In 2001, a recent Princeton graduate named Timothy Ferriss started a little company that sold vitamins on the Internet. Things went well, but instead of trying to expand, Ferriss decided to work less, not more. He traveled incessantly and limited himself to just an hour of e-mail a week. He competed in the Tango World Championships in Argentina, he learned break dancing in Berlin, and he tackled juijitsu in Rio de Janeiro. Amazingly, his company did better than ever, which gave Ferriss the idea for a book proposal. Since it's publication in 2007, The 4-Hour Workweek has become a bestseller and a cult favorite among entrepreneurs, a group not known for their relaxation skills. In the spirit of our January/February cover story--about online dating pioneer Markus Frind, who works just 10 hours a week--Inc.'s Max Chafkin asked Ferriss to tell us the secret of making money while playing hard.
Your book is called The 4-Hour Workweek. What do you mean when you say "work"?
Work is an activity that is financially-driven or one that you'd like to do less of. But it's important not to take the title literally. The objective of the book is to help people regain control of time.
Your book has been praised by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and venture capitalist Tim Draper. Why do you think it's resonated well with hard chargers?
I think they like the idea of eliminating the non-essentials and reestablishing barriers. Many successful people, despite having made hundreds of millions of dollars, are still driven by guilt.
Yes, guilt that you're not working hard enough. Guilt that you're being lazy. Guilt that you're not paying your dues. I'm all for hard work when it's applied to the right things. But only when it's applied to the right things.
So how do you get over your guilt?
You need to emotionally condition yourself to the point where you're comfortable declining almost everything. That can involve media fasts or silence retreats, where you don't talk for 24-to-48 hours.
Of all the people you've encountered since writing the book, who is best at managing his or her time?
Matt Mullenweg of Wordpress. He is very good at reducing situations that most people would perceive as complex to a single important action or question. He's also a happy guy, which is important. I'm not impressed by ruthless productivity without emotional awareness. Another example is Marc Andreessen. He smiles a lot and he's very good at saying no. He does it tactfully, concisely, and definitively.
What can an overworked entrepreneur do right now in order to work less?
Do an 80/20 analysis. Identify the 20 percent of activities and clients that produce 80 percent of your revenue, and then the 20 percent of activities and clients that consume 80 percent of your time. Then, set a reminder to pop up on your computer 3 times per day that asks, "Am I being productive or am I just being busy?" Another good activity is to take a piece of paper and list the worst things that could possibly happen. Then list the actions you can take to prevent those things from happening. And then list the ways you can minimize the damage. It's very empowering to define your worst-case scenario. Entrepreneurs often find themselves paralyzed because of ambiguous fear.
Your book seems to me to be very much a product of boom times. Is it possible to have a good work/life balance in this economy?
To quote one of my favorite producers, Warren Buffett, "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful." A recession is very bad for publicly traded companies, but it's the best time for startups. When you have massive layoffs, there's more competition for available jobs, which means that an entrepreneur can hire freelancers at a lower cost. And as larger companies cut budgets for services like printing, fulfillment, and advertising, you'll find that service providers cut prices by 30 percent or more. All the infrastructure you need as an entrepreneur is currently available at fire-sale prices.
You seem to bring a pretty rigorous work ethic to your relaxation. Can not working become its own tyranny?
Certainly. If retirement means laying on a beach and rubbing coco butter on your stomach, about 48 hours of that will be enough for most people. You'll want something new.
Why not just start a bar or a surfing school?
Converting your own passions into a job is the fastest method for eliminating any passion you once had. Let's say you surf two or three hours every Saturday morning to decompress and it's the highlight of your week. Now you decide you want to do that fulltime. You'll find very quickly that once surfing is placed under the heading of "job," you'll no longer want to surf.