Downshifting

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:14 PM EDT

In the last few years, a growing number of people have been questioning the extremely high value that is put on career success. Instead, they are looking for ways to get out of the rat race and to have a more balanced and fulfilling life. This goes against the traditional definition of success: working hard, getting promoted, making more money, and giving more and more of your life and your identity to the organization. Some call it "climbing the corporate ladder," or "making good." While this works for many people, there are times and circumstances when you may want to consider a change. This article will help you to make the right decision for you.

What You Need to KnowWon't I be wrecking my career if I downshift?

If you find yourself asking this question, chances are you are not in a position to consider downshifting. People who downshift generally are either no longer motivated by a desire to climb the career ladder, or have other priorities that are in conflict with a high-powered career. They have emotionally detached themselves from the idea of a straight trajectory up the corporate ladder and are usually moving toward a slower, less demanding way of life. They are generally no longer motivated by the traditional definitions and trappings of success.

If it turns out that downshifting doesn't suit me, will I be able to get back onto my old career ladder?

When you downshift, you are stepping into unknown territory and creating a new lifestyle for yourself. Yes, there are very definite risks. You probably won't be able to take up your old career right where you left off. However, it is likely that this new adventure will open up other career ideas or interests that you never even considered. If you decide that your new way of life doesn't suit you, you can use the same risk-taking and imaginative skills you used in downshifting to create the next inventive step for you to explore.

I think I'm ready to get off the fast track, but won't everyone say I'm crazy?

Chances are very high that a number of people will think what you're doing is not a wise idea, and they won't hesitate to tell you so. It's as if they're playing Monopoly and you have moved over to another table to play chess. You are each playing by a different set of rules, and, if they think you are still playing their game, then your behavior will seem very strange to them. To counteract this pressure, you must consult your own inner voice and your own values to see if you are making the right move. Don't worry too much about what other people think. Most of them will eventually accept that what you are doing is right for you. It is, after all, your life to live. Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson have done research on people's values in the United States and Europe. They found that about 26% of the adult population in these areas have a strong interest in living a slower, simpler life that is more in harmony with nature, family, and community life. So you are not alone.

What to DoThink About Your Motives

The idea of downshifting may enter your mind for a variety of reasons. Quite often, it is brought about by family demands. Your children require more attention, or your marriage may be suffering because of the time you spend away from the family. Perhaps you need to concentrate more of your energy on being a caregiver for an elderly parent. Conflicts of values can be another major reason for a desire to downshift. Your current employer may have asked you to do something that goes strongly against deeply held values, and it leads you to question why you are working so hard for this organization. And, finally, you may be nearing retirement age and you feel the need to begin disengaging from your career and building a new life outside of work.

Regardless of the reason for downshifting, it takes a lot of foresight, planning, and courage to make a move toward a simpler life with a different focus. Consider the following questions as you think through the possibility of downshifting:

  • Why do you want to downshift, and is this the right time to do it?
  • Do you feel called toward something new, or is your primary motivation to get away from something that no longer works for you?
  • What is your current, and long-term, financial situation?
  • What are the core values that you want to live by at this stage of your life?
  • Do you have a support network of like-minded people, or a way of finding this?
  • What do you want to keep in your life, what do you want to let go of, and what do you want more of?

People often consider downshifting when they feel that the corporate lifestyle no longer works for them. If this is your story, be sure that you are not just running away from a difficult situation that you probably should face. Following through on your plan to downshift will mean a major change in your lifestyle. It's important to be sure about why you want to slow down and simplify your life. You will need to do some serious thinking about this, as success is more likely to occur when you have a clear vision of a better and more meaningful life. It is important to be as concrete about the new vision as you can.

Involve Your Family in the Decision

Then sit down and discuss your ideas with your family and anyone else who would be directly affected by such a choice. After you have explained what you find attractive about this new way of life, it is important to listen to their feelings about it. They may be one hundred percent in your corner, but chances are they will also have certain concerns and fears about this move.

