Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More

Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More

by John D Drake

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Today's organizations put extraordinary pressure on their employees to work harder and longer. This book shows readers how to resist this pressure and actually spend less time in the office. John Drake, who successfully downshifted his own work life, examines the frantic pace of today's business environment, helps readers overcome the fear of working less, and

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Today's organizations put extraordinary pressure on their employees to work harder and longer. This book shows readers how to resist this pressure and actually spend less time in the office. John Drake, who successfully downshifted his own work life, examines the frantic pace of today's business environment, helps readers overcome the fear of working less, and shows them how to make the change. He uses real-life examples to provide practical strategies for freeing up personal time and for using that time to create a happier, more satisfying life.

Product Details

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
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5.85(w) x 9.18(h) x 0.41(d)

Read an Excerpt



Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 John D. Drake
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-116-9

Chapter One


There's more to life than work. Old adage


"I should have left an hour ago." "Between my job and my family, I haven't got a minute for myself." "The money is great, but there's got to be more to life than this." Do these statements have a familiar ring? Maybe you've uttered the same words yourself. If so, you're not alone. U.S. News and World Report found that 49 percent of Americans say our society puts too much emphasis on work and not enough on leisure. For many, the idea of leisure is a joke. Gates McKibbin, a former organization effectiveness consultant with McKinsey & Company, put it this way:

The prevailing work ethic in the United States right now demands that people succumb to absurdly escalated expectations of the time and energy that one must invest in work-related activities. The fast pace and pressure to be plugged-in at all times, made possible by the omnipresent cell phones, voicemail, e-mail, laptops, and faxes, fuel the expectation that employees should quite literally be available to deal with work issues 24 hours a day— wherever they are, whatever they are doing.

The lead article in a recent Barron's magazine stated that "Glutted with goods, Americans increasingly want 'feel-goods'— cruises, makeovers, golf lessons, and the biggest luxury of all, free time."

The good news is that, in the effort to attain more free time, you're a step ahead of most people. Selecting this book suggests that you've probably been thinking for some time about cutting back at work. You have already crossed an important psychological barrier!

In reading Downshifting, you are also making a great start toward living a more fulfilling life—a goal sought by many, but all too seldom achieved. This book is designed to guide you through the steps necessary for converting your fondest lifestyle dreams into reality.


Today a variety of forces converge on us at work, resulting in increased pressure and incredible demands on our time. Some of these forces are subtle, others overpowering. It is difficult to escape them. I think of these pressures as enjoyment robbers and we are going to explore some of them in this chapter. Quite likely, their presence in your organization accounts for your desire to downshift.

The Competitive Pressures

One reason we are enjoying our jobs less arises from the impact of the global economy. Competitive pressures bring more mergers and downsizing, and with them a double whammy: the fear of job loss on the one hand and increased work burdens on the other. Margie's story is a case in point:

Margie is a single mom with two children, ages 7 and 10. She works for a medium-sized insurance company that was recently acquired by an insurance giant. Within one month of the acquisition, two departments were relocated some 800 miles away at the giant's headquarters. While her department of thirty-five was kept in its original location, it was reorganized, and in the process eight jobs were eliminated.

Of course, the term reorganization was a euphemism. In reality, the staff was reduced by eight and the work redistributed among the remaining employees. Margie's workload now increased significantly, making it impossible for her to leave each evening in time to cook dinner.

Margie feels afraid that if she doesn't keep up with the new workload she might be terminated. She feels frustrated, too, when working late leaves the children to fend for themselves. She needs the income and is good at what she does, but there's no indication that things will improve. She wonders if she should start "looking."

In a nutshell, competitive pressure forces management to get more productivity from fewer people. While such efforts enhance profits, they also make for long, strenuous workdays that can drive conscientious workers into the ground. "I work half-days—12 hours!" is a jest heard in many offices.

How bad is it for you? Check out "Signs of Overwork" for a list of symptoms characteristic of overworked individuals. Put a checkmark before any of those that describe you. If you checked five or more of these items, you're probably overworked—more than likely, your life is out of balance. It can be dangerous for your health and your close relationships, good reasons to examine downshifting possibilities.


