4-Hour Workweek: The End of Time Management
I’m re-reading Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, a book that first caught my attention and imagination when I was in high school, over a decade ago. Now, I’m going through the book again at the age of 26– and trying to turn ideas into action. I’ve always been intrigued by the ideas in the 4-Hour Workweek. Here are my experiments with them, as I try to bring my dreams to life.
I’m now in the “E is for Elimination” section of the book, and specifically the chapter on “The End of Time Management.” The idea behind this chapter is that, by eliminating non-essential work, you can reclaim your time, while still maintaining 80% or more of the results you produce currently.
One of the core concepts in this chapter is Pareto’s Principle, also called the 80/20 rule. Pareto’s Principle states that, in many systems, 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. Applied to work and life, this means 20% of the effort we are spending likely results in 80% of the results we are producing. If we can identify what that key 20% of effort is, we can zero in on it, and eliminate anything else.
Tim provides a series of questions and thought exercises to help identify what work can be eliminated. I’ll go through the exercises for myself below.
My current job title is “Solutions Engineer.” What this means in real terms is that I help people implement software. Once they’ve purchased my company’s software, I help them implement it on their website, and get content live. I do this either by building the content myself, or training the customer how to do it.
Now, my job is a billable hours profession. Our customers buy service hours, and we log and bill the time we work on their project— building, training, technical setup, etc.
One of the things I produce at my job is a successful go-live or project. The other thing that I produce is billable hours, to help my organization stay profitable. You can immediately see how this conflicts with the 4-hour workweek. How do you make something efficient and automated if what you’re producing is your time spent?
For this exercise, I’m going to write out my answers as if my job wasn’t billable-hours based. At least I can discover some efficiency, or shave off some of my non-billable time. Hopefully, as I continue to come up with solutions, I’ll come up with ways to make myself more efficient at this job, or the next one.
1. If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do?
I would immediately eliminate all “we build” projects. If I had total freedom to implement these changes, I would ensure that in every project, the customer team built content. I would deliver trainings. I’ve built tons of web content and I think where I can offer the most value is not just to build content fast or well— it’s actually enabling people to take on the build themselves. I would help with strategy, structure, and technical details. With targeted training, I could easily give each customer 10x the results of building alone or using our self-service trainings. They would have go-lives with content still up to my company’s standards, they would still see value, and if we did it right, they would feel even more engaged with our product than they do now. And I could reasonably work 2 hours per day, and still deliver the same number of successful projects that I do today.
Now, if I couldn’t do that? I’ve built a lot of content at the year and a half I’ve spent at my company. I would start to create content templates in my own account that could be re-used for multiple customers. We already have a few of these at the level of my organization, but I would start building my own library, in my own account. In the world of digital guidance (my current field), these could be branches for navigation, common processes, common platforms, etc.
Honestly though, my company builds digital guidance on all kinds of websites. Each one— each project— is so different. I could build a piece of content to go on HRM site X, and HRM site Y could be completely different. Meaning, I’d have to build all of the content for site Y completely from scratch. But, what is a website most similar to? Itself. Sounds silly, but if I build a process on site X, that most often helps me build other processes on site X. Not anywhere else— the same dang site. We build anywhere from two to eight processes per customer project. What if I could take the first process I build out— build it with a great level of detail and thoroughness— and then re-use or re-purpose the content on the same site?
What do I spent a lot of repetitive time on when I build? In the vocabulary of my field, selecting elements on a site, adding start steps, and changing step triggers. Each of these elements of digital guidance is highly site-specific. I also spend a lot of time on appearance— highlighting things, making sure steps sit on the right layer of a page, making sure they ultimately look good on the site we are building on. So, what if the first process I built really nailed down each of these elements? That first process might take longer, but I could copy it over and fine-tune it for each subsequent process I built.
Now, if I only had the two hours per day, what would I eliminate? First to go would be internal meetings, like team standups and 1:1s. As much as I enjoy these, they take 2 1/2 hours per week, which is more than a day’s work in this new paradigm. Instead, I’d use the last couple of minutes of every call or build to inform all team members (including internal members) of what was completed, next steps, and where we are in project timeline. I would make my existing communication crystal-clear so I didn’t have to repeat myself later.
I’d also eliminate All Hands, HR/ culture meetings, organization-level meetings, and even the company happy hour. These take anywhere from one to four hours a week, so they simply wouldn’t work with my schedule. Instead, I could likely assume that if something was important enough, somebody would mention it to me and I could search for information in our knowledge base.
Going back to customer time— I could also eliminate the time I spend writing post-call recaps, if I started with a recap template for each type of call, and filled it out during the call itself. Instead of typing my notes into a doc during the call and re-formatting afterwards, I could type my notes directly into the template. All I’d have to do after the call is hit send. Now, for calls where we give the customer build resources? I often spend a ton of time digging for specific articles on how to use our software. What if, instead, my email templates for these kind of calls included links and explainer text for all of the articles? I could simply cut out any that aren’t relevant and hit send. Again this might not be feasible given the complexity of our projects… but then again, it might be.
2. If you had a second heart attack and had to work two hours per week, what would you do?
This goes back to training a customer vs. doing things for them. If I was limited to two hours per week, there’s not even a remote possibility of building on behalf of other people. All of my time would need to go into training, and in fact, project management.
At this point, the training would really need to center on self-sufficiency. I would again rely on templatized emails— sending each customer the right resources at the right time, and answering their questions with support articles, e-courses, etc. instead of typing a fresh answer every time. There wouldn’t be time for basic training calls— the customer would really have to learn on their own. I would be the point of escalation if they ran into issues.
