Review: Downshifting

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Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

bookOne consistent theme I write about on The Simple Dollar, both indirectly and directly, is the idea of downshifting. In a nutshell, downshifting means reducing the amount of time you work (and the intensity of it) and reducing the complexity – and cost – of your life. It’s something that I’ve come to believe in heavily over the last several months and something I’m striving for.

Downshifting (subtitled How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More) is basically a guide to how to downshift your life. It assumes that you’re living a life that’s busier and more complex than you would like and provides a series of exercises and suggestions to help you downshift as much as you would like.

Some of the material in the book is very obvious – some of it, though, is very thought provoking. Even better (for some of you, anyway), it didn’t have the New Age-y feel of other books on similar topics like Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity. Instead, this book sticks heavily with the realities of modern life for most of us – and that’s a big mark in its favor.

Given that, the big question is whether the material inside made for truly compelling reading. That’s an answer I hope to provide.

A Deeper Look At Downshifting

The first thing you’ll notice is that this book is surprisingly short, clocking in at only 121 pages. Most of the fat in this book has been trimmed out, leaving just a heavy dose of meaty writing. In a way, it’s appropriate – the author, John D. Drake, is almost making a statement out of the brevity here, as he has no need to make this material overly complex.

Since each chapter ends with a handful of discussion questions, I thought I would write out my own answers to two of them for each chapter as a way of reviewing the book and giving an idea of the kind of thinking that it encourages. To me, that is the best method of reviewing Downshifting while remaining fully within the spirit of the book, as much of it is about introspection and then applying that introspection to life changes.

Is This Any Way To Live?
The book opens by addressing many of the challenges of the modern workplace: competitive pressures, a requirement to adapt to a corporate culture, pressure to make the numbers, pressure to serve more customers, dealing with constant change, enormous work burdens, and so on. For many of us, this constant force in our lives eats up as much time as possible, leaving us as exhausted shells of our former selves. Is this a healthy way to live?

If I had more personal time available, what is one way I would spend it?
I would read more, without a doubt. I’d spend some lazy time curled up with a book or a periodical. Although I try very hard to put aside an hour to read each day, it’s usualy interrupted and fragmented into pieces by all of the demands of my life. I used to read for two or three hours uninterrupted a day when I was in college – it’s something I truly miss.

If I imagine myself, at 65 or 70, reflecting on my life, what would have been important and what would not? What do my conclusions tell me about planning my life, starting now?
The most important thing would have been spending time with my children when they were young, affirming strong values in them, and raising them to be strong people. A house, a car, a video game console – none of that really matters compared to my children. To me, that means that the more time I can find to spend time specifically with them in a deep, enriching sense, the better this part of my life will seem when I look back on it.

The Work Trap
There are two big factors that constantly push people towards keeping their job even if they’re unhappy: contemporary lifestyles and work satisfactions. Our lifestyles, usually consumer-based, largely assume that we’re going to be working a full time job and always seeking a higher salary, and that’s what others expect from us – we have to buck societal expectations in order to not follow that route. Even more, our jobs usually do provide some forms of satisfaction – we feel pride in a job well done and often feel some strong camaraderie with our work peers, and those are good feelings that are hard to give up.

Is the potential loss of some job satisfactions holding me back from proceeding with downshifting? Is it possible I won’t lose any job satisfaction if I don’t?
The biggest job satisfaction I’m afraid of losing is camaraderie with my coworkers. I am very worried about what happens in the workplace if I leave, to tell the truth, and I know about the families of these people and I don’t want to destroy all of that. It is quite possible that they’re fine even if I leave, but I don’t know this to be true.

What is important in my life right now? To what extent will downshifting allow me to improve it?
The most important things to me right now are my family and my writing. Downshifting, in the form of reducing or eliminating my hours at my “real” job, would allow me to write more (perhaps launching a writing career) and also free up more time to spend with my family when I’m awake, alert, and attentive.

What’s Stopping You?
Here, Drake gets straight to the heart of the matter by discussing the myriad of reasons people use to not downshift: loss of income, loss of benefits, loss of potential promotions at work, loss of social interactions, loss of initiative to “get things done,” and so on. Many of these are valid concerns, and Drake does a solid job of handling each one. What they all come down to is fear of the unknown – in each case, we look at one specific negative aspect of a major change in our life and see only the negative half. Take a loss of income, for example. Having more free time might mean that you spend less money, too – you won’t be commuting as much, you won’t need to eat out as much, and so on – and you also might discover better ways to make money more in tune with your life, like starting a side business.

