The Virtuous Life: Industry

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 6, 2008 · 24 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues.

Photo by Lewis Hine

Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.

If you spend any time on the web, you probably have heard of Tim Ferris‘ book “The Four Hour Work Week.” In the book, Mr. Ferris sets out to show people how they can spend far less time working and thus have the freedom to design the lifestyle of their dreams.

Basically, what this entails is outsourcing as many menial tasks as you can to some person in India so you can have time to travel the world pursuing your passion. While I think Mr. Ferris makes some good points about being more effective during your time at work, his premise that people should seek to avoid work completely through lifestyle design never sat well with me. Here are five of my beefs with “The Four Hour Work Week:”

1. How can leisure have any meaning in the absence of work? Oftentimes I crave a break from work, and when it finally comes, the first week of relaxation is fantastic. The second week is also enjoyable, but after that it gets a bit old and boring; I start to feel antsy and once more want to be engaged in doing something useful. By being industrious, when you actually get a break, it feels fantastic. You can’t have the sweet without the bitter.

2. Who will do the work when everyone wants to live the “Four Hour Work Week?” The idea of avoiding work just isn’t tenable. Sure, right now it’s possible to outsource work to some worker in India, but what happens when that guy in India wants to outsource his work so he can “lifestyle design?” Perhaps he will outsource his work to someone in Vietnam. But what happens when that person in Vietnam reaches a level of prosperity that allows him to live the dream? And meanwhile here at home, who will be our teachers, doctors, and lawyers? Who will fly the plane when we want to go gallivanting around the world? Oh yes, those poor souls who never bought the book.

The whole idea of shifting all your work to someone else is elitist and undemocratic. The implication is that the only people who will work are those who are not clever enough to have escaped from it. Why is work beneath you, but okay for other people?

3. Hard, and sometimes unpleasant work refines your character. If you outsource every unpleasant job to someone else, how will you develop the virtues of persistence, endurance, and self-discipline? Every arduous task that you complete strengthens your ability to deal with hardships in the future. If someone close to you dies, you won’t be able to outsource your grieving, and if you become sick, you can’t outsource the will to get better. If you have spent your life avoiding hard work, will you have the mental and emotional strength to deal with a crisis you can’t pawn off on someone else?

4. Work encourages personal responsibility. When you choose to do things yourself, you take ownership of the task at hand and thus the results of that effort. If you outsource your work to someone else, you may avoid having to take the blame if something goes wrong, but you also rob yourself of the joy and pride of success when things go well.

5. “The Four Hour Work Week” sets a bad example for your children. What does it teach your kids if they see that every time dad has an unpleasant job to do, he makes someone else do it? Outsourcing your work sends the message to them that every time you are faced with an arduous task, you should give up and let someone else do it for you. If you’re running for class president, why bother coming up with a campaign and making posters? You can just get someone else to do it. Being harassed by a bully? Don’t face him down….just hire someone to kick his ass for you.

The Case for Industriousness

Develops self-respect. Putting in an honest days work lets you look at yourself in the mirror without feeling ashamed. Think back to the last time you wasted an entire day playing video games. Sure, it was fun while you were kicking ass at Halo, but when you finally turned off the machine at 4 AM, how did you feel? If you’re like me, you probably felt like a useless bum. You realize that you spent an entire day doing something that didn’t contribute to making you or the world around you better. You have certain gifts and talents that should be shared with others. But when you waste the gift of time, you show that you are content to dwell in selfish mediocrity. Fulfill your true potential and make every hour of your existence count.

Do not live useless and die contemptible. ~ John Witherspoon

Fights Depression. Idleness may not be the devil’s playground, but it is quite possibly depression’s romper room. Have you ever known a man who was unemployed for a long period of time? Chances are he sank into a depressed funk. Men are wired to want to feel useful, to make and provide things for others. Deprived of work, men often feel lost because it robs of them of a sense of identity and purpose. Work provides a reason to get up each day and a sense of accomplishment.

