How to work fewer hours, get more done, and travel the world

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. But Timothy Ferriss’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich did just that.

Describing the book is difficult, since it combines business, self-development, online marketing, and productivity into one compelling package. So I took a few bullet points from Ferris’s own web site to give you a sense of what it’s all about. Some of the things you’ll learn from his book:

  • How to outsource your life and do whatever you want for a year, only to return to a bank account 50% larger than before you left
  • How blue-chip escape artists travel the world without quitting their jobs
  • How to trade a long-haul career for short work bursts and frequent “mini-retirements”
  • How to cultivate selective ignorance—and create time—with a low-information diet
  • The crucial difference between absolute and relative income

And here’s a brief interview I did with Ferriss:

One big eye-opener for me was the idea that our traditional ideas about productivity are all wrong. Instead of cramming more work into the same amount of time, we should be paring down our work to only those essential activities that actually generate the most value or revenue. Everything else should either be eliminated or outsourced. Can you explain what Pareto’s Law and Parkinson’s law are, and how they affect our working lives?

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for it’s completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution. and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. In a nutshell, productivity can be accomplished by applying these two rules:

1) Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time
2) Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (which is Parkinson’s Law)

We often spend an entire 9-5 day jumping from one interruption to the next, feeling run by our business, instead of the other way around, and when the clock strikes 5, we wonder what we accomplished. The best solution is to apply both solutions above, together. Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to income and schedule them with ‘very’ short and clear deadlines.

Another one of the most compelling concepts in your book is that retirement is the wrong goal. The way most of our lives are structured is about working as much as you can and accumulating as much money as you can while you’re young, in order to retire and live a life of leisure. But as you so rightly point out, none of us really know what we want to do with that free time at the end of the rainbow. What approach do you recommend instead of this traditional focus on retirement?

True Freedom is much more than having enough income and time to do what you want. One cannot be free from the stresses of a speed-and-size obsessed culture until you are free from the materialistic addictions that created the impulses in the first place. As I mention in the book; a close friend and college roommate of mine soon graduates from a top business school and will return to investment banking. He hates coming home from the office at midnight, and he explained to me that if he puts in 80 hour work weeks for nine years; he could become managing director and make $3-10 million per yer. So I asked him:

“Dude, what on earth would you do with $3-10 million per year?”

His answer? “I would take a long trip to Thailand”.

I began to think; ‘let me get this straight, so that I understand it logically’. You are going to work your butt off in 80 hour work weeks for over nine years, to fulfill this dream you once had about travelling to Thailand. I then asked myself, why do we put life on the back burner.? If life exists to be enjoyed - why do we prolong our enjoyment?

You can find more Race in the Workplace interviews in our archives.


  1. Wally Bock wrote:

    It’s a great book and you’ve picked out two key concepts: paring down to the essentials and not planning for retirement in the traditional sense. The one thing that bothered me about the book was the refrain that hard work should be avoided. All the very successful people I know have loved their work and loved working hard. I think the more important questions are not about how hard you work but how you work hard and what you work hard at.

  2. Erica wrote:

    I haven’t read the book, but I did finally get around to listening to the SXSW podcast. I’m ambivalent about this whole thing.

    On the one hand, I completely understand the philosophy. Plenty of people would love to live their lives this way.

    On the other hand, the outsourcing thing bothers me. Somewhere down the line, somebody is working more than four hours a week. So the point here is to be the one smart enough to find other people dumb enough to do it all for you? It sounds like the way to come out on top is to position yourself as the ultimate puppetmaster.

    The points about focusing your time and energy are great, though. Tricky part is you have to be the boss to really implement it well. Corporate America is still paying my bills, so it would take some serious paradigm-shifting for me to make these kinds of changes here.

    (Which begs the question why am I still working in Corporate America? The answer being because they’re paying my bills, and there are a lot of bills. I’m a sucker for security, I guess. Ask me again in a year.)

  3. Carmen Van Kerckhove wrote:

    That’s an interesting point, Erica, I hadn’t thought of it in that way. But then again, isn’t that the case with all outsourcing? Whether it’s dropping your child off at a daycare center or having your laundry done for you - someone has to do it along the way. It’s up to you what mix of money and/or time you want to spend on tasks that need to be done.

    Ferriss actually discusses how to implement this stuff if you have a corporate job. Basically, the goal should be to create a remote work arrangement, bit by bit. First you start by suggesting an experiment - just working from home one day a week, and take it up from there. Of course this isn’t feasible for every job, but for a lot of people I think it can be done if they want it enough.

    I think the big eye-opener for me was more the big-picture philosophical stuff. Like, if you had all the time and money in the world, what would you really want to do or accomplish? It’ s really challenging to come up with that. I mean for me, New Demographic is my passion already. But there are still a ton of other things I’d like to do that I just can’t right now because of the way my life is set up.

    I also love the idea of being a nomad. Like, living in NYC for 2 months and then spending a whole month in Buenos Aires, but still getting the work you need to get done, done.

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