Who is the best person(s) with which to share my worries and fears about downshifting? When would be a good time to meet with them?
After my wife (who I’m pretty open with), the most valuable people to talk to are my parents. I discussed this with them at Thanksgiving and was met with some less-than-enthusiastic responses.

Deep down, what is my greatest concern? How do I feel about confronting it? How uncomfortable would it be to share it with someone else?
My greatest concern is appearing to others as though I’m failing my family by letting go of a steady, solid income. It’s something that I have expressed to others, though it’s not been easy and it’s often ended up with others convincing me that downshifting is the wrong choice.

Making the Decision
For most, downshifting is a difficult decision. Drake suggests that you take some time out to really give the decision some serious thought, including a few days off of work. Spend that time alone, unwinding, and thinking, and also spend some time with the people closest to you discussing the decision. Drake does make the interesting comment that if you’re riding the fence on downshifting, it’s likely because you’re looking primarily at the negatives. One solution is to make a big list of nothing but the positives that would come from downshifting.

If I were to create some space for myself, when and how could I do it?
I have ample vacation time coming from work, so I could easily use this time when my wife is working and my children are in daycare to take a few days all to myself. The place to do this would be easy – I love to walk alone in the woods.

If I put off downshifting for now, when would be the best time to revisit the idea?
In the spring, actually, because my work “year” ends with a crunch period near the end of March and the spring and early summer months are usually pretty low on demands at work. Downshifting then would give ample time to train a replacement without many demands.

Low-Risk Downshifting Options
At this point, the book swings towards specific tactics that people can use to begin downshifting their lives. Here, Drake collects a big pile of specific suggestions on how to downshift a bit without disrupting the boat too much – things like personal lunches, making personal appointments in your datebook, setting adamant limits on overwork, and so on.

When I think about making some change in how I work, what troubles me the most? What could I do to alleviate that concern?
The most obvious option for downshifting for me is to request no travel and also to move to four ten hour days a week. The former would mean that I would have to give up a few useful work-related committee appointments, but that’s not a major deal. The latter would mean that my wife and I would have to drastically rework our mornings and evenings, which is something that wouldn’t be easy.

If I make a change, what are some of the benefits I hope to attain?
I would not have to be away from my family while on trips, which is something that saddens me deeply. The four day workweek would give me a day to devote to writing, which would be very nice, but would add some a bit of stress on other days.

Riskier Steps Toward the Life You Want
For some, a minor move like the ones in the earlier chapter won’t facilitate the change needed in their life – something more intense will have to happen. Drake offers stronger suggestions here, including going part time, asking for a demotion, turning down a promotion, and so on. Most of these options seem to scream “bad career move,” but downshifting is about putting a different set of priorities into place and your career has a lower priority.

Which downshifting options strike a positive note with you?
The best one is what the author describes as a “portfolio career,” which basically means having a professional life with a lot of streams of income. For example, a writer who has several published books in print has many streams of income, so if one goes out of print, it’s not devastating. It’s also an argument for investing – if you have one high-paying job, you can just directly take income from that and invest it in dividend-paying stocks or bonds and have those become another revenue stream.

On average, how much time per week would I like to carve away from my work? In an average week, I work about 70 hours on my various projects and jobs. I would love for it to go down to about 40 hours or so.

Getting Your Organization’s Buy-In
This chapter describes several techniques for creating an easier path to downshifting at work. Most of these focus on emphasizing your current value in the workplace, so when you make a downshifting move (like reducing your hours, for example), it’s not something that will immediately brand you as a target for removal. The biggest and best tip, in my opinion, is studying your HR options before you even begin talking about it. Can you downshift easily within the management structure? If you can, your chances for success are much greater.

How clear and precisely defined is my downshifting plan?
Right now, I would like to move my work schedule to four ten hour days and spend one day focusing solely on writing. After that, I might put walking away from my job on the table.