The last time I went camping, I took a hike along a beautiful stream. I noticed that the parts of the stream where the water moved the fastest ran pure and clean. The parts of the stream where the current slowed and stalled were stagnant and cloudy. It is the same with life; to keep ourselves happy and motivated, we must always keep moving. Otherwise we will languish and become depressed.

More time for family and civic engagement. I have a friend at law school who has three kids. He’s always working and makes use of every minute he’s at school. I asked him once how he does it and he told me, “Every minute I waste here at school is one minute less that I’ll have time to spend with my kids when I get home.” By getting his work done at school, my friend is able to focus himself completely on his family when he gets home.

In addition to having more time for family, by being industrious you’ll have time to devote to your community. Developing the virtue of industriousness not only frees more time for civic involvement, but it also helps develop the work ethic needed to contribute to the public welfare. Community projects don’t get done by a bunch of lazy bums. It requires people who are proactive and on the move.

How to be Industrious

Plan. Before you go to bed, sit down and plan the next day. One reason people flounder around and waste time during the day is because they don’t know what they should be doing. You can avoid this by scheduling your day out. Find a system that works for you. Some people like to schedule every minute of the day, while others just like to have a list of tasks that need to be completed. Some people like online or digital planners, while others like paper based planning systems. Personally, I use a paper based planner that I designed myself using Excel. I like to plan exactly what I’ll be doing at each hour of the day. It helps keep me focused and on task.

It’s amazing how much you can get done if you’re always doing. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Eliminate distractions. While I don’t agree with Tim Ferris’s call to outsource every unpleasant chore in your life, I do like his suggestions on eliminating needless distractions. One suggestion of his that I like in particular is batching your email. Instead of incessantly checking your email hundreds of times throughout the day, pick two times during the day to check and respond to email.

If surfing the web is a major time sucker for you, turn off your Wi-Fi or disconnect your Ethernet cable while you’re working. If you have Firefox, you can block certain websites for a set period of time with Leech Block.

Have a worthy goal. You will always naturally spend your time focused on what your goals are at the time. Think about it. Why do some men spend hours a day playing video games? Their goal is to either beat the game or beat other players. They play nonstop until they accomplish their goal.

Imagine if these men had more lofty goals. Instead of wasting their time trying rack up more kills on a video game, they could be out improving their fitness through exercise or learning a new skill that will help advance their career.

Set worthy goals for yourself. A worthy goal is one that will make you or the world around you better. After you have written your goals down, carry them with you at all times. I have a section on my daily planning pages where I write down my goals each day. You don’t need a planner to do this. Just write your goals down on a 3×5 index card.

Every time you make a decision on how you’re going to spend your time, stop and ask yourself, “Will this action bring me closer to my goal?” If not, don’t do it. This will take some work and discipline in the beginning, but after a while it will become natural. Instead of wasting your precious time in frivolous pursuits, you’ll be focused on the things that will make you more productive and industrious.

Implement the 48/12 rule. Being industrious is good, but if you’re a human being, you’re going to need breaks to avoid a mental breakdown. One way to ensure that you get the breaks your mind and body needs is to implement the 48/12 rule in your life. Under the 48/12 rule, you work nonstop for 48 minutes. All your focus is on the task at hand for those 48 minutes. When the 48 minutes is up, take a break for 12. Surf the web or get up and go for quick stroll outside. As soon as the 12 minutes are up, get back to work. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a day by implementing this rule.

Find ways to be industrious, even in leisure. When you have time away from the work that earns you a living, make use of your leisure time by pursuing activities that will make you a better man. True recreation is an activity that leaves you energized and ready to take on the coming week. Instead of spending time sacked out in front of the TV watching the VH1 “I Love the 90s” marathon, find activities during your leisure time that will rejuvenate you.

