Asymmetries, Batching, and Constraints

Productivity Lessons from the Four Hour Workweek

The Human Guinea Pig

If you have ever had any interest in entrepreneurship, lifestyle design, self-education, alternative health ideas, or elite success, I am sure you’ve stumbled upon the work of Tim Ferriss. For many, Tim Ferriss’ life represents the epitome of achievement, adventure, and fulfillment. Known as ‘the human guinea pig’, Tim Ferriss is a notorious self-experimenter in all facets of modern life ranging from medical treatment, meditation, travel, language learning, exercise, business, and of course, productivity.

Reach new levels of results!

The Four Hour Workweek, the handbook for lifestyle design, is an ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE. Challenge all basic assumptions you hold about what is possible, and learn rules and techniques to enable a lifestyle with abundance in time and options. For the purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on the lessons I extracted for becoming my most productive self: the 80/20 Principle, Parkinson’s Law, the Distinction between Busyness and Productivity, and Batching. Through counter-intuitive questions, positive constraints, and acute self-awareness, you can substantially increase the effectiveness of your work and reach new levels of output.

Before we get started, it is important to note the substantial difference between efficiency and effectiveness. From the book, “effectiveness is doing the things that get you closer to your goals. Efficiency is performing a given task (whether important or not) in the most economical manner possible.” Efficiency can be helpful in becoming more effective, but efficiency is not the end goal.

Productivity is a measure of your effectiveness.

Being able to process 20 emails in a minute is efficient, but if it doesn’t bring you closer to achieving your important goals, it is not an effective use of your time and is very unproductive. Thus, the goal is to be effective, not efficient. Let’s dive into how.

The 80/20 rule is a wildly popular concept in the toolkit of all productive individuals. At its core, the 80/20 principle is about capitalizing on asymmetries between inputs and outputs. In many circumstances, a very small subset of the inputs are responsible for a disproportionately large share of the outputs. A commonly cited example comes from growing pea pods. It has been observed that in many circumstances, 80% of the germinated pea plants sprout from only 20% of the seeds. In communities, it is common for 80% of the wealth to be held by 20% of the population. In terms of productivity, 80% of an individuals positive results can be traced to only 20% of their efforts. This means that the great majority of people’s time and effort (80%) are spent on activities yielding only a small fraction of their overall output.

What does this mean for you?

Whether in your work, relationships, or business, applying the 80/20 rule is brutally simple and can have profound effects. Consider which activities or projects are yielding the greatest harvest and do more of them! Are only 20% of your customers responsible for 80% of your business? Focus your time on the relationships with them or on finding more customers similar to them, and stop wasting time on the 80% of your customers that only bring in 20% of your orders. What activities bring you the greatest joy? Do them more frequently! What projects or assignments earn you the most credibility? Focus primarily on them and less on low impact tasks like instant messaging, meeting, social media, or maintaining a fast response time to email.

Conversely, consider problem areas in your life. What 20% of people cause 80% of your stress and frustration? Focus on alleviating those circumstances! I encourage you to evaluate a few core areas of your life (think health, wealth, relationships) and identify what 20% areas are bringing you the most success, which 80% are the least consequential and which 20% are causing the most problems. All that is left is to focus on doing more of the 20% beneficial activities, eliminating or delegating the inconsequential 80%, and exerting real effort to address the most problematic 20%. What will the 80/20 rule do for you?

A task will swell in relation to the time allotted for its completion

Arguably as powerful as the 80/20 rule, Parkinson’s Law is another simple to grasp mental model that can easily triple your effectiveness. According to Ferriss, “Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.” Consider a few simple examples, if you are given a week to complete a project, you will usually take all week to complete it. If given a month for the same project, you’ll likely still be working on until day 30. Ever notice how when you have an upcoming vacation or need to leave early that you manage to find a way to get everything done? The intentional application of Parkinson’s Law allows you to access that same “up against a deadline” intensity with consistency and regularity.

Techniques for implementing Parkinson’s Law include reducing the hours in your workday without changing your workload, setting specific time limits for tasks such as a maximum of 20 minutes to clear your inbox, or setting ambitious deadlines for finishing long term assignments. When setting these deadlines, it is crucial to inform somebody of the new deadline so you are held accountable.

Equipped with knowledge Parkinson’s Law, you can quickly develop a reputation for finishing projects ahead of deadlines and with substantially reduced stress and resistance.

Busyness is NOT the same as productivity

This third tip requires letting go of a destructive belief in our fast-paced society. Reserve your judgement and bare with me.

Being busy is not being productive. I want you to say that out loud. Write it down on a piece of paper or type it on a sticky note on your desktop. Being busy is not being productive. Being busy is not being productive. Being busy is NOT being productive.