If I had to come up with a “Plan B,” what would it be?
Shifting my work schedule so that I come in one to two hours earlier each day. This is something that I might do anyway, as it would free up a block of time (one to two hours) after work where I could write. Right now, I tend to write in that period before work most days, but I sometimes tend to sleep in and miss that block, which puts unnecessary pressure on my writing.

When The Answer Is No
If your proposal for downshifting is rejected, you basically have three options: stay put, try again, or leave. It’s worthwhile to consider each of the options in advance and know which one you’re going to take. Most of the chapter offers advice on leaving without burning bridges, something useful if you’re planning on continuing a career in the same field, either now or later.

If I am undecided about my next step, who would be the best person with whom to discuss it?
Excluding the obvious family members, I would probably discuss the issue with my workplace mentor, actually. He would likely give me the straightest advice of anyone around and would keep it to himself.

Suppose I decide to quit, what’s the worst that can happen? How could I minimize the downside?
The worst that could happen is that The Simple Dollar collapses right after leaving, for whatever reason. The best thing I cann do to hedge against that is to try to diversify my writing career as much as I can before leaving, have an emergency fund, and don’t burn bridges on my way out.

You Did It!
So you’ve downshifted and your stress level is falling through the floor. What now? Drake recommends devoting time to your hobbies and also devoting significant time to building and strengthening your relationships with others, above all else. Downshifting means devoting more time to the things that are truly important to you instead of to your job – in other words, the activities and people that you are passionate about.

What actions could I take that are likely to increase my happiness?
Get lost in reading (particularly philosophy) and writing. Spend some high quality time with my wife and with each of my children. Start a tremendous vegetable garden, far bigger than I would have time to manage otherwise.

How adequate is the time I now allocate for building and nurturing closer relationships?
It’s adequate, but not enough to make me feel as though I’m allocating my time in the way that I would like. I feel I have a strong relationship with the people closest to me, but other relationships have suffered along the way.

Your Happiness Is Up To You
The book closes with a strong kick in the pants to do something about it. It’s a nice call to arms that summarizes most of the points in the book into a useful checklist and basically demands that you take the next step, an encouragement that’s needed when taking a personally challenging step like downshifting.

What is my dream for my family and myself?
My dream mostly revolves around raising intelligent, independent, self-aware children, and perhaps eventually building a nice home in the country for my wife and I to grow old together in. That’s really it, and I can still do this with downshifting – and perhaps do it better.

What am I waiting for?
Right now, I’m waiting to pay down debts, because I’m worried about a loss of income. Once that’s done, though, this will be a tough question to answer.

Reading Guide
One additional feature that I quite liked in this book was a group reading guide at the back, which breaks the book down into five pieces and provides some discussion points. This guide makes it very easy for you and your spouse (for example) to both read the book and discuss the material inside, which can be a very valuable thing to do if you’re reconsidering your direction in life.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

This is a very strong book if you’re already fairly committed to the idea of downshifting. If the concept of it seems rather idiotic to you, then this book will not do much for you at all.

However, if you’re on the fence about the concept of downshifting, you might want to read Your Money or Your Life first and use that book to figure out where you want to go with your life as a whole. It may be that you’re merely dissatisfied with your current job, not your entire way of life.

I personally found this book to be very thought provoking, particularly as I continue to psychologically prepare myself for a form of downshifting in the future as I continue to contemplate the possibility of leaving my current “real” job to focus on writing and other activities. Downshifting did one thing, though: it forced some brutal honesty to the surface. I made a strong, conscious effort to really think about the issues thhe book raised and I found myself feeling some serious internal conflict about how I make such decisions in my life – and whether I should be downshifting at all.

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17 thoughts on “Review: Downshifting

  1. I think one of the things to remember if you’re contemplating downshifting is that you aren’t irreplaceable at work. It can be difficult to imagine what things would be like if you weren’t there, but when I think of the people that have left the company that I work at, they aren’t really missed – even the best ones. Places change and adapt.

  2. Great post! I’ve always had a passion for teaching and coaching. Unfortunately, it’s tough to survive on one income if that income comes from a teaching job. My long-term plan is to “retire” from my current full-time job around 50 and then move into a teaching profession, and possibly help out with a high school football team (maybe not head coach, but a support role). In the mean time I have to get two kids through college and save for mine and my wife’s retirement – no small feat. I completely agree with the concept of downshifting, even if my timeline is further out than others.