The idea is to stay busy, but at much more relaxed pace. Remember that the longer you sit around and do nothing, the harder it is to get yourself motivated when you actually have to work. Avoid the rut by staying busy with relaxing, yet constructive recreational activities.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Steve April 7, 2008 at 4:55 am

This series on Ben Franklin’s virtues is extremely timely for me. I’ve been suffering from depression for years, and have wasted way too much time thinking “I’ll sort myself out tomorrow/when I feel better/when I’m less tired.” Now I’ve started to re-assess my life and my attitudes, and the first hurdle is how I’ve developed a belief that leisure and relaxation (which translates as doing nothing) is good, while work is bad. This piece hit home with the first point: how can leisure have any meaning in the absence of work?

I know I’ve got a long way to go, but thanks for the encouragement and help on the journey.

2 cory huff April 7, 2008 at 6:08 am

I understand what you’re saying but I think that you miss Tim’s point with lifestyle design.

If you notice, Tim doesn’t talk about sitting around on the beach all day sipping Pina Coladas. His “mini-vacations” were spent doing things like studying martial arts, doing an intense dance training, or learning how to build weight and strength train. He’s not advocating being lazy. He even mentions in the book that you’ll be bored if you do.

Ben Franklin was a genius and a hard worker, but even he had servants to perform menial tasks for him. Tim just takes that idea to the next level. He’s also creating work for people.

What would happen if the people in India decided they didn’t want to be outsourced to anymore? The same thing that happened in the USA – someone else would do it. Eventually in the USA the minorities who are currently picking fruit will move up the education ladder and start performinig the tasks that those who are outsourced to India do now. Then someone else will pick the fruit. Then the menial taskers will realize their skills are worth more and they will charge more.

The same thing happened with the Irish immigrants, the polish, and others. The cycle goes and goes…Tim just took it to a modern computerized level.

Regardless, you make some great points in your post – especially that working hard builds character. The thing is, Mr. Franklin himself advocated working smarter rather than performing menial tasks himself. His biography is illuminating as to his mindset, and he detested repetitive labor as much as the rest of us, so he educated himself enough to have the skills to do something else.

In short, working hard is great – but you shouldn’t use Ben Franklin as an example of a non-egalitarian.

3 Corey - Simple Marriage Project April 7, 2008 at 6:21 am

Great. I like the 48/12 rule. Focus hard for a period, then relax. You can get a lot done this way, especially when you add this to working within your optimum times of the day, be it morning, evening, middle of the night, whenever.

4 Art Gonzalez April 7, 2008 at 6:53 am

I agree tremendously with your post. Although I have got great tips from the 4HWW book, it should be viewed as a means to improve one´s efficiency and impact not as a way to become purposefully lazy.

Proverbs 6, 4-11 lays it out beautifully :

“Give not [unnecessary] sleep to your eyes, nor slumber to your eyelids; Deliver yourself, as a roe or gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler. Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!–Which, having no chief, overseer, or ruler, Provides her food in the summer and gathers her supplies in the harvest.How long will you sleep, O sluggard? When will you arise out of your sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to lie down and sleep–So will your poverty come like a robber or one who travels [with slowly but surely approaching steps] and your want like an armed man [making you helpless].”

Our Lord despises lazy people and the way to be blessed and get the breaks in life (the favor of God) is by being dilligent and industrious.

Keep up the good work and many blessings,

Art Gonzalez
Check my Squidoo Lens at: Quantum Knights

5 Brett & Kate McKay April 7, 2008 at 7:42 am

@ corey huff- My problem with Tim is that there doesn’t seem to be any moral center to his writing. Sure, he talks about being useful with all your free time you make for yourself. But it’s cursory at best.

When he talks about outsourcing, he discusses how you can outsource to India planning your kids birthday party or writing your wife an apology note. If you get to the point where you have a virtual assistant writing apology notes to your wife, then something is wrong with you. I’m sure he was being hyperbolic, but there are plenty of idiots out there who will actually attempt this.

He also lowered his credibility on the value of hard work when he explains how he won the Chinese National Kickboxing contest with only 6 weeks of training. He basically won through a loophole in the rules and fighting in three weight classes below his normal weight. Sure, he won, but it sure seems like a shallow victory.