_____ My family complains about my absence at many evening meals.

_____ I bring work home almost every weekend.

_____ I have uncomfortable feelings about my strong work focus.

_____ At work, I experience frustration about never seeming to get caught up.

_____ I often feel best when I'm busy, whether it's at work or home.

_____ I call into work at least twice while away on vacation.

_____ I postponed or changed my vacation dates at least once during the past year.

_____ I've been quietly harboring a desire to work less and get off the treadmill.

_____ I feel angry about all that my employer expects of me.

_____ Those close to me often express displeasure about my being away so much on business trips.

_____ I feel guilty when I leave work on time.

The Corporate Culture

The subtle influences that impact negatively on how we work are often unspoken. These stem from the corporate culture reflected in the example set by those above us. If, for instance, our boss comes in each Saturday morning, or works until seven every evening, these work patterns soon become the unspoken norm. No one in authority says that you must stay late or be present on Saturday morning, but you feel the pressure to do so. In some organizations, leaving early on the eve of a holiday is frowned upon. Whatever the unspoken pressures are in your organization, they will almost always reduce your freedom and increase the burden of your job.

Pressure to Make the Numbers

In many companies work becomes less tolerable because there is constant pressure to "make the numbers." In these organizations, the implied threat is to make them or else. So everyone works hard to look good now. Never mind what negative implications current actions may have for the future. If you don't look good now, you may have no future. As one plant manager said to me, "It's phony and degrading—a helluva way to have to work."

As consultant to a major food corporation, I can vividly recall stories about salespeople persuading friendly customers: "Order a carload now. You can cancel the order next week." In this way, many sales managers met their regional quotas. But it was a house of cards, and there came a day some years later when it came tumbling down. The company's stock value plummeted and another firm acquired them.

Pressure to Serve More Customers

e-Mail now makes it possible for workers to be in touch with far more people than ever before. In addition, with this instantaneous new tool each of your customers or contacts expects a more rapid response than in the days of typewriters and copy machines. Communicating with more people, each of whom expects an instant response, often leads to to-do lists that couldn't be completed in an 80-hour workweek.

Rapid Change

We have all heard about the exponential speed with which life around us is changing. This often translates into increased workplace pressure. Because change occurs so rapidly, we feel the need to be on top of things. This manifests itself in the need to be almost constantly in touch. Even when we choose not to check in, others take advantage of our accessibility and call us! You know the pressure to keep in touch has to be strong when golfers carry phones in their golf bags or when work-related calls are made or received during a family night out. As getting away from the job becomes more difficult, our freedom ebbs away.

Symptomatic of today's go-go business world is the growing effort of advertisers to convince consumers that their products will help bring simplicity back to their lives. The Associated Press put it this way: "Use of the word simple in advertising may not be new, but marketers say it is becoming more prominent as Americans try to restore some calm to frenetic lifestyles."

Overwhelming Work Burdens

Many individuals, especially those who work in corporate staff assignments or in the helping professions, find themselves in job situations in which an overwhelming number of tasks confront them. In most cases, they have no control over the workflow; it just keeps coming. Trying harder to keep up seems to attract more work, negating any progress they've made. Often, when extra effort is extended, no appreciation is expressed. If you are in a job such as this, you're in a classic burnout situation. One seminar participant put it this way: "John, I'm so busy that I don't have time even to think about, much less plan for, downshifting."

All of these pressures, added to personal ones, can make life frenetic. We work faster, log more hours, eat at our desks, take work home, call in while on vacation, and still fear for our job. Are you angry about it? So are lots of others. You have a right to be upset. And anger isn't the only consequence of work pressures. Fatigue, loneliness, and diminished intimacy with loved ones are also prices we pay. It doesn't have to be that way.

That you want to make a change to get more enjoyment out of your personal life and work is natural and normal. Why wouldn't anyone want more personal freedom to build closer family relationships, improve on health, reach out to others, and pursue activities they enjoy? Sound appealing? If so, come along and I'll show you how to get off this crazy merry-go-round and live a little!


This chapter discusses the many workplace forces that reduce our personal freedom and are beyond our control. It is unlikely they will go away. For this reason, it makes sense to take greater charge of your life. You can to alter the work demands that rob you of time and energy for family and friends, or for pursuing non-work activities. Given today's work environment, it is altogether reasonable to seek some relief.

In the next two chapters, we're going to explore some forces that could hinder your downshifting. It is important to understand these pressures so that you can identify the most constructive ways for overcoming them. After that, we're on our way to taking some action steps!

Questions for Reflection

1. What bothers me most about my current job and/or work climate?

2. 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?

