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Downshifting: Stepping back from work

Scott Beagrie

A man relaxes on a bean bag chair

Senior executives have different reasons for wanting to downshift, but it can often be accompanied by psychological or economic challenges. Scott Beagrie looks at how you can prepare for rebalancing your life

Downshifting doesn’t have to mean giving up a stellar career and escaping to a rural retreat never to be seen again. It could, instead, mean reducing your working hours, becoming self-employed, changing career or re-structuring your life in some other way.

The common thread running through all downshifting, however, is that it involves rebalancing your life in some way for the better. Typically it involves finding more time for your family and yourself and improving work-life balance, reducing executive stress, preventing burnout and generally having more freedom and autonomy than your previous existence afforded. Of course, it comes at a price, since in the vast majority of cases, downshifting also means sacrificing some or all of your salary.

The trend towards more flexible working arrangements has roughly coincided with the widespread adoption of high-speed broadband connections which makes home and remote working far more feasible, so there are many permutations and options of downshifting available.

Of course, the economic downturn has caused many people to have to downshift involuntarily; but in some cases it has also proven a catalyst to change their lives in some way. Nonetheless, the potential perils and practical and emotional complexities that come along with downshifting means it is something that needs to be thoroughly planned.

Brave new departure

When contemplating what form your downshift will take, you need to ask some serious questions of yourself. In reality, most people have some idea of which direction they want to take, whether it is a full-blown, up-sticks-and-move downshift or a more measured change, but you still need to perform a detailed self-analysis.

In the end, how organisations respond depends heavily on culture and a leaders’ personality. The lifeshifter needs to assess this and plan accordingly; escaping the control and bureaucracy is a major motivator.

Andrew Ferguson is founder of enterprise site Breakthrough Network and is a coach and business adviser who downshifted 30 years ago. He has become an expert in what he prefers to call ‘lifeshifting’, and says you should start by determining which aspects of your life are of high importance, such as health, family, social life, environment, spiritual life, personal growth, hobbies, work-career, luxuries, holidays, money or intellectual life. He recommends selecting a maximum of six from the list and then working out which of these priorities aren’t receiving enough of your time.

Next he advises asking oneself a number of significant questions including: what do I most want to change? What do I most want to happen? How do I wish to be different? What do I feel is in front of me? “From all this, ask ‘what is the fundamental shift I want to make? And what could I do today to bring more of this into my life?’,” he says. “Maybe a dramatic lifeshift is not actually necessary, just a change of attitude.”

Focus on the practical

While downshifting is often more about asking searching questions and (re)connecting with the spiritual and emotional sides of your life, among the first considerations when redefining your priorities should be the tangible and material ones. Consider if it’s feasible to live on your new income and what practical impact any lifestyle changes will have on you and your family.

As a senior executive, you should be applying the same ruthless financial analysis to your proposed downshift as you would to the business. You need to be totally realistic about what you can live on and factor in worst-case scenarios. When planning how your income will be derived, a portfolio career route makes a great deal of sense when downshifting, so there is more than one revenue strand. Take into account the mental adjustment involved in earning less, which many people find difficult. And aside from the money and practical considerations, ask whether you have the personality make-up to be able to motivate yourself to work without the discipline imposed by a nine-to-five job.

Toughen up mentally

Downshifting often means a change of status and a loss of some of the trappings of success enjoyed in your previous existence such as a company car and expense account. The importance of these factors shouldn’t be underestimated – they may have defined the old you.

Ferguson says downshifting can sometimes be accompanied by a fear of being judged for ‘wimping out’. “This anxiety can continue for some time as it regularly takes three years to achieve cumulative break-even in self-employment, and 80% never make it,” he says, adding that help, support and coaching from those with experience in such a journey vastly increases the chances of success.

He explains that embarrassment is just one aspect of your ‘shadow self’ rearing its head. “It might equally be guilt, crippling doubt and anxiety, self-esteem issues, judgement, resistance, ‘be-perfect’ syndrome, regret and a whole host of negative belief systems,” he explains. “You need to be ready for this and prepared for the challenge. The lifeshift journey is the main route to accepting and understanding ourselves.”

Maintain your organisational links

As already stated, downshifting doesn’t have to mean abandoning your role or cutting ties with the corporate world altogether. If you’re seeking to rebalance your life in some way but still enjoy what you do, it may be in your interest to enter discussions with your current employer about possible options.

As Ferguson points out, however, you need to be aware that many of the corporates have been slow to accept downshifting, and if an employee is not going to be reliant on one organisation for their entire income, they might be viewed with suspicion.

With many businesses having to downsize because of the economic conditions, though, it may be that your plans can dovetail with the needs of your organisation. “In the end, how organisations respond depends heavily on culture and a leaders’ personality,” says Ferguson. “The lifeshifter needs to assess this and plan accordingly; escaping the control and bureaucracy is a major motivator.”



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