness the most efficient word-of-mouth network in the history of the world: social media. I give away plenty of ideas and stir up discussions — and arguments. I just want people to talk, and when you create enough noise, the books move. It hit the NY Times and Wall Street Journal lists based on the first 4 days of sales with no offline PR or advertising, and it’s been in the Amazon top 15 or so for five weeks now. I hoped for this, but I never could have expected it all to come together so well. Plenty of luck involved, I’m sure!

      Q: I love preaching about productivity, but you are taking productivity to the next level – wow, the 4 hour work week. I would say it is the holy grail of work-life. What are your tips to achieve this kind of productivity in your life?

      TTT: Think instead of react. Take frequent breaks and strive to constantly eliminate instead of organize. Create not-to-do lists and cancel, fire, subtract, and eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. If you remove all the static and distraction, priorities become clear, execution becomes a one-item to-do list, and time management isn’t even necessary. Honestly, this is the holy grail. It took me a long time to figure out that, in a digital world of infinite distraction and minutiae, he who has the least number of programs running in mental RAM wins. Every time. I’ve interviewed everyone from gold medalists to CEOs who make $100 million a year, and their one common characteristic is the ability to “single-task” without interruption. It’s deceptively hard if you don’t have a solid method.

      Q: I am a fan of the 20/80 rules, as you are. I realize it is not a scientific formula, but it gives an air-horn alert on what should we really be focusing on. People ask me how to effectively identify the 20% of work which produce the 80% of the output. What are your key factors to assess this?

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      TTT: Before we analyze, we have to answer the question: what are the metrics that matter? The metrics that matter are those that measure your progress towards a well-defined goal. Is it $X in profit? Is it a certain income-to-hours ratio? If you can’t measure it, you don’t understand it. To quote Peter Drucker: “what gets measured gets managed.” Let’s say it’s income-per-hour. I would first apply the 80/20 principle to a few areas: what are the 20% of customers/products/distributors that are producing 80% of the profit?

      Then we do the less common; we apply 80/20 to the negative: what are the 20% of activities and people that consume 80% of your time? Fire high-maintenance, low-profit customers; create communication barriers for time-consuming colleagues; train your boss to value performance over presence with clever documentation, create a not-to-do list of your “crutch tasks”, and outsource the rest.

      There is another approach for determining the critical few. Limit time. Here’s where we apply the lesser-known Parkinson’s Law, which dictates that a task will swell in perceived difficulty and complexity in direct proportion to the time we allot it. For example, if you suddenly find out that you have an emergency and need to leave the office at 2pm, what happens? You miraculously get the most important work done three hours early. In other words, we can use the 80/20 principle and Parkinson’s Law hand-in-hand. We use the 80/20 principle to limits tasks to the important to reduce time. We also use Parkinson’s to reduce time (short deadlines) to limit tasks to the important. Pretty cool — and jaw-droppingly effective — when used together.

      Q: You mentioned elimination is the key element in your productivity system. How is it different than optimizing process or system to save time? What type of people should take one or the other approach, or both together?

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      TTT: I think they’re the same thing — in my world. “Optimize” should mean removing the nonessential and minimally important until you’re left with the bare essentials necessary for producing the target result. This is what Arthur Jones, founder of Nautilus, would call the “minimum effective load”. Think 37 Signals and Occam’s Razor.

      Unfortunately, this word “optimize” is so overused as to be meaningless, so people usually use it to justify endless addition — of features, customers, options, rules, etc. — that complicates instead of simplifies. I wanted to be a comic book artist, a penciler, for almost a decade, and I still stick to the philosophy one New Yorker cartoonist taught me ages ago: when in doubt, black it out. Fewer is better and less is more. Perhaps you have an issue, a product, a situation, or a person that is extremely difficult to fix? Consider just eliminating them.

      We will cover part 2 of this interview tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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      Last Updated on September 10, 2019

      How to Master the Art of Prioritization

      How to Master the Art of Prioritization

      Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

      By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

      Effective Prioritization

      There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

      Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

      The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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      Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

      Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

      If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

      Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

      My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

      I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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      Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

      But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

      The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

      I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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      That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

      You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

      My point is:

      The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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      What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

      And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

      “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

      In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

      If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

      More About Prioritization & Time Management

      Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

      Reference

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