In this article, we will take a closer look at dreamlining, a goal-setting exercise by Tim Ferriss, as outlined in his bestseller “The 4-Hour Workweek.”
Dreamlining is meant to get you out of your rut. Instead of aiming for conventional goals like getting a promotion, you are encouraged to dream without limits. Think traveling the world, deep sea diving, or becoming a professional musician.
But how exactly are you supposed to do that? And is it realistic, or just a hyped-up marketing gimmick?
Let’s dive in to find out!
Please note: All the following quotes are by Tim Ferriss if not otherwise stated.
Dreamlining — What Does It Mean?
Dreamlining is a goal-setting exercise, outlined by Tim Ferriss in his book “The 4-Hour Workweek.” The idea is to actualize your dreams (hence the name) by figuring out the characteristics and costs of your ideal life.
Dreamlining uses timelines (usually 6 and 12 months) in combination with categories (having, being, and doing) to come up with exciting, out-of-the-ordinary goals. These are then translated into immediate next-action steps.
According to Ferriss, dreamlining differs from traditional goal-setting in 3 respects:
- Dreamlining results in well-defined next things to do, instead of broad, theoretical goals.
- Dreamlining focuses on unrealistic goals. Only these will create enough excitement to get you going.
- It encourages activities over material wealth. This is supposed to be more fulfilling and will result in a more interesting life.
- building an automated online business (a “Muse”), which supposedly can be maintained in as little as four hours per week
- taking advantage of “geoarbitrage,” e.g., earning in dollars but living in a low-cost country like Thailand
- freeing up time through techniques like email autoresponders, the Pareto principle [similar to Price’s law], and Parkinson’s law
- “filling the void,” i.e., figuring out what you truly want to do with your life once you get your time back
Becoming a member of the NR is not just about working smarter. It’s about building a system to replace yourself.
How Dreamlining Came About
For several years, Ferriss was afraid to end up as a 9-to-5 drone — overworked, unhealthy, and disillusioned. Ferriss and his friend Douglas Price coined the term “another fat man in a midlife-crisis BMW” to encapsulate that depressing future.
It became an inside term between them. Whenever one of them was about to make peace with the status quo, the other one would say: “Dude, are you turning into the bald fat man in the red BMW convertible?”
Dreamlining was developed as an antidote to that threat. It is based on the assumption that what most people fear — to end up as a “failure” — is not what they should fear. The real enemy is boredom.
The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of happiness is boredom.
Step 1: Create Your Timelines
In this first step, you are going to create two timelines:
- a 6-month timeline
- a 12-month timeline
Alternatively, you can also set a 3-month and a 6-month timeline, as Ferriss himself prefers. If your runway is too long, it might become an excuse to postpone action.
In any case, the idea is to assign a fixed amount of time for reaching your goals. You are setting yourself a deadline.
For each of these two timelines, you are going to write down up to five goals in each of the following three categories:
- having, e.g., houses, cars, clothing
- being, e.g., a great cook, a race car driver, a painter
- doing, e.g., traveling to the Maldives, doing a base jump, attending a Japanese tea ceremony
If you have a hard time coming up with ideas, think about what you hate or fear, then write down the opposite. We will look into more techniques to get the creative juices flowing further down.
There are two rules for this exercise:
- Shoot for unrealistic goals.
- Unapologetically state what you want.
When you are 5 years old and state that you want to explore the deep sea like your hero Jacques-Yves Cousteau, people will encourage you. When you are 25, people will tell you to grow up.
Most of us will eventually give in to convention. We become “realistic” about things. To counteract this, shoot for completely unreasonable goals.
Assume anything is possible. Don’t worry about your lack of time, money, or skill. Imagine there is no way you could fail.
There is less competition for bigger goals.
The other rule is to be unapologetic. People will tell you what you should and should not want. Fighting global hunger will get you praise. But if your heart beats faster for luxury cars and trophy wives, own it. Always be true to yourself when dreamlining.
Step 2: Flesh Out the Doing
Most people have a hard time coming up with ideas for the doing category.
These two questions will help with that:
- What would you do if you had $100 million in the bank?
