February 16, 2008
Designated e-mail time. “Do Not Disturb” sticky notes on office doors. Polite ways to redirect a conversation. Saying goodbye to problem clients. Telecommuting.
A handful of local converts to “The 4-Hour Workweek” best-seller swear by these seemingly simple tools for getting a handle on runaway workdays. Bernard Sandoval is so taken with Timothy Ferriss’ book that he’s created a manual for employees at Sandia, the Colorado Springs advertising, marketing and design agency he owns. He’s also urged colleagues to read it and is offering to train business owners on the secrets of the techniques. “It’s incredible — it changes work life. Some are skeptical, but those who try it are liberated,” he said of the book, released in April by Crown Publishers. Three months after “The 4-Hour Workweek” was launched, it hit No. 1 on The New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller lists. It’s not hard to figure out why, Sandoval says: The lifestyle changes suggested in the book are effective in freeing up work time for more meaningful pursuits. Moreover, Sandoval and other local business owners who are following some of the book’s advice claim it’s helped them improve relationships with clients, increase business and streamline operations. Subtitled “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,” the book is based on Ferriss’ guest lectures at Princeton University. The basic premise is that by defining careers, identifying dreams, eliminating time wasters and automating certain tasks, anyone can become liberated from the daily office grind and do things such as spend more time with family or indulge in “mini retirements” — extended vacations or volunteer stints. Thus are born “the New Rich.” Just a few years ago, Ferriss said in an e-mail interview, he was an underpaid, overworked cubicle dweller stuck in the corporate rat race. Following his own advice, Ferriss now runs a sports-nutrition company from wireless locations around the world and carries under his 30-year-old belt a national championship in kickboxing and a world record in the tango. The changes at Sandoval’s office are evident. A few months ago, Sandoval said he would not have had time to sit down and talk about a book. Now, three months after restructuring his daily routine and asking his nine employees to buy into the same process, piles of files and papers have disappeared from Sandoval’s desk because the work is done. His four computers, along with his BlackBerry, no longer demand immediate attention. He trusts employees to do their jobs without constant monitoring. “My stress level has gone down tremendously,” Sandoval says with a smile. But breaking out of the “work harder” mentality shunned in the book isn’t easy. “It’s conventionally accepted that all successful businesspeople work long days,” said Bob Shinn, owner of Dublin-Blue, a local Web site-development company with five employees. So naturally, he thought the book’s title was “a ridiculous premise.” Davin Neubacher, owner of Navakai, a local company with 12 employees that supplies technology support to small and medium-size businesses, had the same thought. “At first, it comes across as another one of those self-help books,” Neubacher said. “I felt so guilty about my co-workers seeing the book on my desk I took the cover off. I didn’t want them to think I was lazy, trying to create a bunch of shortcuts so I didn’t have to work. But it’s not about being lazy — it’s about being more efficient.” The book isn’t for everyone, Sandoval said. Just those who “are willing to admit that their work life is out of control — they’re working too many hours and have too much stress, too many distractions and can’t spend the quality time they want on their work.” Limiting interruptions, micromanagement Sandoval, Shinn and Neubacher pulled tools from the book that they thought would best improve their companies. For Sandoval, that meant addressing interruptions, some 90 a day, just internally. “Literally every five minutes someone was coming in my office,” Sandoval said. “It’s like a badge of honor to be so busy. But I wasn’t getting anything done and was struggling with work until 9 at night and on Saturdays.” The solution? He’s no longer the point person on every decision. “Some of the interruptions don’t happen because I’ve removed myself from the critical path of being a crutch. Self-important people feel they need to be a part of every decision. I don’t do that anymore — I’m here for critical questions, which is two out of 20 times, not 19 out of 20 times,” Sandoval said. Shinn also has embraced the idea of trusting employees to do their jobs, without needing his approval. “Employees are empowered to work autonomously and resolve most problems that used to require my attention,” he said. Stopping information abuse Instead of checking e-mails 35 times a day, Sandoval checks three to five times a day, at designated times. He and his employees alert co-workers to not disturb them when they need time to concentrate on an assignment with sticky note signs on their offices and