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The Original Four Hour Workweek

The Four Hour Consensus

russell-400pxIn 2007, Tim Ferriss published a hit book that suggested “work,” in the traditional money-making sense of the term, could and should be reduced to as little as four hours per week — freeing time for more fulfilling pursuits.

Seventy-five years earlier, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, in an essay titled In Praise of Idleness, suggested this same number of working hours as a worthy goal, explaining…

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving…Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers…Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas…

Russell and Ferriss propose wildly different paths to this goal: while the former believed a radically reduced workweek requires socialism to realize, Ferriss argues that the productivity tools of the Internet Age suffice.

But both writers hit on a deeper idea that has remained as intriguing today as in the 1930s: the notion that industry (what we might now call “busyness”) is intrinsically virtuous is suspect. It’s worth instead working backwards from a more general confrontation with the question of what matters and deciding how best to act on the answers.

I don’t have a specific point of view here (I know Russell mainly from his work on mathematical philosophy), I just thought the coincidence was cool, and the ideas interesting…


On an unrelated note, my friends over at the exceptional 80,000 Hours organization have recently released a (free) career guide that is among one of the most thoughtful and grounded I’ve seen. If you read SO GOOD, you’ll probably appreciate their technical take on cultivating (not finding) passion.

21 thoughts on “The Original Four Hour Workweek”

  1. It’s the old idea that if you don’t look busy you can’t possibly be. I remember photographs of author Tony Hillerman “writing” – while lying slouched on his back with his eyes closed. Another memory – a grad student at Stanford who’d been in the Marines, always wore a coat and tie. I would see him standing somewhere between the bookstore and Tresidder Union; 30-40 minutes later I’d see him in the same spot – he hadn’t wandered more than a couple of yards. He did get very good grades.

  2. Cal, you, and your readers, might like the similar ideas (to Russell’s) expressed by John Maynard Keynes in “The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren.” It’s widely available, just Google it. Russell and Keynes were mutual admirers–though Russell confessed he understood very little about economics.

    Here is the problem:

    Although productivity (output/input) has increased markedly over the long term, it’s benefits don’t get widely distributed. And even when they do, our system, which treats consumption of ever more goods and services as the highest goal, doesn’t reward increased productivity with more time off. Instead, it get diverted to the latest consumer trinkets that we didn’t know we needed until advertising told us so.

  3. –“the notion that industry (what we might now call “busyness”) is intrinsically virtuous is suspect.” Suspect, yes. Our culture promotes conformity to busyness, and I think we sometimes use that to “appear” to be “somebody.”

    Busyness might also be a way to avoid feeling oneself in general. Or to avoid what Cal describes as deciding what’s important.

  4. Hi Cal – how does this apply to notorious workaholics like Elon Musk? Is the claim that he could be just as productive (if not more) by working less?

  5. Just playing the percentages – I do notice people who seem to be doing less always have more.

    Good to see this isn’t really a new phenomenon… and I guess nothing really is.

  6. The concept of the 4 hour work week, (or even 4 hour work DAY) sounds like the early selling points of mechanized Industry: The idea that productivity will be increased, while actual hours of work will decrease; Full-time pay for part-time work. That hasn’t happened. Instead we’ve got people putting in full-time hours, with the rest being unemployed.

  7. I’ve followed Tim Ferriss via the media for a number of years and read two of his three books. I read the Four-Hour Workweek several times because I was so intrigued by the concept. That said, I don’t believe for one minute that Ferriss truly believes in a Four-Hour workweek. (Nor do I think he works one.) It’s a marketing concept. It sells a lot of books. I’m guessing he works damn hard — likely MORE than a 40-hour week — although it is work he clearly enjoys. There is sizzle and there is steak. Ferriss is all about the sizzle.

  8. Cal,

    Your comment “the notion that industry (what we might now call “busyness”) is intrinsically virtuous is suspect.” is excellent.

    My observations from being in leadership for several decades is “busy people” are not necessarily productive — and sometimes they’re counter productive. They can create unessential activity for themselves and others.

    A couple of people have said this well:

    1) Peter Drucker on FDR’s advisor Harry Hopkins: Due to health reasons “he could only work a few hours every other day or so”. . . . “Churchill called him once, ‘Lord Heart of the Matter’ and [Hopkins] accomplished more than anyone else in wartime Washington.” (The Effective Executive)

    2) Eugene Peterson: “A busy person is a lazy person because they are not doing what they are supposed to do.” (Subversive Spirituality)

  9. Cal, I stuggle with 80000 hours; it seems to be a career guide for uber-competitive ivy leaguers. What about the rest of us?


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