Mr. Ferris takes this same approach to life as well. By following his advice, I’m sure people can find themselves with more money with little or no work, but it just rings hollow to me.

Another thing I didn’t get is at the end of his book, he even suggests getting another job with all the time you’ve created for yourself. Why not just find a job you enjoy in the first place and work in that?

Finally, I see your point about Franklin not being the best example of egalentarisim. I thought about that while I wrote this. I know he delegated lots of his tasks to servants.

But unlike Tim Ferris who uses his free time to Tango all over the world and fighting in mixed martial arts, Franklin used his free time to help found a country, write treatises on electricity, start the first public library, invent a more efficient stove, and much much more. In short, Ferris uses his free time to pursue purely selfish activities, while Franklin used his to promote the public good.

Like I said in my post, I think Tim offers some good advice on being more productive, I just don’t agree with the overarching premise of the book.

6 serge April 7, 2008 at 7:45 am

What happens if your work/job is so fun it actually is fun by itself?
Then there is nothing but fun in your life ( well most of it anyway)..I agree with the 48/12 rule, but it’s only good when you have to work on something you really feel is a burden in one way or another.With work that you do out of pleasure time will simply fly away and there will be no need to time everything. Come to think of it ,why not make it 50/10 rule? ( just like school organizes my classes) .

7 pixel April 7, 2008 at 7:57 am

There are some good points here. But Tim Ferriss recommends excitement and not idleness saying inactivity is the enemy. He does set worthy goals to achieve this like learning languages and skills.

The book isn’t for anyone, I think it makes more sense for Tim to do these things because his business provides enough for him to live like he has already retired.

8 Jeff April 7, 2008 at 12:35 pm

This post implies throughout that working for the sake of working makes you a better person. I can’t think of anything less misguided. Production for the sake of production, labor for the sake of labor. Congratulations, propaganda has just beaten you into a square hole. I hope your life of meaningless toil was awesome.

This highly Americanized trait seems to come from our old pioneering days. If you didn’t move out west and work your ass off to create a name for yourself, then you were not doing the most you could. You can go hang out with Teddy Roosevelt and revel in your imperialism and nationalism (No knocks on Teddy Roosevelt’s character here, just his political positions. He was an amazing man that I disagree with).

I don’t see what makes someone’s life better because they didn’t retire early. The tone of this article implies that someone is lazy and unfulfilled if they don’t work every day in the very traditional industrial sense of the word work. To think that you are above someone else just because you hire someone else to do it doesn’t add up. It means I value my time in different ways. If I think it is more valuable for me to write this reply than to mow the lawn, I’ll pay someone to mow my lawn while I write this reply. The only resource in this world that is truly limited and finite is time. Everything else can be debated.

I hope that my life is one where I only ever do what I find the best activity to be doing at the time. Like arguing on the internet.

On a less reactionary and hyperbolic note, I think the tips given for being more productive are excellent, regardless of WHY someone should be more productive.

9 Jaime April 7, 2008 at 12:57 pm

On the other hand, a good deal of intellectual progress has been made by the leisure/priviledged classes, for whom “out-sourcing” of work was natural, especially in the modern area (modern in the sense of the 17th century onwards.) Certainly, the inception of science, advances in logic and mathematics, and the development of philosophy and the arts have been achieved by people who were decidedly not industrious in the above sense.

10 Brett McKay April 7, 2008 at 1:06 pm


I don’t think you understood how we are defining industry. Certainly great advances in science, politics, and philosophy have been made by men who “outsourced” their other labors. These inventive men cut down on their menial tasks in order to perform more crucial work. So I am not completely against all outsourcing and nowhere do I say that I am. The criticism I have of the Ferriss version of outsourcing is that his idea is to outsource your work so you can sit on the beach and take tango lessons. In contrast to the work of men like Franklin, I don’t think those activities constitute industry because they make no contribution to the greater community and are directed entirely at giving the self pleasure.

11 April Braswell April 7, 2008 at 5:51 pm

Indeed, ACTION is the best defense against DEPRESSION. Action leads to different thoughts and feelings.

Also, doing certain MENIAL tasks offers us a time for familial bonding. What part of your work could you do with your son or your daughter. This can gives them TIME, wonderful time with you, their father, which they so desperately need, which is not all about watching tv or playing video games.

To fold laundry can be done TOGETHER. Sorting laundry. Preparing a meal – do we really every single labor saving device when actually the shucking of the corn is half the fun in the preparation time together?

While you are DOING the chore and work together, you can then talk, and often while are doing something else, children will indeed open up to you. Whereas when you ask them, “How was your day?” while you are watching tv, the very activity does not foster opening up in bonding communication.

The very DOING of the activity together forges the bond.

Mazel tov!

April Braswell

12 Rod Homor April 7, 2008 at 6:39 pm

“Have a worthy goal.” Amen to that brother. Cos when it is worthy, it is something that not only provides your income, but it provides your outcome; in other words, you engage with WHAT you are doing on a spiritual level. WHAT you are doing has meaning for you in the moment, and you are not just working as a means to an end. Worthy goals are things that mean something to you and to other people. Do what you love…. OR love what you do.

13 Are You Legit? April 7, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Dugg this dude – the world need to listen up. Continue of your noble path.

14 Aidan April 8, 2008 at 5:36 pm

THANK YOU for saying what I have been thinking. If you take a look at Ferriss’s blog, what do you see? 6 pictures of himself right there on the front page. Outsourcing his life has given him a lot of time to be focused on himself – not exactly a role model in my opinion.

15 Jaime April 12, 2008 at 5:24 pm


I think I understood very clearly how you defined industriousness. I disagree that your model of industriousness corresponds with the actual habits and outlooks of men of the leisure class for whom leisure and freedom were their primary occupation. Intellectual and artistic pursuit were extension of the unindustrious life, and, by virtue of not having to stay busy and not having to do unpleasant tasks, this means one could make a hobby of learning, scholarly work, and artistic endeavor. Certainly, this doesn’t exclude sober seriousness for one’s work, but it doesn’t necessary include giving oneself over to a toil-filled life for the reasons mentioned above. Of course, my remark only meant to mention valid exceptions to industry as a virtue, and one ought realize that insofar as one isn’t wealthy, the arguments mentioned in your post have some resonance. However, if one happens to have been born into wealth, one can very happily do what one likes, and would be less worried about the benefits of puritan virtues.

I might question why anyone is obliged to contribute to the greater community and not simply enjoy oneself?

16 Frank April 18, 2008 at 7:24 pm

Work for the sake of work. Not for the sake of THE work.

When you can deny everything that is in you and work even though there is no gain, no thanks, no joy, and no need, you are a man.

17 joekidd33 May 6, 2008 at 8:57 am

This is great post and it is one that perfectly applies to me. I waste A LOT of time and need to become more industrious.

18 Matt May 16, 2008 at 6:09 am

Let it be said that I agree with everything you said about labor developing virtue.

But you have quite unfairly mischaracterized the Four Hour Work Week system.

Especially your statement that “What does it teach your kids if they see that every time dad has an unpleasant job to do, he makes someone else do it?”

First of all, no one is making anyone do anything. The FWW does not advocate slavery or coercion. A person who agrees to do your outsourced task does it because it’s beneficial for them to receive the money you’re offering.

Next point: EVERYONE outsources to some degree. Everyone. If you’ve ever bought a greeting card, you have outsourced. You could have cut the card and pasted designs on it, painted or drawn the art, hand-written the thoughtful poem inside, and delivered it in person to the recipient. In buying and mailing a card, you have outsourced the task of writer, designer, artist, and delivery.

Sometimes we outsorce a job because it’s unpleasant. Other times, we do it because we don’t know how and don’t have time to learn how. Or we don’t have time even if you do know how.

But we also outsource tasks if it will free us to do more valuable things with our time. These more valuable things may come as leisure, or as work of a higher order.

I may pay a guy to plow my driveway because I don’t want to shovel it at 5 a.m. every morning in winter.

I may pay a CPA to do my taxes because he can do a better job than I can, and in a shorter amount of time.

As a IT worker, I primarily use my brain, not my muscle, at work. But I also love nailing shingles to roofs and helping my friends move boxes to a new apartment across town. I get something out of it that isn’t financial.

To demonstrate, consider this. If a manager can type 150 WPM and makes $200,000 per year, he may be the fastest typist in the world, but it’s still a waste of time for him to type his own business letters, because he’s not getting paid $200,000 per year because he’s a good typist; he’s getting paid that salary because he has excellent people skills and management experience.

It’s all a matter of specialization and division of labor.

The answer to “who will do the work?” is elementary.

There will always be people to do the work, because not everyone is capable of following the FWW lifestyle. Ferriss has expert management skills, and he does not assume that everyone will gain these skills by reading his book. But those with a knack for management, upon reading his book, will gain insight at how to apply that skill to working more efficiently. This leads to my next point, which is that the lifestyle designer doesn’t quit working. He simply reduces his work to the tasks that he is best at.

This hardly makes the people doing the outsourced work a second class of worker. The fact that some people work for other people is hardly limited to Ferriss’ approach. It is everywhere in a modern economy. People always work for other people.

Despite my defense of it, I will point out that taking the FWW lifestyle (and even basic labor specialization) to an extreme can trivialize and even dehumanize life. I would strongly stand against paying someone to walk the dog, play with your kids, or write love letters to your wife. But if someone does these things, it is a fault of their attitudes about life and their priorities, not of a particular system of managing one’s life.

If one can manage his tasks and delegate the ones that drag him down and waste his time, he will be enabled to do these very things (e.g. spending time with family) and live a richer, more full life.

19 M. Steve May 23, 2008 at 9:55 pm

“1. How can leisure have any meaning in the absence of work? Oftentimes I crave a break from work, and when it finally comes, the first week of relaxation is fantastic. The second week is also enjoyable, but after that it gets a bit old and boring; I start to feel antsy and once more want to be engaged in doing something useful. By being industrious, when you actually get a break, it feels fantastic. You can’t have the sweet without the bitter.”

Could not agree more. Earlier this year, I had a serious surgery, and I was looking forward to the leisure time during recuperation. Well, after two weeks, I was stir-crazy. I didn’t just WANT to get back to work, I NEEDED to. I was on logged onto my computer remotely all day, answering e-mails and writing documents when I should have been on my back, resting. When I got a fever the next week and had to miss two more days, I was so angry! It taught me a great lesson about idleness and the accompanied feelings of inadequacy and uselessness.

20 arkanabar t'verrick ilarsadin May 24, 2008 at 12:00 pm

My job is pretty menial, and I am highly intelligent. And yet it provides me with some satisfaction and fulfillment because I recognize its value and that I am paid fairly for the work I actually do.

Recognition of those two aspects of any job, when they exist, can make it much more tolerable.

21 Jack June 10, 2008 at 3:45 am

Actually, I’ve always been confused about one thing about Franklin’s virtues. It seems like Order, Resolution, and Industry overlap or sound very similar. I wonder how Franklin and other people differentiate between those 3 when trying to make marks at the end of the day.

22 Almanya sohbet June 17, 2008 at 7:29 pm

There will always be people to do the work, because not everyone is capable of following the FWW lifestyle.

23 Fredrick Maxwell November 11, 2013 at 9:39 am

I think the important thing to remember with regards to all of this is that Brett is posting this from the perspective of “Industriousness” as something to value. Now, how some other may go about defining “industriousness” is more the point of contention.

Of course, to some degree, we all outsource, but I think that we have to consider both the degree to which we outsource and the ways in which we do so when we speak of “industriousness.” For the sake of argument, let’s just say that when outsourcing is discussed within this article it’s referring to jobs that (based upon personal skill level and availability of resources) that we very well could, and really should, do but simply choose not to.

I think that once this distinction is made, it becomes easier to sort through this.

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