Thoroughly Assess Your Short-term and Long-term Financial Situation

Downshifting requires some risk, but you don't want to put your health and financial security for your later years in jeopardy. Give careful consideration to what you might need in an emergency or in case of a long-term illness. On the other hand, you will need to be adventurous enough to overcome your fears of building a life that is in many ways less secure. When you first make the move toward downshifting, it may mean leaving full-time employment and being on your own for a while. Make sure that you have something in savings. A good rule of thumb is to have sufficient savings in place to pay your monthly expenses for six months to a year. And wherever possible, think of ways to develop passive income.

As a part of downshifting, you will be dramatically reducing your expenses, so your savings should go quite a bit further

Assess Your Priorities

Before you make the move to downshift, you will have to make some major decisions about your life and your work. While you can't foresee everything that will happen or the exact order in which things will take place, you want to be reasonably sure that you will be happy with your decision. So you will need to be very clear about your core values and how your new life will be in alignment with those values.

Decide Whether You Really Want to Leave Your Current Employer

Downshifting often means leaving your job and becoming a free agent and working out of your home. But it can also mean working part time or in a less demanding position at your current workplace. Another option to consider is moving to an organization that operates at a slower pace.

Evaluate Your Living Arrangements and Move If Appropriate

Moving to a smaller house or apartment is a good way to reduce monthly expenses and simplify your life. In the process, you will need to go through your possessions and decide what to keep and what to give away or sell. Doing this is not only practical from the standpoint of getting rid of clutter, but it also can help you to review your past and think about what's important to you. Another way to simplify is to choose a place that requires minimal maintenance, is easy to clean, and has little or no yard work.

Decide What to Keep and What to Let Go of

You can simplify your life by getting rid of possessions you no longer need. There is less to keep track of and care for, and often you can help others as well by giving these things away. Clean out your closets. Give clothes to charity. Cancel magazine subscriptions. You probably don't even look at most of them, and with more free time you will be able to go to the library and read them there. At the same time, do keep things that have significant meaning and value for you. Even if it you don't use them much, you will want to keep those tea cups that were passed down from your grandmother.

Write an Action Plan and Create a Schedule

Once you decide on the changes you are going to make in your work life and your living arrangements, it's a good idea to make a list of the actions you will need to take and an approximate timetable. These might include putting your house or apartment on the market, selling furniture, giving notice at your company, and starting up your own business. Obviously this is not going to happen overnight, and it may take several months to accomplish all you need to do. As you begin to implement your plan, your life will actually get more hectic before it gets simpler. You will be still living your old life while planning for your new one, and your schedule will probably need to be revised as you go along. Be gentle with yourself and try not to rush things too much. That would be defeating the overall purpose of having a slower, less stressful life.

Take a Retreat to Continue Your Life-Work Assessment

At least once a year, take time off with your family to talk about how this new lifestyle is going. Go over the reasons you did this in the first place and whether these are still relevant for you and your family. Analyze what is working and what you would like to change. And don't forget to celebrate your courage for taking the risk to move toward a more balanced life.

What to AvoidYou Quit Your Job Too Soon

It's easy to daydream about running away from responsibility and creating a new lifestyle free of stress and worry. But downshifting is a major life change, and requires a lot of thought and planning. It's important to take your time to really think through the kind of life you want to build, and how you're going to accomplish this, before doing anything drastic.

You Do Too Much at Once

If your downshifting plan calls for moving as well as changing jobs, try not to do them both at once. These are two of life's most stressful activities, and you don't want to overload yourself with more than you can handle. Plan for gentle transitions where possible.

You Make Only Cosmetic Changes and Then End Up Back in the Rat Race

Let's say you try to simplify your life by eliminating some of the things you normally do, only to find that you quickly fill up the spare time with new activities. It's not that unusual. Unfortunately, old habits are hard to break and many of us are addicted to hard work and stress. If this happens to you, revisit your core values assessment and spend time envisioning the simpler lifestyle you pictured. You may need to make a more dramatic change in order to have a truly slower lifestyle.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Bolles, Richard. What Color is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. Revised ed. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2006.

Drake, John. Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2001.