Downshifting: The first day of the rest of my life

by J.D. Roth

“This is it,” I told my wife last Monday.

“This is what?” Kris asked.

“This is the first day of the rest of my life,” I said. She knew what I meant. For the past few years, I’ve been living in a self-created whirlwind of busy-ness. I know a blog like this often seems calm and quiet on the surface, but underneath there’s usually a flurry of turbulent activity.

“Look,” I said, showing her my calendar. “As of today, I have nothing major scheduled. I don’t have any book deadlines, I don’t have any speaking engagements. I don’t have anything at all.”

When Money Meant More Than Time

Before I started Get Rich Slowly in 2006, I had a lot of free time. After I got home from my job selling custom boxes every day, I could do whatever I wanted. I could read comic books, play videogames, work in the yard, watch old movies with Kris, or hang out with my friends. Financially, I was deep in debt, but I had a vast surplus of time.

When I started this blog, one of my goals was to use some of this surplus free time to make more money. In a way, I wanted to convert time into cash. During the past four years, I’ve gradually taken every spare moment I once had, and now use that time to read and write about money. This happened slowly, of course, but by January of this year, the change was complete. I lived and breathed money.

But you know what? I found that having a high income and no free time was just as frustrating as having lots of time and a pile of debt. A life out of balance is a life out of balance.

The side effects of my life with no spare time haven’t been pretty:

For years I’ve been promising Kris that, “As soon as this project is over, my schedule will loosen up.” But something new has always come up. My schedule is always full, and I never have any time for the important things in life.

Things came to a climax during the book project. While I was writing and promoting Your Money: The Missing Manual, I had zero time for anything else. (Even Get Rich Slowly took a backseat to the book!) As I’ve mentioned many times, I was so stressed that I ate all of the time, gaining 20 pounds in four months. Yikes!

After I turned in the final book edits in February, Kris and I took a vacation to Belize. I needed a few days to unwind, but once I did, I realized my life was out of control. I remembered what the old J.D. used to be like: relaxed, friendly, and easy-going. Now I was highly strung. Surely there was some sort of middle ground between between time and money?

Committed to No Commitments

Over the past few months, I’ve gradually reduced my obligations. The last major thing I had on my schedule was speaking at the Savvy Blogging Summit. Now I’m intentionally not doing things:

I’ve managed to cut my commitments to the basics; I have no large projects looming on the horizon. Along with some other behind-the-scenes changes (including the addition of the staff writers last year), I now should have some big chunks of free time.

What will I do with this new-found temporal wealth? I’ll spend a lot of it with my wife: We’ll work in the yard, watch old movies together, and go on a couple of trips. I’ll exercise in the morning, and I’ll practice my French in the afternoon. I’ve already begun to dig into my comic book collection, and that’s been a blast. Plus, Starcraft II comes out in a couple of weeks, which should provide hours of fun

And, oh yeah! I’ll also be able to spend more time writing articles for GRS — articles like this one.

Big Rocks

The transition won’t be immediate, of course; it’s going to take effort to change my workaholic mindset. But I’m intent on insuring that the turbulent activity beneath the surface of this blog doesn’t drag my life along with it again. I’ve set up systems to solve the problem. In other words, I’m striving to find balance. Instead of letting my life be only about money, I’m going to make room for other priorities, too.

In Work Less, Live More (still one of my favorite personal finance books), Bob Clyatt offers a simple metaphor for making room in your life for the important stuff. The secret, he says, is prioritizing:

Imagine you have an empty jar, a collection of a few large rocks, and several handfuls of gravel. Your task is to put all the large and small rocks into the jar. One approach would be to pile all the gravel first, but doing so would leave room for only one or two of the large rocks; you wouldn’t get everything to fit. Switch your approach and put the large rocks in first, and you’ll find that the gravel will all fit nicely around the empty space. If a bit of gravel doesn’t fit at the end, you’ve not lost much.

Let too many little things take priority, and there never seems to be time for the big things. Consider the Big Rocks to be really important things you want to accomplish in life, the things that define you. Get the big things in first, work on the right projects and priorities, and let the little stuff fit in around the edges. Let your Big Rocks be non-negotiable priorities in your weekly calendar — and learn to say “no” when other things begin to intrude. Then fit those other things in where you can.

So if running makes you happy, schedule your runs — and then fit the rest of your life around them. Don’t ignore your obligations, but make the stuff you have to do fit around the stuff you want to do, not the other way around.

Make an appointment with yourself. I’ve learned that if I really want to make something a priority, I sometimes have to schedule it. Because fitness is so important to me this year, for example, I’ve intentionally blocked off time on my Google calendar to exercise. Is it before 9am on Sunday through Thursday? Sorry. I can’t do what you’re asking. I’m busy. I have an appointment with myself at the gym or on my bike. Is it between four and five on a weekday afternoon? Sorry. I’m studying French.

As much as I love Clyatt’s analogy, there’s just one problem. Most of us start with our jars already full of rocks. How then do we find room for the stuff we want to do?

You don’t necessarily need to drop your current obligations, but as they end, don’t add more. Drop things (and let things end) until you are easily able to fit the Big Rocks into your schedule. Once you’re sure that everything fits, and that you have enough time for yourself, it’s okay to add something else to the jar. But only add one thing at a time. If you can handle that, then add something else.

Rich in Time

Last month, I wrote about the rewards of thrift. By being frugal, I said, and by saving my money, I’m able to spend money on the things that are important to me. GRS reader Dink left an insightful comment on that article:

There’s no need to worry about getting “rich” either slowly or quickly; if you’re rich in time, and comfortable financially, you’re better off than most people, poor or wealthy. Time is the real currency. Just look at what J.D. is showing…his time to cycle, his time to go to his gym, his time to travel. Freedom of time is what I personally strive for, where I can wake up one day and be my own master. While I’m lucky that I both enjoy my job and get paid well, it’s a complete time-suck. All I want is to reclaim my time.

I love the notion of being “rich in time”. I’d never though of it that way before, but now I can see that this idea has been a huge motivating factor for me over the past year. Sure, I’ve been able to create monetary wealth for myself, but I’ve done so at the expense of time. Because of this, in some ways I’ve felt poorer. These past few months have been all about me re-learning what it feels like to be rich in time.

I’ve been looking for balance, and — at last — I think I may have found it.

Updated: 19 July 2010

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