What “the 4-hour work week” can teach an idealist researcher


When I saw a colleague’s Tweet about a book called The 4-hour Work Week: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (by Tim Ferriss), I was puzzled. After all, the book title seems to advocate for values that idealist academics generally wouldn’t endorse: work little, make lots of money. I also felt some sense of moral superiority. This is a book written for those who want to make money and escape a boring life. What could the author possibly teach someone who is not here for the money (well, not only the money) and loves their job?

Here’s the Tweet I saw:

But knowledge may be found where you do not expect!

The tweet was by Inger Mewburn (@ThesisWhisperer), who I admire and had the pleasure to meet (virtually) a few years ago. Inger talked about the book in her podcast. I decided to take up the challenge and see what the (apparently) cynical and money-oriented businessman could teach to the (allegedly) idealist researcher who has rarely, if ever, done anything just for the money.

While being surprised to learn things that can actually be applied to my own job, which I detail below, I found the book disturbing for at least two reasons. First, in a Machiavellian fashion, it stretches the boundaries of fairness for the sake of the goal. For one thing, Ferriss explains how he won, in a very unconventional (and unfair, in my view) way, an international martial arts tournament. Second, the book encourages creating an income regardless of its social or ecological contribution to the society, and the world in general. Its message is “find something that generates money on autopilot, spend a few hours per week to keep it running, make money, enjoy life”. We are all selfish, we all seek self-realization, but I see this as the quintessence of parasitic lifestyle for the planet, already under great stress because of what we call civilization.

The 80/20 rule

However, this reluctant reader will need to concede that the book makes a few excellent, if contradictory, points. Ferriss’ main goal is to minimise working hours so that you can devote yourself to what you really like. For someone like me, who likes what he does, this sounds contradictory. My job is also a source of pleasure. Sometimes, I enjoy just writing a nice message to a colleague, find it pleasant simply writing for long hours or simply engage in an unstructured discussion that might lead to new project ideas. Thinking about it a bit more, however, I realise I do not love my job in toto. I love some of the tasks I perform while I despise others that I complete for the sake of the final outcome. Do I really enjoy filling out a reimbursement form 5 times because my administrator keeps on sending it back for clarification? Do I enjoy addressing nasty feedback from Reviewer #2? Or do I do it because I expect to like the final outcome? If so, can I minimise the time spent on time-consuming and demotivating tasks?

Theoretically, yes, if we consider Ferriss’ 80/20 rule. 20% of his customers, he said, consume 80% of his time (or 20% of customers might make up 80% of your income). #### Get rid of them and you’ll lose little money while gaining lots of time. So, where’s my personal 80/20? Any job involves dealing with highly time-consuming tasks that bring little reward or advantage. The challenge here is to identify these tasks and find a way to invest as little time as possible on them. If you find a way out of this trap, the time at your disposal will magically multiply.

To do this, Ferriss introduces the option of outsourcing. He managed to find a low-cost personal assistant in India who dealt with routine tasks. Concierge services also help in this respect but can these really be applied to a researcher’s routine that is made of a myriad of little tasks but all different? For one thing, when you are awarded a research grant, most of the negotiation process consists in copy and pasting parts of the application into a contract, adding small details here and there. You can certainly invest your time and train someone to do this next time but:

  1. it is unclear when this training will be used again since grant winning is an irregular event not depending on your choice and you might have to wait a few years before you win the next one;
  2. the next grant you win could be from a different funding scheme or a different donor and the process would be completely different.

In short, the risk is that this is not an investment but a waste of time. Yet, there might be some outsourceable tasks leading to a win-win situation. Trust people more, pay them, and they might surprise you with their effectiveness. That’s the message I took away.

How much money do you need?

Everyone needs money but not everyone needs to make a lot of money or to measure everything through how much you can make.  While being utterly materialistic, the book does offer some good ideas. First, a theoretical monetary target (I want to make X per month) makes little sense. It is better to think what you need money for apart from housing and food (holiday, bicycle, ikebana classes). Would you be able to get what you want at a lower rate or in exchange for something that is non-monetary? For instance, could you exchange (your) language classes for a reduced rate for yoga classes that seem too expensive? Can you find a small job or something you can offer as an “excuse” to visit that place you always wanted to? Inventiveness and information is sometimes more valuable than money itself and leads to the next question. What do you want to do in life if you have time and money?