- What life would make you most excited to wake up to in the morning?
If this doesn’t help, fill in the five doing spots with these ideas:
- a place you always wanted to visit
- a memorable thing to do before you die
- a daily thing to do that you would enjoy
- a weekly thing to do that you would enjoy
- a skill you always wanted to learn
Step 3: Flesh Out the Being
Turn each of your being items into an action to make it more tangible. This action represents your desired state of being.
For example, if one of your goals under being is to “be a great diver,” you could translate that into the action “go on a one-hour solo cave dive.”
Step 4: Circle in On the Big 4
You should now have two lists (6 months and 12 months), each with three categories (having, being, doing) and up to 5 goals in each category.
That means up to 15 goals total for each list.
Now, for each of the two lists, decide on the 4 goals that excite you the most. Feel free to choose across all columns. What speaks to you the most is all that matters.
Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is precisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all.
You will end up with 8 dreamlining goals in total: 4 from the 6-month list and 4 from the 12-month list.
Step 5: Determine Your Target Monthly Income
For this step, you are going to find out what your New Rich lifestyle will cost you. Ferris calls this the Target Monthly Income (TMI).
According to him, the cost is often lower than what you would expect. The trick is to shift in thinking from grand totals to monthly costs. So instead of paying millions for a luxury beach house, you rent the same property for a few thousand dollars on Airbnb.
This also gives you more flexibility. If you get bored with the place, you can just move to a new domicile on short notice.
Another example is travel costs. Don’t buy a jet, rent one. Or buy first-class airplane tickets to have a similar experience.
This will enable you to live out your dream life much sooner. Saving up for a Ferrari will take you years, but leasing one could be done within a few months.
$1,000,000 in the bank isn’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the lifestyle of complete freedom it supposedly allows.
How To Calculate Your TMI
First, you are going to calculate what the costs for your chosen 8 goals will be. This could include rent, mortgage, installments, one-time fees, etc.
Some goals, like “swim 10 miles,” will not have a financial cost attached to them. This is true for many skill-based goals. Ignore them for now.
List all of your financial goals in one column of a table. In the next column, write down the monthly cost estimate for that specific goal. If it’s a one-time expense, write that down.
You can also divide your one-time expense by the number of months (6 or 12) and note that down as a monthly cost. Ferriss suggests that as an alternative; I think it is the better of the two options.
Then total these costs. Those are your goal-related expenses.
To this, you add your regular monthly expenses, like rent, food, insurance, transportation, subscriptions, etc. Multiply that total number by a factor of 1.3, to account for a 30% buffer.
Now you add up your goal-related expenses and regular expenses. The result is your so-called Target Monthly Income. This is the number you should shoot for to live the life of your dreams.
Ferriss recommends dividing this number by 30, to get your Target Daily Income. That makes it easier to work with.
Step 6: Decide On Your Next Actions
Come up with the three next things to do for each of your dream goals.
These actions should be well-defined, so you know exactly what is required to complete them.
In terms of timing, the following rules apply:
- Action 1 should be taken care of right now.
- Action 2 should be taken care of before 11 am tomorrow.
- Action 3 should be taken care of before 11 am the day after tomorrow.
All of these actions should be simple enough to be completed in 5 minutes or less. Examples would be setting up a test drive for your dream car, scheduling your first MMA lesson, or contacting a future mentor.
If your next thing to do is research, it is better to talk to someone who has done what you want to do than to look stuff up online for hours on end. Don’t fall for paralysis by analysis.
If it’s important to you and you want to do it ‘eventually,’ just do it and correct course along the way.
Dreamlining is not perfect. There are five major flaws with this approach that you need to be aware of.
1. Some Goals Are Not Achievable
Dreamlining emphasizes that you should shoot for big goals, no matter how realistic.
But some goals are not achievable. If you are 60 years old, you won’t make it into the UFC. That ship has sailed.
If you lack any talent for abstract thinking, your chances of programming the next Facebook are next to nothing.
If you are 5 ft 2 in, you won’t star in an NBA game any time soon.
Ferriss is right to point out that we are too quick to give up on our dreams and follow the conventional truth. But being the over-the-top marketer he is, he takes a good idea too far.