Busyness is doing a large of quantity of activities with no regard to their importance or impact. Answering unimportant emails, calling unproductive clients, going to meetings you don’t contribute to or learn from, and reading semi-relevant articles about your industry during working hours are all examples of action-faking. You convince yourself that what you are doing is important and then use that to justify putting off the projects you know need to get done. Being busy is not being productive. Regardless of how long it took, or how efficiently you did it, getting ‘a lot done’ means nothing if nearly all of it was nonessential.

Productivity, on the other hand, is being effective with your limited time and attention and getting the important things done in an efficient manner. If it only took you two hours to get all the essential tasks done in your work day, you were far more productive than if you took eight hours to juggle emails and sort paperwork you never look at. You don’t get paid to find new ways to twiddle your thumbs 40 hours a week, you get paid for your output. Busyness is a form of laziness caused by a lack of prioritization and self-discipline. Tim Ferriss recommends setting a recurring reminder multiple times a day to ask yourself a few questions to help monitor yourself along these lines. A few times each workday ask “Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important,” and “Am I being busy, or am I being productive.” Answer these questions honestly, take yourself seriously or nobody else will. Stop action-faking and stop being ‘busy’.

How long does it take you to get started?

The final tip takes advantage of eliminating two costs associated with getting any work done: switching costs and startup costs. Just as athletes require time to get their heart rate going and their muscles loose, it takes time to warm-up to being able to perform at your peak creative potential. The amount of energy and willpower it takes you to get off the couch, put away your phone, go to your desk, close distracting tabs, organize your work space, go to the bathroom, and gather necessary work materials is substantial. If you are constantly stopping and starting work, you are wasting massive amounts of time and energy on start up costs. Thus, it would be wise to try to get all of your work done in a few hyper-productive sessions rather than constantly stopping, taking breaks, and then using every ounce of your being to will yourself back to do the important work that needs to be done.

Likewise, switching between tasks carries a similar cost. Every time you switch from performing one type of work to another, you eat at your limited attention and brainpower for the day. This can happen on a micro scale when you switch from writing to answer interrupting IM’s and trying (successfully) to go back to where you were in your sentence. These ‘tiny’ interruptions in focus noticeably slow you down and cause death by 1000 paper-cuts. This also occurs on a larger scale as you switch from one type of work such as a computational task to a more creative task like designing a presentation. How do you minimize these subtle, menacing drains to your effectiveness?


Batching is waiting to do specific work tasks and letting them accumulate until a predefined point. Batching is your silver bullet against these two sneaky energy drains. The best part about batching is that you already know how to do it; you just haven’t thought to apply it to other areas of your life. You don’t do laundry every time you get one shirt dirty, nor do you go to the grocery store every time you need one item. Instead, you wait until a sufficient quantity of work accumulates to justify the transaction costs of going to the store or doing laundry. No matter how much you have to buy, it takes the same amount of time to go to the store and the same amount of time to wait in the checkout line. It takes the same amount of time for the machine to wash one sock as it does a full load.

Applied to your working and creative life, batching can create a meaningful surplus of time in your schedule. Is it important to check email five times daily, or is it a better use of your time and attention to let your messages accumulate and only check twice per day at set intervals? Should you answer every text as it comes in, or should you only check your phone and reply to all important communications on an infrequent basis and then get it all done with at once? It is important to note that the gaps between your batched tasks will vary massively depending on your autonomy at work and the level of availability expected of you. Regardless, batching will create boundaries for performing unimpeded work with the remarkable power of complete attention.

Don’t limit batching to your work life either! Consider practices such as meal prepping, batching all your cooking for the week into one uninterrupted stretch of non stop food preparation and storage. Insistent on using social media, but concerned about how much time you spend on it? Batch your use into one guilt free binge (say 30–60 minutes once to twice weekly) and then happily ignore your feed and live your life outside of the binge. The options for batching and its potential implications are limitless!

What now?

At this point you should have a solid list of ideas for tweaking your productivity across multiple domains of your life. Pull out a piece of paper and write them down! Take them out of your head. The mind is for having ideas, not holding them! Start implementing them today and make plans for how you will integrate these ideas into your life over the next couple of days. Set reminders to try these new ideas. Mark them on your calendar. Make it a habit to ask yourself throughout the day which activities are making an impact. Constantly be analyzing the effectiveness of your strategies and processes for handling common tasks!

These tips are easy to understand but easy to forget if you don’t set a clear intention and strategy for reinforcing them. Take the next few minutes to summarize your key takeaways from this article and write one to three ideas for an improvement you could make for each of the four major tips presented here. With the right level of intention, self-reflection, and planning, massive productivity improvements are in your near future. With the consistent application of these tips, you can accomplish what used to take 40 hours in as little as 4.

Don’t believe me?

Read about countless case studies and fully embrace the mindset by reading the Four Hour Workweek. I can’t overstate the dividends reading this book will pay.

Published on Apr 08, 2020

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