  3. this in an interesting post. i do believe downshifting is a good idea, and although you (or other downshifters) might meet with some criticism for people who do not believe in it, it does have benefits.
    i sincerely wish you good luck with the downshifting project. i also believe that writing is a thing that can be a source if income that has a snowball effect too (writing/editing is my main job and i have experienced this. if you write interesting pieces, you get requests for writing for other companies/papers/websites etc. it is fun, it brings money and you can generally do it when you want to). writing career means there are dry spells too, but this can be prevented by having other sources of income.

  4. Thanks for yet another cool post, Trent. I’ve downshifted- some friends and former coworkers think I’m completely insane and don’t talk to me anymore. But honestly, that means less pressure in my life trying to keep up with other people, something I never cared about anyway. My husband is very supportive of the change- wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise! I pick up part time jobs sometimes for the company of other people and to have a few dollars coming in while I continue working on ‘revenue streams’- the PT jobs pay for setting up the basics of a couple teeny small businesses that I’ve always been interested in starting.

  5. “Downshifting” — great term! Sounds faintly familiar.

    After making a conscious decision not to put in any more work on my job than I am paid for — which ain’t much — I developed my own system to “downshift.” I call it “Creative Malingering.” Better not describe it in much detail here, ’cause it wouldn’t be good if it got back to my boss & she figured out who I am.

    In short, though, I’ve become McCavity the Mystery Cat, and like Eliot’s cat I’m there as little as possible. I download most of the work onto my underlings (we call that “delegating”), do as much of my work as possible from remote sites, and contrive to minimize commutes. To a large degree, this has been successful. Despite absenting myself from work in body and in soul about a third of the time, I received the highest possible performance rating in last spring’s annual review.

    One of the tricks is to realize that in the world of work, mediocrity is the norm. So, if you perform at a level even slightly above mediocrity, you can work many fewer hours than your esteemed colleagues and coworkers and still come off looking just fine. Astonishing but true! I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, and no one has caught on. Or if they have, they don’t seem to care.

    As Plonkee wisely points out, “You aren’t irreplaceable at work.” Alas, your boss knows that, too.

    When I conceived of Creative Malingering, I recognized that some in the administration think of work as a place, not an activity, and that I certainly could get canned. However, I had come to dislike my job so heartily that it didn’t much matter: for me it was “downshift” or walk. I had two years’ worth of living expenses in savings, and at the time this shenanigan started, only two years remained before I could collect Social Security. It was a calculated risk. I decided the risk was worth taking. Besides, I’m pretty good at landing on my feet.

    Life is good. Now. For the time being. :-)

  6. Whoa. I needed that review. I may need the book. I have to make some decisions real soon now about work, and this sounds like something that could help me make those.

  7. Thank you for mentioning this book. I’d been working two jobs consistently for the last several years off and on. It took its toll on my own personal health and my family. Only recently did I stop.

    I’m new to your blog and have subscribed. Thanks!

  8. Wow, I love this blog! Vh, that was an interesting post. I have been thinking about ‘upshifting’ so that I can make much more money. But come 2008, I am positive I’ll downshift so that I have more time to pursue personal projects like investing in real estate and travelling. True, work is looked at as a place and not activity. On Friday I was able to complete my work in two and a half hours yet I spent eight hours at work. Talk about downshifting.

  9. I think there’s a fine line here between seeking happiness and letting laziness reign. Don’t you think a lot of people might interpret this as a chance to “stick it to the man” or “beat the system” when all they’re really doing is being lazy.

    When done responsibly though, I’ve seen people make this decision and it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.

  10. @ Victoriana– If you can “downshift” one job, it leaves you time to take on another.

    With the time (and energy!) I’ve freed up from Creative Malingering, I will take on two online sections of Writing for the Professions this spring, to the tune of $3,500 apiece. Because I’ll be moonlighting for the same institution where I work 100% FTE, all my benefits & taxes, including pension, will be yanked out of this, and so I’ll only net about $3,800 from that $7,000. But $3,800 will still go a ways toward meeting my financial goals.

    I’d rather loaf, of course. But I need to get set for retirement. Given that what I earn (and what I imagined was relatively generous pay, compared to full-time teaching) falls below a level Barack Obama defines as “low income,” I guess I need to get my act together.