2. You Need To Focus On One Goal
Dreamlining is selling you the illusion that you can have it all. Compete as a professional powerlifter. Be fluent in Japanese. Drive an Aston Martin. Travel the world.
But the truth is — you cannot do many things at once on a high level.
You only have a limited amount of energy available each day. You can invest that energy in one or two essential activities and make real progress there.
Or you can spread yourself thin, and try to accomplish ten things at once. At best, you will be lousy at these ten things. At worst, you won’t accomplish anything.
3. Dreamlining Plays to Our Weaknesses
We are greedy creatures. We always want more.
Dreamlining plays right into that maximalism. Why compromise? Think big! The world is my oyster.
That is an entitled, juvenile way of thinking. It gives you permission to let your ego run free. Ignore the fact that the world is a place of limited resources that you have to compete for.
This explains the enormous success “The 4-Hour Workweek” has had within the 18–25 age group. At that age, you might not have experienced yet that quality comes with a price tag.
4. You Can’t Skip the Grind
Dreamlining is just concerned with the first few steps. It doesn’t provide any long-term perspective for reaching your goals.
Starting a new project is fun. Sticking it out is hard. Because sooner or later, the excitement makes way for the grind.
That is true for any desirable thing in life.
You want to be an excellent guitar player? Buying a guitar is fun. Practicing your scales three to four hours a day for the next ten years? Less so.
Driving an expensive car is fun. Building a business for 10 to 12 hours a day for the next 5 to 10 years, so you can pay for your Ferrari? Not so much.
Joining a fancy gym to get ripped is fun. Training hard 5 to 6 days a week for the next 5 years, eating salmon and broccoli for most meals, going to bed early, even on the weekends? Most decidedly not fun.
Despite what Ferriss claims, there are no hacks. You cannot outthink the grind.
But that truth doesn’t sell books. Getting you all hyped up about the first steps does.
5. Dreamlining Is Not Cheap
Ferriss keeps making claims like the following:
“How about a Round-the-World trip (Los Angeles > Tokyo > Singapore > Bangkok > Delhi or Bombay > London > Frankfurt > Los Angeles) for $1,399?”
But what about hotel or Airbnb costs? What about paying for constantly eating out? What about taxis and travel insurance? What about unforeseen expenses?
To claim you have a Round-the-World trip for only $1,399 is highly misleading. Unfortunately, this kind of financial window dressing is a recurring theme throughout “The 4-Hour-Workweek.”
In reality, dreamlining will cost you a lot more than what Ferriss talks about. You have to acknowledge all the associated costs and then add a buffer for unforeseen events.
Just like the grind, a luxury life cannot be hacked. There will be a price to pay.
Why You Should Try Dreamlining Anyway
Ferriss is spot on about one thing — most of us are too quick to make peace with the status quo. We become lawyers, accountants, or salespeople, practically on autopilot, just because the people around us are doing so too.
We rarely question why things are the way they are:
- Why do we have to sit at our desks every day at 9 am, wasting our most vibrant years climbing the corporate ladder?
- Why do we aim for marriage and kids, even though we fantasize about the waitress at Starbucks or the postman?
- Why do we keep consuming, buying an endless succession of houses, SUVs, entertainment systems, clothes, etc., when it doesn’t fix anything?
Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.
Dreamlining is a remedy to that. By removing all real-world limitations like money, time, skill, or guilt, we get to explore ourselves in a way that we normally don’t.
You get to find out what you would do if failing was impossible. That is a great asset. It will give you a sense of direction that most people lack.
For that reason alone, dreamlining is a valuable tool to have.
But it is also important to realize that the process doesn’t stop there. We don’t live in a vacuum. The real world does pose limitations.
Your choices are not just black and white — being a depressed pragmatist or a hyped-up dreamer. There is a third option. You can become a “pragmatic dreamer”.
But to do so, you need to come to terms with certain truths: Not every goal is within your reach. You can only do a few things well. The grind is real. Quality will cost you.
If you embrace these truths, you’ll go on to live an unusual life, instead of just dreaming about it.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions in regard to dreamlining.