3. Have I shared my dissatisfactions about my current job situation with those I care about (and who care about me)? If not, why not? If yes, how did they react to my concerns? What does their reaction tell me about proceeding further?

4. If I had more personal time available, what is one way I would spend it?

5. How do I stop myself from setting limits on my work?

Chapter Two


Young executives experience a high as they begin their first job. The title, the secretary, lunches with the "big boys," the sense of power, the heady feeling of associating with the affluent— there is something seductive and quickly addicting about all of this.

Barrie Greiff and Preston Munter, Tradeoffs: Executive, Family and Organizational Life


In the last chapter we saw how workplace pressures often make downshifting attractive and desirable. However, to borrow from the vernacular, cutting back "ain't gonna be easy." If you are like most individuals contemplating reducing your work time, anxiety over potentially reduced income is right in the forefront. It's like cutting back on desserts—it may be the healthy thing to do, but you know that you're going to miss the goodies.

Even if income isn't of great concern, the potential for losing some of the positive aspects of your job also tugs at you. Will you have to give up those activities and social interactions that bring satisfaction and fulfillment?

In this chapter, we'll explore two significant forces that conspire to trap us into working too hard and hence make downshifting difficult. They are:

• Contemporary lifestyles

• Work satisfactions

As we explore these two forces, it will be helpful to identify the ones that most strongly influence you. By cataloguing job traps, you'll be able to determine ways to minimize their impact. For my part, I'll assist by describing practical, action steps that will relieve the pressure. Let's start by examining how the world around us traps us in our work.

Buying into The Plan

Believe it or not, the world around you has a Plan for how you should live your life. The media as well as the words and actions of our contemporaries promulgate The Plan. Most of it has to do with priorities and values. We are often unaware how much our thinking and actions are influenced by outside pressures.

During a recent seminar in Kansas City, Vince, a communications firm VP, spoke with me about his desire to live out a long-cherished dream to own a small marina in the Ozarks. He was complaining that he couldn't move ahead on it. I asked him why not.

Vince: John, I still have to put two kids through college.

John: Who says?

Vince: Well, one's going to be a senior this fall, and the other is two years behind ...

John: Who says? Who says you have to put your children through college? Did your parents foot all your college expenses?

Vince: Oh, I see what you mean. As a matter of fact, they didn't have the resources to help me at all.

In Vince's social milieu, almost all families provide for their children's college education. It is done without much questioning. This is how his world tells Vince to behave. Most likely, Vince never considered other options like local colleges, partial support, the availability of part-time work, and so on.

I was not, of course, attempting to dissuade him from providing for his children's education. I was simply suggesting that he examine the source of the obstacle that was holding him back from pursuing the marina purchase and to consider alternatives.

Commonplace Constraints

If you are now hesitating to downshift, part of that reluctance may originate in the world's Plan for living—a plan that may or may not be right for you. The key here is being aware of how such influences are constraining you and your decisions. Here are a few such influences:

More is better. The implication is that acquiring things will bring us happiness. Therefore, it's accepted as the norm, even admirable, to seek higher and higher income, bigger houses, more job advancement, and more possessions—the more luxurious, the better. Things are valued over relationships. It is obvious, of course, that the pursuit of "more" requires plenty of money, which in turn drives us to work harder. We justify having little or no time or energy left for other important parts of life like health, family, and relationships on the basis that we need to maintain our income.

Buy now, pay later. "You deserve it." Immediate gratification is a common theme in advertisements. Credit cards make it easy. The idea of saving up for something is seen as old-fashioned. The parallels carry over to relationships. For example, if the marriage has problems, get a divorce. Many hesitate to downshift because they fear loss of ability to have it all now.

The customer is always right. Total dedication is valued. The expectation is that you won't disappoint the customer, that you won't say "No, I can't" and that you don't say "I can't get it right away." The pressure for customer satisfaction is often so strong that downshifting isn't even perceived as a possibility.


Excerpted from DOWNSHIFTING by JOHN D. DRAKE Copyright © 2000 by John D. Drake. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Drake has served as consultant to companies including AT&T, Atlantic Richfield, Citibank, GTA, and the World Bank. A well-known psychologist speaker, and author, he sold his own firm, Drake Beam and Associates Inc., to a major publishing company in order to downshift, and is now the chairman of the board of Drake Inglesi Milardo Inc.

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