The 4-Hour Workweek Summary: 7 Best Lessons from Tim Ferriss
Quick Summary:The 4-Hour Workweek is about escaping the default 9-5 rat race and designing your ideal lifestyle. Tim Ferriss says we can improve our productivity by eliminating, automating and outsourcing the work we don't enjoy. He also shows how to build a passive income business to fully liberate our time.
Many people don’t like their 9-5 jobs. That’s no secret. Maybe they dream of quitting, but how else would they pay the bills? And it seems almost everyone is trapped in the same rat race.
The 4-Hour Workweek explains an alternative path, which has given some people the freedom to design their own lifestyle rather than following social norms. The strategy includes:
- Eliminating the work we do that is least productive,
- Outsourcing repetitive time-consuming tasks, and
- Building an automated business that provides passive income.
But is Tim Ferriss’s advice really achievable for the average person? Don’t most new businesses fail? Well, in this summary, you’ll see a few of the most useful lessons we found in The 4-Hour Workweek. Read on and decide for yourself whether the book can help you.
Around 10 years ago, I read this book for the first time. Back then, I was already making an income from my online projects, so many of the business tips were not new to me. However, I did learn the idea of “mini-retirements” and Tim convinced me that long-term travel could be a valuable life experience. So I bought a plane ticket to Southeast Asia and spent 6 months backpacking through various countries. As a result, I can say that for me, this really was a book that changed my thinking and my life.
Who is Tim Ferriss?
Tim Ferriss (author site) is a serial entrepreneur, bestselling author, successful investor and one of the top podcasters in the world.
However, when Ferriss graduated from Princeton University, his career did not begin so glamorously. He spent months looking for a job, finally landing a sales position at a small startup, where he spent 12 hours a day working miserably. To escape that job, Ferriss began researching various business opportunities. Then with a few thousand dollars, he launched a sports nutrition supplement called BrainQUICKEN. That business took off, letting him to quit the job and later travel around the world.
In 2006, his book The 4-Hour Workweek was rejected by 26 publishers, before getting published and turning him into a New York Times Bestselling author. He has also been an early investor in some very successful tech companies like Uber, Shopify, Facebook, Twitter and more.
1. Escape Normal: Many social conventions are baseless
It’s fascinating how our society has many strange norms that most people don’t question. For example:
- Why do almost all jobs take 40 hours a week to do?
- Why do almost all degrees take 4 years to complete?
- Why do almost all retirements begin around the same age at 60+?
In this book, Tim Ferris invites us those re-examine the invisible assumptions and rules we are following. You may often discover there is no reason for the rules. We are just copying what we see other people doing, and assuming that if something is common then it must be correct.
Robert Cialdini is a Professor of Psychology and the famous author of the book Influence. He says one of the most powerful channels of influence is called Social Proof. Social Proof means when we see other people doing something, then we assume it is correct for us to do that too. It’s why customer reviews, testimonials and celebrity endorsements can increase sales of a product so effectively.
The alternative to following the crowd is getting clear on exactly what you want your life to look like, something Ferriss calls “Lifestyle Design.” It sounds simple, but most people don’t do this. If you want to avoid falling into the default 9-5 pattern, then you must design the future lifestyle you want and then make decisions that move you towards that.
For example, many years ago I decided that I wanted to travel for months at a time, so I started a type of business that would let me work remotely from a computer. (However, many people have a similar location freedom with careers such as computer programming or graphic design.)
Here’s a very oversimplified summary of Tim’s goal setting tips:
- Write down several things you want to be, have and do in the next year or two. These can include possessions, skills and experiences you want to have.
- Calculate exactly how much those things would cost per month. This will give you a number called TMI (Target Monthly Income) that you will aim for.
Lifestyle Design is about getting clear on exactly how we want our life to look like. (Rather than following what everyone else is doing.) Write down exactly what you want to have, be and do in the next 1-2 years. Then calculate how much it will cost per month to achieve your dream.
2. Write Down Fears: Clarity relieves doubt and hesitation
What stops us from going after the life we really want? Some people do have real responsibilities and obligations so they can’t quit their 9-5 job today. But often the most powerful reason for our hesitation is:
Back in the early 2000s, Tim Ferriss had launched his sports supplement business and was getting a lot of sales. However, he was working 12 hours a day to keep it running. He wanted to take a break, but he was terrified that it would all fall apart if he didn’t micromanage everything.
One day he had an idea to write down exactly what the worst things that could happen would be. His worst case scenarios included lawsuits and bankruptcy. But then a strange thing happened—he began to feel better. He saw that he would survive, and could even continue paying his bills with a temporary job.