    Hmm…. Don’t suppose your employer would let you use that extra time to study for employee improvement/advancement training, by way of putting yourself in line for a promotion & raise?

  11. Trent,

    Superb review. I did read this book shortly after downshifting myself. I think you hit it square on the head. My impetus to change was Zig Ziglar’s series of lectures on personal goals. In my case I left a solid 6-figure job of 10 years to take a 70% cut in pay.

    I now take home over $215k less per year — but I am so much richer.

    I don’t think I’ll ever miss paying a $800 car lease… spending hundreds on dinner with strangers… being on the road in hotels 200+ days per year… or 90 hour work weeks… or inhuman levels of stress…

    Instead, as I start my 40′s, I have breakfast with my kids every day, drive them to the park in my $5k pickup, spend time just sitting and talking with my wife, and doing things for those I love.

    Life has very little to do with how much money you make. It has much more to do with how much money you keep, and who you take care of with what resources you do have.

    Keep up the great work. Your page is inspiring, and all those who visit it should take a moment to appreciate what genuine opportunity your point of view represents.

  12. Yeah, but Turbogeek, during your years of earning around $300k you had to have socked away a pretty impressive stash of cash, right? I mean, I’d have to assume that you “earned your way out” of those golden handcuffs by paying down debt and building up savings during your ten years on that job… and that’s a VERY different kind of downshifting than the kind Trent is talking about so much these days. There’s a big difference between taking a $200k pay cut down to $90k, and quitting a $60-75k job in hopes of “making it” as a writer and stay-a-home parent. (I don’t know how much Trent or his wife earns – it’s just an example.)

    Ten years ago, I quit a technical job because I wanted to do something “more in line with my values” – so I became a massage therapist. Though it was more philosophically rewarding, for a time, one cannot underestimate the stress of going from a stable $50k salary+benefits to ~$20k in unpredictable “freelance” income, the loss of retirement savings, the loss of a career path, etc. I returned to the corporate realm about four years ago, and it is not the soul-sucking wasteland I had imagined when I was 28.

    I love my job, and it’s even more satisfying to consider that I’m getting closer to the “6-figure salary” without ever taking work home or being on the job past 4:00. It’s possible to downshift and “follow your dream” without quitting your job!

  13. Stenya,

    Very good points. In a few ways you could say I earned my way out, but to make the kind of lifestyle change I made I had to liquidate a large portion of my life. Your point is still well made, and taken.

    I did the ‘jump off the fast train onto the slow boat’ kind of downshifting. That is different than many cases, as you pointed out. In your case I would contend that when you returned to the corporate world you came with your eyes opened, and do a much better job of managing back unrealistic demands your career places on your than you did previously.

    I would also respectfully submit that spending time doing something ‘more in line with your values’, as you so aptly put it, allowed you time to fully develop those values — – and that is largely why you have been able to return to the corporate environment, and do so with a genuine work-life balance you can live with.

    Great post. Kudos to both of us — balanced and happy through downshifting as appropriate to our cases.

  14. Before I learned anything about frugality or voluntary simplicity, I was working full-time and pretty miserable–getting headaches all the time, getting sick all the time. I found out at my workplace that with a more advanced degree I could earn twice as much doing pretty much the same thing I was doing. I went for the degree (with a grant and partial payment from my workplace) and as soon as I’d fulfilled the requirement of my grant (work full-time for a certain period of time.) I went down to part-time, now making the same amount I was making before working full-time. The extra income would have been nice, but I had learned to live with the old income and I started reading about frugality and other ways to save money, so it worked out ok. My coworkers were a bit amazed and very confused and perhaps I’m not seen as “career-oriented” now, but frankly, it’s been worth it! I feel like I have my life back and most of my physical problems are under control.
    So ask around–sometimes the answer is staring you right in the face. It’s amazing how many people will not put forth the extra effort and sacrifice to earn an extra degree for the long-term benefits! Many people I worked with had the same exact opportunity and did not take it. Obviously, a supportive partner helps a lot!

  15. the review enticed me and i bought the book (used… i am a frugal person:), reading it now. it is very interesting and i very much like the tone of it – the author does not treat people like kids but at the same time talks in a very simpla language

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