muted phones. Workers also do not copy e-mails to everyone in the office, and do not send spam or personal e-mails. Web surfing during business hours and personal phone calls have been eliminated. Such tweaks in technology use, Sandoval said, have boosted productivity, leading to a 30 percent increase in clients since he began using the techniques last October. “It frees us up to spend more time with clients, instead of running in 10 different directions,” he said. “I was afraid to grow before because getting more business meant I’d have to hire more people. Now, I can expand because the employees I have work more efficiently.” Neubacher also checks his e-mails periodically, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. “There’s an immediate positive return on the investment — we started talking more to staff and clients, like humans used to do. That improved client and inner-office relations,” he said. “Before, it was getting ridiculous. I would e-mail a manager who literally was sitting in the office next to me.” Dealing with futility Neubacher is incorporating what the book calls “the 80/20 rule,” which asserts that 80 percent of a company’s business comes from 20 percent of its clients and that high-maintenance clients who don’t yield much revenue should be eliminated. “We’re going through the process of firing clients, for the first time in our history, which makes me feel a little nervous and guilty,” Neubacher said. “But even though they were paying us every month, there was a high cost. So we’re schlepping off clients that aren’t a good fit for our company.” Eliminating time wasters Neubacher also learned how to deal with long-winded clients who steal precious time, using strategies in the book that suggest polite ways of keeping a conversation moving along. For example, he doesn’t encourage people to chitchat and gets to the point immediately. If they run on, he says, “Sorry to interrupt, but I have a call in five minutes. What can I do to help out?” And weekly staff meetings are a thing of the past. “We added up what it cost us to have weekly meetings, roughly $50,000 a year in salaries, so we combined them into twice a month. We also have an agenda, and we get more done,” Neubacher said. “We’re working smarter versus harder.” DublinBlue’s Shinn has had similar success. “We’ve removed many of the normally accepted distractions that detract from productivity,” he said. “It’s not so easy to just pop your head into someone’s office for a ‘quick’ question. You start to see the true cost of those little interruptions, and you modify your approach. Our efficiency has increased, so we have been able to take on more work without adding employees.” Working remotely And Shinn is taking one of the more radical approaches in the book — “virtualizing” the company. Three months ago Shinn elected not to renew his office lease. “All of us are now working from our home offices,” he said. “Morale has never been higher.” The upshot Business owners say employees are reluctant to adopt the time-saving tips but are sold once they see the results. “We tried baby steps — the first thing we did was e-mail batching for a week. Then we got feedback,” Neubacher said. Sandoval said one of his graphic artists was going on vacation last fall and stressed out by how much work she had to do before she left. He was fretting over whether to hire a freelancer to fill in but first asked her to eliminate interruptions and practice time management, using the methods from the book. “She was very skeptical but implemented the process, and after four hours, I was blown away. I knew it worked and decided to expose the entire company to it,” he said. Sandia’s office now is less chaotic, said Kimberly Blank, administrative assistant. “I think we felt really busy before, and we were running around, but actually, we weren’t as structured,” she said, adding that the system has given her more time to focus on research and has taught her how to prioritize work. Despite the book’s title, the workweek for Sandoval, Neubacher and Shinn hasn’t been reduced to four hours. Nor have they bought in to all of Ferriss’ ideas, such as traveling the world or hiring “virtual assistants” to do research, filter e-mails and communicate with clients. But Sandoval has shaved 10 to 15 hours of work off his week and says he now has time to spend “working on my business, not in it, which means you do all of the things you’re supposed to do as an owner.” Neubacher said his extra time is devoted to business planning; Shinn has been improving business processes and crafting a new version of software. Sandoval also has more time for his family and has taken up oil painting. As Ferriss says: “Just eliminating unpaid overtime on the evenings and weekends is the first step, then removing perhaps 10 to 20 hours or one day of office work per week. How much would you pay for threeday weekends for the rest of your life? It’s possible with a few small experiments and tests that have huge effects.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0235 or email@example.com