So he bought a one-way plane ticket, which later transformed into 15-month-long worldwide adventure. His business did fine and he loved the experience. That’s why he recommends we all try this exercise: Write down your worst fears in detail, then see how you feel.
“Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually,” just do it and correct course along the way.
Speaking of fear, let me share with you something that really changed my life a few years ago. You see, I grew up with really strong social anxiety. In my quest to overcome it, I stumbled across a deep insight: Courage is not a lack of fear, but acting in spite of it. In fact, almost all of the “gold standard” psychotherapies for anxiety include some form of voluntary exposure to what the person fears. I still find it difficult to always follow this wisdom, but when I do it is an exhilarating and transformational moment—to take action in spite of feeling afraid.
Ferriss wrote down his worst fears in detail and was freed of stress and worry about his business. Our fears, doubts and hesitations can often be dispelled through clearly seeing what the worst thing that could happen is.
3. The 80/20 Rule: You can work less and accomplish more
But how exactly did Tim Ferriss go from being trapped in his new business for 12 hours a day, to having the freedom to travel endlessly? One of the biggest turning points was his discovery of the 80/20 rule and how this rule can be applied to business.
The 80/20 Rule says that 80% of results in almost anything come from 20% of the inputs. Pareto was an Italian scientists who noticed that in his garden 80% of the healthy pea pods came from just 20% of pea plants. Later people discovered the rule applied to many other things, too.
This idea is very useful in business because, generally speaking:
- 80% of our profits come from 20% of our customers
- 80% of our work results come from 20% of our work hours
- 80% of our sales come from the top 20% of our salespeople
- and so on…
We often assume every hour we spend working is important. But what if only 20% of our work was producing 80% of our income? Then why not eliminate that other 80% of work so we can focus on the most important work? This is the difference between being efficient (working harder) versus being effective (doing the right things). It’s a lot more important to choose the right things to work on. For example, Tim Ferriss found that only a handful of his wholesale supplement customers were bringing in almost all his profits. So he eliminated the bad customers, found more customers similar to the good profitable one, and in just a few weeks his income doubled to an eye-popping $60,000/month.
In my own online businesses, I’ve often applied a similar rule: Find what’s working and then do more of that. When publishing content online (on a website, Youtube, Instagram, etc.), I’ve always found that most of the views came from a small minority of my content. So the most successful online publishers spend a lot of time backwards-engineering why some content gets so much attention. To me, it is a fascinating topic that requires understanding both human psychology and the algorithms of specific online platforms. For example, there are many online communities obsessed about understanding how to win traffic from Google—if you’re curious about this yourself then I’d recommend looking at one of the guides about ‘search engine optimization’ published by Ahrefs (Ahrefs.com).
The 80/20 Rule means 80% of your income usually comes from just 20% of your work, customers or products. So find what’s working best, focus totally on that, but eliminate the rest. Your results will probably go up while your work hours go down.
4. Remove Distractions: Eliminating useless information consumption
To be productive on what matters for your future, you must stop being distracted by information that is useless. Most people cannot even recall most of the information they spent hours consuming last week, so why fill out minds with time-wasting clutter? That’s why Tim Ferriss recommends we all go on a “low-information diet.”
A few general guidelines include:
- Cut back on email. Email is possible the biggest modern time-waster. Most jobs don’t require us to be constantly connected. Switch to checking email twice per day, then once per day.
- Don’t watch the news. If something truly important happens, then you’ll hear about it from the people around you anyway.
- Learn how-to info as you need it. Don’t spend a lot of time learning stuff “just in case,” because that is often a way to avoid real action.
Cal Newport is a computer science professor and New York Times bestselling author of multiple books on productivity and learning. In his 2016 book Deep Work, he writes about how the modern world is pushing us towards constant distraction, nonstop notifications and shallow emptiness.
His solution is that we set aside large blocks of time every day free of interruptions to do ‘deep work’ that is focused, challenging and valuable. If we do this, then meaningful work will fill more and more our time, allowing us to escape the digital noise that causes disorientation and anxiety for so many people today. As Newport puts it, “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”
(Our summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport is coming soon!)
Going on a “low-information diet” means eliminating the noise that is irrelevant and useless. Check email far less often, don’t consume news, and learn how-to info only as you need it.
5. Create Passive Income: Building a business that frees your time
New entrepreneurs will often hear “follow your passion” or “do what you love.” Tim Ferris doesn’t use those kinds of cliches, but he says it is best to choose a topic that you are very familiar with. The most reliable way to create a product other people will want is to be a member of the market yourself. That’s why Tim’s first business like his supplement was targeted towards students. (He later targeted passionate athletes, advertising in magazines for martial artists and powerlifters.)
