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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