Jobs: How Many Hours Are You Willing to Work?

Click the image above for a photo gallery of odd jobs that pay $100,000.

With the unemployment rate stuck in the double digits and with roughly 15 million Americans out of work, job security has become one of our most pressing concerns. Given this poor economic climate, workers need to find a way to become entrepreneurial and tweak the structure of their professional lives now more than ever. So says entrepreneur and author Timothy Ferriss in the expanded and updated 2009 version of his 2007 book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.

In his book, Ferriss urges readers to check e-mail once a week, shun meetings, skip phone calls, and work remotely as much as possible. This ruthless management of one's schedule ultimately gives one time to travel and pursue hobbies, he says. When the book first came out in 2007, it became a bestseller, in part, because overworked Americans loved the idea of unplugging the treadmill of their jobs and finding a better balance between work and life. After the recession, things have clearly changed for the millions of Americans who are desperately looking for work of any kind. Ferriss recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Nancy Cook about his mantra of the shorter workweek and its place in the new economy. Excerpts:

COOK: Is the idea of a four-hour work week still relevant now that unemployment is at 10 percent?
The short answer is yes. Many people are still opting to use the same principles in the book to maintain their 40-hour workweek, or to reduce their hours from 80 hours a week to 40 hours a week while increasing output. Ultimately, it doesn't have to be complicated. The person who is able to reduce unpaid overtime will have a more dramatic lifestyle difference. Many of the questions that I asked [in the original edition of the book] are no longer hypothetical. How would your decisions change if retirement wasn't an option? If you look at many people, including many of my friends, their 401(k)s have dropped 30 to 40 percent. The timeline for what they were planning to do in retirement has shifted. That has a lot of people looking at Plan B options that they wouldn't have considered two years ago. The book is fundamentally about better results. For some people, that means removing financial constraints or becoming untethered from the office. For other people, that means becoming the most indispensable person in their company, which gives them the leverage to negotiate remote work arrangements. The costs of experimenting with the uncommon, when everything is perceived as failing, are fairly low.

Not to harp on this, but do you really advocate for people to work four hours a week when people are worried about losing their jobs?
I have nothing against hard work, as long as it's applied to the right things. For most people, that means doing basic things like time audits and seeing where you spend your time online and on the computer. It's not unlike calorie counting. People are poor judges of how much time they spend on various tools, and if you measure it, it can really result in some big changes.

A large section of your book maps out the way people can start their own businesses. How has your view of that shifted in this recession?
There are two things you can experiment with. The first is to create a semi- or fully automated source of income, enough to satisfy your target monthly income: the number that would allow you to have the experiences you want in retirement. With your financial constraints gone, you focus on what you want. The second approach is to do what you love. This can be hard. There's the consistent mistake or the illusion of the dream job. If you're surfing on Saturdays for three hours to decompress from a hard week, that's an enjoyable activity. It's different to wake up and give surf lessons from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then, it's no longer fun. It's no longer an outlet. One way to completely eliminate the passions you have is to push them into the category labeled as work. The book is not written for everyone. I don't think any book really can be. It's really designed for people who spend the majority of their time in front of a computer or on the telephone. For someone who has a kid and a mortgage, the approach will be different than an IT manager who is on call on instant messenger.

That brings up an interesting point. How would someone with a family or a home or a more settled life follow your plan? Is this book basically for young, single people?
Chuck Holton recently won the video case-study contest on my blog. He has kids, and not only has he completely removed his ties to the office, but he has also taught his kids how to build these automated businesses. He has two kids; one is 12 years old and one is 13 years old. One is making $300 a month, and one is making $500 a month. He demonstrates that having kids is not a good reason or excuse not to do certain things. No. 2, he's demonstrating that he's able to reduce hours, travel, and have the experiences with his family not because he is uniquely Chuck but because these are learned principles.

What do you think entrepreneurship, like the kind you promote in your book, will look like postrecession?
The principal change that I see coming is that the cost of creating a business is massively scalable. A company that you would have needed $500,000 to start, you can now start with $2,500 dollars. The tools for testing business models before you invest in them are such that you can predict sources of income with as little as Google Ad Words. The barriers to entry are the lowest they've ever been.

Do you think that will make corporate jobs less attractive to people?
I got a comment on the blog recently from someone who got fired from a well-paying, "secure" job. He said it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Now, he's snowboarding and skiing his way around the world. The basic assumptions of people's longterm plans are so unpredictable. I find it very positive that people are focusing on the here and now and that people are making better decisions.

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