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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)

[from http://247virtualassistant.com/ ]

I am a voracious reader and with the advent of e books, I dont have to wait for them or buy them ata a store. I stumbled upon Project Guttenberg and now read them off from my device. I will have to try out Speed reading.
October 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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