In many respects, the book helped me to systematise some ideas and intuitions that I’d never taken time to reflect much about. Life is now, says Ferriss, if you wait for retirement to do the things you like, will you have the health and status to really do everything you’ve been dreaming about? Let alone the fact that you might not live that long. He then talks of “mini-retirements”, relatively short periods that you take to fulfill some of your life aspirations, be this learning tango in Buenos Aires or going trekking to the end of the world. I can’t apply the concept 100% and I am not sure I will ever will. For one thing, I love writing and writing is also my work. Why should I take a 2-month break from writing? But I definitely endorse the idea of doing things now rather than waiting, and to take breaks that allow you to do what you like to do.

The hard part is, however, what do I like to do? Are there any special tasks or missions that I want to fulfill now? If you live in the illusion that you love your job so much that there’s nothing you want to change, maybe you’re deceiving yourself. I am content with my life but the book hit the right spot. For a long time, I wanted to ask myself this question to find the things I would like to reduce, to make room for other things. The question arises then, what would I do if I had more time?

Everyone is a risk-taker

Some might say, “You choose, you lose”, implying that every decision entails taking some (minor or major) risk. In this respect, we’re all risk-takers but the greater the risk the deeper the risk assessment required to avoid a disaster. Considering a long trip to Europe, Ferriss asked a question “What could be the worst thing that could happen?”. Going bankrupt, could he live with that? In principle, yes, he could cut back on eating at restaurants, use savings to survive until he could get on his feet and perhaps recover from the shock. But he also reckoned that he had enough sense of initiative to find a job or an activity soon.

Ten years ago, when I realised my academic contract was coming to an end and I did not know what would be my next source of income, I started panicking. It’s worrisome to think I might have no immediate alternative available. But my experiences have taught me that with my initiative, I’ll have options before long. Something will just happen. After all, the day before you’re called for a job interview, you have no job prospect; one hour before you receive a funding award email, you have no funding. Life is unpredictable and change may happen all of sudden. Be prepared for a worst case scenario but I don’t obsess about it since, most likely, the worst won’t happen.

Cultivating selective ignorance helps productivity, the book claims. Can this be applied to a job like mine where knowledge is key? Well, I suppose not all you read is necessary or useful. I definitely can’t isolate myself from the world, especially given that I research current events. But you can protect yourself from hyper-information. Searching, processing, and digesting information has a cost and takes time from other tasks or from your sleep, which you need to remain focused. Creativity is key and I believe a diversity of influences is vital. Instead of the umpteenth article on the same topic, I might watch a movie, read a book, or go for a walk that allows me to take time to mull over ideas and questions (an essential and often overlooked research stage).

Since I escaped the war in Ukraine, my eyes are constantly on the news but what’s the added value of reading for the 15th time of an event? Spending too much time on social media and news, I could deceive myself into thinking that a scientist must read the news. True, but there is no need to open Twitter on my phone if I have to wait for the next bus. I could also read a book, learn a few new Japanese words or just get bored. We try to avoid boredom and idleness forgetting that they are the starting engine of creativity. Finally realising this, I deleted all social media from my phone.

Lessons for a slower future

I disagree with Ferriss’ approach that most problems take care of themselves. I want my collaborators to feel that I am a reliable and responsive person. However, I eventually realised that checking my email less often during the day (or even at a fixed time of the day) might increase my productivity while having no downsides. After all, I never received a message “respond within the next 5 minutes, it’s a matter of life and death”.

All in all, I agree that thinking outside the box has been a key asset in my life and my career, since my school years. It’s just a matter of how motivated you are to stretch the boundaries of the possible and the acceptable. I never considered the Maldives could be a place to go for a family holiday until I discovered, by chance, that what makes the Maldives expensive are the all-inclusive resorts. If you just book your flight and travel by public boat, you can easily find a hostel or guesthouse for as little as $20-30 USD. I don’t have the picture of myself with a cocktail from my bungalow with glass pavement but we visited three islands, met amazing people and I even made a connection with the local university for future collaborations.

I disagree with many things in the book, and I definitely do not want to follow advice on how to become rich by doing as little as possible. But the underlying way of thinking about opening the road to success is, in many respects, surprisingly similar across job tasks and ideologies. It is now a matter of defining your boundaries, moral standards, and getting to know yourself better, a thing that the book prompts you to do all across its reading.

Author Bio: Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser.