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The 4-hour workweek applied: How I spent $100, saved hours, and boosted my reading workflow

While reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (site, blog) I found myself playing with the idea of using personal outsourcing to fix a problem I have with my reading workflow. Short answer: It helped a lot.

As you know, I've made reading a central part of my M.S. in Personal Productivity, and anything that slows it down is a problem. My overall strategy is to pour ideas into head, write about them, and try them out with clients, and wait for something great to pop out. I know you care about reading as well - two of my most popular posts are How to read a lot of books in a short time and A reading workflow based on Leveen's "Little Guide" (hey - I love having smart readers).

However, I noticed over the past few months that my reading pipeline - the number of books read, reviewed, and captured in my Big-Arse Text File - had jammed up; I had a backlog of books read, but not processed. And the bottleneck was transcription - I just hate doing it, it takes a lot of time, and it's become a source of procrastination.

I talked When inputs exceed your workflow system's capacity, and this was an example of that. I needed to fix it. So I decided to apply Tim Ferris's ideas by outsourcing transcriptions of my audio book notes.

The experiment

Here's what I did: I submitted audio comments - zipped WMA files from my Olympus WS-300M Digital Recorder (more at Notes on using a digital voice recorder for taking reading notes) - from three different books to three firms. They were: I selected these by doing an informal Google search, filtering out those without advertised rates, picking the five least expensive to write to, and choosing the three most responsive.

The results? Surprising!

Cost and results

I expected markedly different results regarding turn around time (TAT) and transcription quality, but they were all very comparable:
  • Tech-Synergy cost me $21 (including a one-time discount) to transcribe 50 minutes of audio, 3 day TAT, resulting in 16 pages of notes.
  • Enablr was $33.60, 33 minutes of audio, 7 days, and 8 pages.
  • GMR was $49 (including a one-time sign-up fee), 26 minutes of audio, 1 day, and 10 pages.
(Side note: A peer who's reading Ferris's book suggested I sell these notes. However, they're long, rough, and specific to my interpretation. Plus, the space is already taken by companies like BusinessSummaries.com and Powell's Book Review-a-Day. I'll pass.)

The format of returned notes was either Microsoft Word or HTML files - both acceptable. However, while the submission processes for Tech-Synergy and Enablr were straightforward (vanilla HTML and FTP uploads, respectively), I had major problems with GMR. To make a long story short, my contact there was very helpful, and ultimately took care of submitting and returning the files, but their process needs fixing and simplification, at least for Firefox users. (As usual, I broke things like no one else.)

Ultimately, they all got the work done, and transcription quality was excellent. This is especially impressive considering that much of the time I was dictating while exercising!


So what was the ultimate savings in productivity? First, let's compare hours spent before and after:

Total time spent doing it myself: It takes me roughly 3 times the audio length to transcribe, convert, and enter notes for a book. E.g., for a 30 minute file I'd spend about 1-1/2 hours.

Total time spent outsourcing: To outsource the work, it took ~10 minutes to submit, pay, and download the results. But processing the resulting notes (reading, typing notes, and adding links) took ~2 minutes/page. E.g., for a 30 minute file (say 9 pages): 10 + (2 * 9), or ~ 1/2 hour.

Thus, for 30 minutes of book notes, I saved about an hour, i.e., three times faster.

But the big story is the psychological barrier removed by outsourcing. As I said, I was avoiding transcribing because I found it very tedious, and this clogged up my reading flow, mainly because I don't like starting too many new books before finishing existing ones. It feels incomplete, and I don't like getting too far behind (basic Getting Things Done-inspired psychology).

So overall it was a real win, and I'll definitely be outsourcing all my transcription in the future.

Future steps

That said, I feel like the results were still too expensive. For the next step I'll try submitting three more as projects to sites like Elance, Guru.com, and smarterwork. Suggestions and stories very welcome.