Now, emailed-in questions can really blow up the amount of time it can take to help a customer. If you’re the point of escalation and support, and the customer emails you for every small obstacle instead of trying to solve it themselves, you’ll spend hours a week just fielding emails. This is already an issue we deal with at work, since we don’t want to burn all of a customer’s purchased hours fielding simple questions. We already have tools and strategies we use to combat this— what if I just expanded on those to reduce communication time?
Some customers need extra support and this is just their default way of communicating— they will email you three times in an hour even when you don’t respond. In fact, sometimes they will solve their own problems and tell you so in a separate message, before you even have a chance to check your Inbox and read the first message in the thread. My manager at my last job used to call these “popcorn question-askers” because the questions pop up so rapidly and one-after-another— like popcorn in a pan. These customers often need gentle reassurance in their own abilities. And, they need to know that you will be there if anything goes wrong— you’re not going to leave them all alone in a time-sensitive situation where they feel lost. I’ve found that what helps with these types of customers, and really all customers, is letting them know there is a dedicated space and time for their questions. There’s a place for them to ask, and be answered. And, I’ll take care of their concerns long before their issues turn into some huge headache.
If I were to focus on self-sufficiency, and link out to resources via email, I imagine a lot of my customers might feel lost, especially with the complexity of the product. They may also have constant questions. One way to combat this would be, for each “lesson” I send over to them, and each phase of the build, setting up clear objectives and outcomes up front. I could also send over resources / FAQ per each project stage. And finally, I could set up a time for them to send over questions— collect them up, and either email them over or ask on a call all at once.
At 2 hours per week, I would also only check my email twice a week – once on Monday, once on Thursday. This would allow me to batch reading time, and response time. I’d auto-archive unhelpful messages. My Salesforce digests would come once per week. I’d also let my customers and my internal team know I was only going to be taking requests via email, and that they could email me any time but would only be answered 2x/week. I would also only respond to specific, necessary requests. No syncs just for the sake of it.
3. If you had a gun to your head and had to stop doing 4/5 of different time-consuming activities, what would you do?
Here’s a list of what I would eliminate at work:
- All Hands meetings
- HR/ Culture meetings
- Organization meetings
- Team standup
- Manager & team lead 1:1s
- Internal syncs (or, keep these brief!)
- Most customer calls
- Writing email recaps
- Customizing PowerPoint decks
- Repetitive building (reduce by 80-90%)
- Commute (!!!!)
4. What are the top- three activities that I use to fill time to feel as though I’ve been productive?
- Meetings – Especially internal meetings and syncs, getting approval, making sure everyone is clear on a plan of action.
- Checking Email – Reading and sorting through a lot of junk. Writing things from scratch that could be templatized.
- Re-arranging my calendar – Calculating my work hours, deciding how to spend them, and re-jiggering and adjusting many times per day. Lots of pointless “checking”.
5. Who are the 20% of people who produce 80% if your enjoyment and propel you forward, and which 20% cause 80% of your depression, anger, and second-guessing?
- Best 20% – My immediate team. They’re like family and I am so happy to spend time with them. Always inspired by them and feel better after our conversations.
- Worst 20% – Working with other internal teams (Sales, AM) when something goes wrong, and info hasn’t been passed to us. Nothing against working with these people, but it’s unpleasant to slowly extract information that should have been part of a project handoff in the first place. I might be able to escalate these through my manager instead of going back-and-forth directly for info. I could also push back on projects with a list of needed items, instead of having a conversation about each one.
6. Learn to ask, “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied by my day?”
This is more practice than writing.
7. Put a Post-It on your computer screen or set an Outlook reminder to alert you at least three times daily with the question: Are you inventing things to do to avoid the important?
I’ll tape this to my computer.
8. Do not multitask.
Generally, I don’t multitask. It’s not something I enjoy. Except, I will pick up my phone at work dozens of times per day. Perhaps I should work in blocks where this doesn’t happen.
My Screen Time app says that I spend roughly 40 hours (!!!) per week on my phone. And I pick up my phone, on average, 160 times per day. Now, this second metric is something I can work on at work. Perhaps what I should aim for is bringing that number down— 150, 140 pickups per day?— over time. I already pick up my phone less on weekends than on weekdays.
9. Use Parkinson’s Law on a macro and micro level.
Macro – Tim’s suggestion is to take Monday & Friday off, and leave work at 4 PM.
Again, this is tough in a billable hours profession. However, there was a recent, extremely busy week when I experimented with the 4-10s schedule. I worked ~10 hours per day for four days of the week, and billed the ~24 hours I was aiming for. This left day 5 nearly empty for self-education.
On a macro level, I will probably try to bill all of my time Monday-Thursday, and leave Fridays open as easy days. What if I forced myself to do no mandated work whatsoever on Fridays? I can do optional training, I can read, I can spend time with coworkers, but I cannot work on customer or internal projects. I think I could reasonably hit this goal. I will also tighten up my working hours, and leave at 5 PM every single day.
Micro – Tim’s suggestion is to limit items on the daily to-do list and “use impossibly short deadlines to force immediate action while ignoring minutiae”
A challenge! This I can implement right away. What if I estimate time for each task – what I usually spend on it – then try to chop that time in half? This will be a new game of efficiency.
The Long-Term Vision
For now, I can optimize and create efficiency at my current job. I can limit my time there— and reclaim my time for myself. However, long-term, this job doesn’t lend itself to efficiency, independence, and freedom. No billable hours job truly does, unless you are self-employed. And so, eventually, I’ll need to leave this job. I could find a new corporate job, or more ideally, create my own “muses” that produce the equivalent of full-time income.