For people wanting to start an online business, another well-rated book is called The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco, who became wealthy after creating a limousine rental website. He totally rejects the idea that we need to be passionate about the topic of our business. Instead he says, “Stop thinking about business in terms of your selfish desires, whether it’s money, dreams or ‘do what you love.’ Instead, chase needs, problems, pain points, service deficiencies, and emotions.”
Not all businesses will give you freedom of time. In fact, many business owners become trapped by their own creations, needing to work longer hours than their old 9-5 job with a lot more stress. Here’s a quick overview of four types of business that CAN potentially lead to a “4-hour workweek”:
- Information Products. Including books, audiobooks, courses, seminars, etc. Tim recommends this business most because it has low setup costs, low product costs, and it’s harder for others to copy you later. Even if you’re not a world expert in a subject, you can probably create something that is valuable to beginners if you dedicate a few months/weeks to study.
- Physical Products. You’ll need to get in touch with manufacturers to create your product idea. This may sound complicated and expensive, but often it isn’t. Ferriss paid just $5,000 to produce his first batch of supplement bottles.
- Reselling. You can sell other companies’ products. For example, there is something called drop shipping, where you sell products on your website, then send the orders to another company to fulfill. This can be the fastest business to setup, but it can be low-profit and very competitive.
- Licensing. Some people earn royalties by giving companies permission to use their intellectual property. These include book authors, music artists and inventors. On the other hand, you could find people who have a good brand, then pay them a royalty to create products with a built-in demand.
Choose a market that you are part of, then further research what people in the market need and want. To create passive income, you can sell information products, manufactured products, other companies’ products, or do licensing.
6. Test Your Idea: First check if people want your product
Intuition and experience are poor predictors of which products and businesses will be profitable. Focus groups are equally misleading. (…) To get an accurate indicator of commercial viability, don’t ask people if they would buy—ask them to buy. The response to the second is the only one that matters.
Have you ever seen the show Shark Tank? Entrepreneurs that want funding present their business idea to a panel of experienced investors. They always believe their idea is sure to be a success, but are often harshly disappointed by the criticism they receive.
The truth is, we don’t really know if our product idea is good until we try to sell it. Tim Ferriss learned this lesson the hard way: while in University he created an audiobook, paid for 500 copies of it to be manufactured, then was not able to sell it! A year later he tried a different approach: he advertised a speed-reading seminar with flyers all over campus, and made over $1,500 when 32 students showed up. The difference was he sold the class before doing the work of making it.
To test your idea, here is a super-simplified overview of Tim’s method:
- Create your own sales page in 1-3 hours, after researching similar existing websites.
- Send visitors to your page, paying no more than $500-1000 for Google advertising.
- Put a “product out of stock” notice on the checkout page, but you can assume most people who tried to fill out the checkout form were serious about buying.
The book most often recommended to aspiring startup founders is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, who failed in business twice before launching the popular 3d messaging app IMVU. Eric Ries says startups usually fail because they waste months or years of time creating a product… only to find out nobody wants it!
His solution is to create a very basic version of your product idea as fast as possible, which is called a minimum viable product. Then you improve it quickly based on real world testing and user feedback. That book advises: “As you consider building your own minimum valuable product, let this simple rule suffice: remove any feature, process, or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek.”
You must first try to sell your product, before you really know if it’s any good. Quickly create a basic sales page, then send targeted visitors to it, spending no more than $1000 on advertising. If a lot of visitors make it to the checkout page, then your idea shows promise.
7. Aim for Excitement: Stay active with fulfilling projects and adventures
Finally, Tim Ferris shares some of his life philosophy. Despite his book’s promise of passive income, he says people feel best when they’re engaged with life and moving towards meaningful goals. And so excitement is probably the best aim we can have.
Some ways to achieve excitement include:
- Continual learning. People tend to feel alive when they feeling they are growing and life is expanding. So always be learning new things, whether it’s a new skill, a new hobby or a new language.
- Mini-retirements. This means taking 1-6 months off to do something you’ve always dreamed of, sort of like spacing your retirement over your entire life instead of waiting until the end when you’re old.
- A full time vocation. Work that you truly find fulfilling. Tim Ferris admits he often works much longer than 40 hours a week, but he’s working on projects that excite him.
- Charitable service. Everyone will find different ways of giving back to their community, whether that is through volunteering, organizing, etc.
Aim for excitement, to keep your life feeling fresh and vibrant. Despite the title of this book, Tim says being passive is a sure road to discontent. Excitement comes from always learning new things, having fulfilling work projects and giving back to others.
- List 3 small ways you can cut back on useless information consumption.
- In your work, where can you focus on the 20% of activities that lead to 80% of results?
- How could you test your most promising product idea in one day, even before you create it?