At a higher level, I also want to implement one of Leveen's important principles, that of periodic review. This will help me recall the book's important ideas, my interpretation, and possibly kick off action. After all, what good is reading if I don't improve myself in some way? (Plus, having books in mind when you're meeting folks is a great networking idea and helps facilitate conversations.)

I might return to the electronic reminder system I tried earlier (see Report on a little experiment: Daily random entries from my personal log), but only send entries tagged as BookNotes. Or maybe I'll start with a simple paper-based checklist.

Overall, a fun experiment. And thanks to Ferris for his stimulating book (definitely passed the Scribble Test).


Reader Comments (26)

Good one Matt - and the pointer to Mark Forster is excellent - his latest book has some very good ideas.

FYI, I used Castingwords.com during the writing of both books - cheap and good.

August 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBob Walsh

Thanks, Bob. I appreciated your mentioning Castingwords.com when we last talked. In fact, they were one of the organizations I wrote to. We went back-and-forth, but it petered out. They suggested converting all the files to mp3s, and uploading them one at a time...

BTW, here's a nice discussion at Mann's site, with some examples of outsourcing experiments others have tried: [ Vox Pop: Have you tried outsourcing your life? | http://www.43folders.com/2007/06/25/vox-pop-outsourcing/ ]

August 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt - Excellent article. Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm sure that a lot of people will be interested in your findings. Keep us posted as your experiment continues...

August 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Thanks, Ricky. Will do.

August 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Nice post. I'm curious about your thoughts about the value of transcribing ones own notes vs. outsourcing. For me, it tends to be yet another way to review core concepts that were meaningful to ME and generates new ideas.

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHutch

Thanks for the question, Hutch. I think you're asking whether it's useful to actually listen to your own voice and type the words in, vs. having someone else do it? For me, the listening and typing isn't necessary for me to get the main points, which I agree is personal and very important.

But that does mean I have to carefully *read* the transcription when I get it back, which I accounted for in the section about Total time spent outsourcing.

The good news is I can review those notes in the future as well.

Great question; thanks for reading!

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt,

Very interesting! I read Tim's book too and in fact just approved a bid to do...transcribing! Of some interviews I did. Will post up my experience when it's done.

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Thanks, Alvin - I'm curious to hear who you used, etc.

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great Article. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I've been recently looking for more ways to increase my reading speed and you've given me a few more ideas to look into.

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

Thanks, Thomas. Glad they helped. I enjoyed your stories-at-sea, BTW.

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks Matt - you always have something interesting to say.

I found it interesting that one company put a barrier in front of getting your business (a sign-up fee) and one put an incentive (discount).

I'm curious how much the cost would have been if these had been the second jobs you sent. In other words, what was the cost before the discount and without the sign-up fee?
Karen (WebRover)

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Great comment, Karen.

> I found it interesting that one company put a barrier in front of getting your business (a sign-up fee) and one put an incentive (discount).

*Exactly!* One punished me for using the, the other rewarded me. Nice observation...

> I'm curious how much the cost would have been if these had been the second jobs you sent.

Happen to have it right here :-)

* Do It Tomorrow, Tech-Synergy: next time: $30 (vs. $21)
* Order from Chaos, Enablr | Transcribr: same: $33.60
* The 4-Hour Workweek: GMR: next time: $39 (vs. $49)

> Thanks Matt - you always have something interesting to say.

Much appreciated; thanks for reading.

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt --- Indeed, I see now where your example of half an hour of work to read/review the transcription is part of your analysis. Thanks for your answer.

I grew up in Amherst (Shutesbury actually). Great place to live, lots of woods & streams for a young (or old) kid to play in!

August 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHutch

What about that transcription software, Dragon Naturally Speaking... I've heard that it is vastly improved since the old days.

Have you tried it lately?

Bruce Wagner

August 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi Bruce. Thanks for the question. I did try Dragon around the start of the year, and found it unusable. I wrote about it in [ Notes on using a digital voice recorder for taking reading notes | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/01/notes-on-using-digital-voice-recorder.html ]. Here's the summary:

The program is pretty good in some ways, but I had a number of issues with it, primarily:

* Recognition rate too low - I had to make a lot of corrections.

