Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How Technology Enables The 4-Hour Workweek

The most fascinating business book I've read in years is "The 4-Hour Workweek" by Timothy Ferriss. I didn't exactly pick this book up. It jumped off the shelf into my hands at Target, of all places. I guess inspiration really is where you find it. How can you not crack open something like this to see what's inside with a title like that. Imagine, a four hour work week.

Yeah, I read it wrong at first too. I thought it was a four hour work day. Some people might see it as a four day work week. But neither of those is quite revolutionary enough. It really does say 4-hour workweek. That's 10% of what normal people work and perhaps just a pittance compared to the 24/7 commitment of many technology workers. Ironically, technology is the real enabler of this approach to personal independence.

It starts with how you see yourself. Timothy Ferriss sees himself as a vagabond. A vagabond is a traveler, someone who likes to roam and enjoys the excitement of new experiences. Timothy had that wanderlust to travel the world in search of new adventures. The only thing holding him back was that old bugaboo money. After all, it's hard to backpack Europe when you're expected to be grinding it out in the office. Sure, you can quit. But once you stop showing up for work that regular paycheck has a nasty way of vaporizing. And that spoils everything.

So how does a free spirit break the shackles of the corporate grind? Cleverly, very cleverly. His own story and the story of others among the NR or New Rich are based on how to engage technology to free themselves up to do what they would rather be doing.

First comes dumping the usual career assumptions. Instead of slaving the first half of your life to prepare for retirement during the second half, why not enjoy a series of mini-retirements as you go? In other words, instead of slaving for 40 years to build up enough equity so you can idle for the last 40 years, you might work for 5 years to build up enough savings and/or an income stream that allows you to shuck your job and just take off for the next five. In order to do that, you won't be focused on becoming a millionaire at some future date. Instead, you'll live like a millionaire for short bursts of time. The free spirited good life may only last for weeks, months or years at a time. But that time will be while you are young and energetic enough to pursue, say, a martial arts championship like Timothy Ferriss did. That gets tough to realize when you're an octogenarian.

Most of the examples of people who pulled off these escapes from the workaday world did so by creating businesses of their own based on selling a product or service. You can also make this work within the context of a salaried job if you can find a situation where you can be assigned to some exotic location on the company's dime. That's getting easier to do since so many companies are multi-national today. Opportunities to post to an overseas office, perhaps even on a project basis, come up from time to time. You need to be in the right position to volunteer when there's a window of opportunity.

Even if you don't have the wanderlust and simply want to stay put, but on your own terms, the principles remain the same. The key to doing this is to get the boss off your back. You've got to get out from under close supervision. That's often easiest to accomplish by becoming a teleworker. You need the type of job where this makes sense, and just about anything involving a computer does. Some companies encourage this. Others need convincing. But if you can get them to let you do it on a trial basis, just be sure to be more productive out of the office than you are normally and you'll likely get to continue.

The freedom that comes with controlling your own time gives you the flexibility to start pursuing your dreams. If you need to create an income stream from your own business, the trick is to get yourself out of the loop as fast as possible. Most people go the other way and become critical to every decision and every activity of the business. The colloquial term for that is "buying yourself a job." It's not a job you really want. It's the financial rewards of the business. The less you need to do to keep the plates spinning, the more time you'll have for your avocational pursuits.

This is where technology provides the leverage. Online businesses are easier to manage remotely than a bricks and mortar operation. Where Web sites are hosted physically is immaterial. You do your site building and maintenance with a broadband connection and a laptop computer. Ferriss didn't even bother to tote the laptop and software tools. Instead he logged into a remote access service, GoToMyPC, from cyber cafes in Europe. That gave him full access to his office computer but from a distance. In this case, a long distance.

How about telephone calls? The idea is to minimize those, but you'll still need occasional conversations with bosses, important customers, and anyone who's helping to run your business while you're away or handling customer service on a contract basis. Cell phones work best for people on the go. Unlocked GSM phones can be enabled to work on overseas networks by buying service there and swapping out your SIM card. You can handle stateside callers with a toll free number service that forwards calls to your mobile. Don't tell them you're actually lounging on the French Riveria unless you want to.

So, there you have it. You can elect to stick with the standard career progression that calls for long hours and dedicated face time to build up benefits for a life of independence decades downstream. Or you can opt for independence in bursts and perhaps enough success to shuck the bonds of employment permanently.

I think there is also some middle ground where you can keep a foot in both worlds by pursuing steady employment for a predictable income and benefits, but also be getting some income producing activity of your own going that can give you the confidence to walk out of an unsatisfying job or plan the adventure of your dreams.

Is any of this right for you? There's only one person who can answer that. But if you are at least intrigued by the possibilities, I highly recommend that you get a copy and read "The 4-Hour Workweek" by Timothy Ferriss.

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