* Making corrections was too slow - The program learns via corrections, so this is important. However, waiting for the menu to pop up was excruciating.

* Slow overall performance - Start up, recognition, etc. all took a long time. Clearly one needs a very modern machine to run this on.

* Poor quality headset - The included headset broke after only a few uses. Official replacement price: $30.

Ultimately, performance was a deal breaker, and I've concluded that manually transcribing and typing is faster.

Thanks for reading!

August 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt,

Do you attempt to apply GTD principles to your productivity reading? E.g., do you try to identify projects and next actions (or at least triggers) for each book you read?


August 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAbe

Hi Abe:

Do you attempt to apply GTD principles to your productivity reading? E.g., do you try to identify projects and next actions (or at least triggers) for each book you read?

Yes! In fact, I wrote about it here: [ Reading Books The GTD Way | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/09/reading-books-gtd-way.html ]:

The solution? A straightforward application of Allen's principles, esp. breaking it down, and asking "What's the next action?" - My next action should be something like "read pages M-N of book X" (where the number of pages is small enough to make the action reasonably concrete), and, because the project ("read book Y") presumably involves two or more steps, I should also add an entry to my "Projects" list.

There's a bit more detail in the post.

Thanks for your question!

August 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks for an interesting read Matt.

As a researcher I've often thought it would be an excellent thing to outsource and have someone read and provide synopses for my mountains of scientific papers.

I'm not sure I'd benefit so much from reading the summaries as the whole things but it would certainly save a lot of time!

August 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterO

Thanks for an interesting read Matt. Glad you liked it!

...outsource ... mountains of scientific papers. I'm not sure I'd benefit so much from reading the summaries as the whole things but it would certainly save a lot of time! This is a very interesting idea. On the plus side, your point about saving a lot of time. On the minus, you'd be getting the results filtered through someone else's brain. You might need to do some training with the person, showing him/her what you're interested in, what you'd take out of it.

Wait - isn't that what grad students are supposed to do? :-)

It might be an 80/20 question - is it worth possibly losing the fidelity for the time savings? Maybe out source the second tier articles?

Great comment.

August 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great write up Matt! I'm now using my iPod with a MicroMemo to do this. I'm also using it as my capture device for To Do items, which is turning out to be quite good too.

September 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

Hey Benjamin, great comment - thank you. The [ Micromemo | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000K5VD2E?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B000K5VD2E ] is cool, and I liked your write-up [ iPod to Go - The iPod as a GTD capture device | http://redcatco.com/blog/communication/ipod-to-go-the-ipod-as-a-gtd-capture-device/ ]. One question: how do you manage the to do items in particular? I found that actions move so fast, I would have to download and transcribe at least daily, which was too much of a pain. I'd like to hear how you made it work...

Thanks for reading!

September 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, I'm glad I found this article and that you took the time to document your results. The process of giving the same task to 3 different providers is an excellent idea. I suggest for your next test you do something similar, but with www.oDesk.com. Post a virtual assistant job that requires transcription skills. Hire 5 people for 2 hours max and give them the same file to transcribe. At the end, compare the results and keep the best provider. I did something similar here: http://www.outsourcedmylife.com/outsourcing-with-odesk.php

December 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Rob, thanks for the write-up. I shy away from hourly and prefer projects, but each model has its advantages. It's interesting your success rate has been "all over the map." And your idea to outsource the competitors is very good - I'm considering doing something similar for marketing keywords. Great comment.

December 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I find www.spreeder.com a great resource for speed reading ebooks and PDFs. Slightly off topic, and may well be old hat although new to me, but nevertheless very productive.

For the uninitiated, you copy a large body of text to a browser window, set your words per minute speed and the reader presents a single word at a time, centre-screen at your designated speed. It really helps with the associated eye strain of reading large amounts of text online.

July 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFishgun

I've seen a few similar sites, but that's new to me. Thanks for reading.

July 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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