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Downshifting: How to Achieve Work Life Balance

Kymberly has managed many chronic illnesses for 25+ years, including sciatica, costochondritis, fibromyalgia, PTSD, endometriosis, and more.

Downshifting looks different for everyone—but it always involves some form of balance.

Downshifting looks different for everyone—but it always involves some form of balance.

What Is Downshifting?

Originally, the term "downshifting" referred to changing to a lower gear in a manual geared car as an additional braking method. More recently, the intention behind the word remains the same, but the usage is slightly different. In a business context, downshifting means reducing output (economic or manufacturing). It might be an idea for the European countries, with troubled economies and huge debts, to learn about downshifting!

Today, downshifting is used mostly in the UK and Australia to refer to the gradual process of changing your life, so it is simpler, quieter, balanced, and much less stressful.

National Downshifting Week encourages participants to "Slow Down and Green Up" and runs from 21st - 27th April each year.

Strategies for Downshifting

While searching for a better balance between work and living, downshifters may do any or all of the following:

  • reduce their work hours to have more time and less stress.
  • reduce their income, often as a result of reducing work hours.
  • reduce their spending and consumption levels, often to compensate for a reduced income.
  • reduce their job responsibilities or change careers to reduce stress and work in an environment that matches their personal values.

Many also reach out to their family and friends and connect with their local community, seeking a sense of fulfillment and happiness from their relationships rather than from material things.

Balancing Work and Life

Downshifting is done primarily to achieve a better work-life balance. Most people don't want to be office rats with long commutes for most of their lives; they want a balanced, healthy life that is supported by their work, not overrun by it!

Simple living, slow movement, and downshifting are similar concepts that became popular in the 1990s. Interest has grown over the years as people react to over-consumption, rising work pressures, and increased environmental awareness.

Learning to balance life and work is a gradual process. Some days it will work perfectly. At other times you will still feel like you are drowning. During those times, I tell myself to breathe, refocus, simplify and slow down.

Societal Pressure Against Downshifting

"He who dies with the most (money, toys, handbags, ... ), dies"

Western society is very materialistic—encouraging people to always want more, new, better, and shiny items. Society fosters the need to 'keep up with the Joneses,' and requires people to stay in high-pressure, high-stress jobs they don't enjoy.

Advertising conditions all of us, from young children to the elderly, to buy what we don't necessarily need. We are pressured to buy gifts for all occasions, Mothers' and Fathers' days, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, weddings, births, anniversaries, graduation, and many more.

Downshifting is a grass-roots response to this pressure to over-consume.

Downshifting doesn't mean you must stop working.

Downshifting doesn't mean you must stop working.

What Downshifting Isn't

  • Downshifting doesn't mean suddenly giving up your job and moving to your own farm off the grid, especially if you enjoy your job!
  • It doesn't mean selling or getting rid of all your possessions, only those that are not useful or meaningful to you.
  • It doesn't mean changing careers and working for non-profit organizations, although some downshifters seek this change.
  • It doesn't mean you will never travel nor buy new things ever again, just that you will think about your purchases and travels.
  • It is not an escape—it is a search for purpose, balance, fulfillment, and happiness.

Downshifting is all about pulling gradually back from the past-paced work-spend cycle that dominates our lives, keeping us in a never-ending rat race. You keep doing the activities and hold on to the items that are meaningful and useful to you.

You choose new activities that you enjoy and make smart purchases that you will enjoy. Downshifting is about finding the work-life balance at which you, and your family, are most comfortable.

Why Do People Downshift?

Some new parents downshift when their child is born, opting to stop work to take care of their child. It is common to slowly downshift as you enter retirement—with gradual, planned reductions in your workload and a rebalanced life—to limit the shock of suddenly plunging into total free time (and no salary).

Sometimes Downshifting Is Sudden or Involuntary

Unfortunately, a large number of downshifters are forced into the situation without any planning—becoming seriously ill, or redundant. Their sudden situation change required them to re-balance and reorganize their lives to be simpler and healthier. Even some retirees never planned how they would leave the working society.

Companies may be forced to suddenly downshift due to global (or local) economic situations, or a serious interruption in their supply chain or operations, caused by natural disasters or other reasons.

Voluntary Downshifting

A voluntary decision to downshift may be based on a number of reasons:

  • Reduce stress and have a better work-life balance.
  • Change to a more fulfilling career away from a job that holds no interest and only provides stress.
  • Have more time to spend with family and friends, to enjoy hobbies and follow interests.
  • Improve health by spending more time exercising, or another activity that reduces stress levels and increases fitness. Also includes cooking from scratch instead of eating packaged meals or take-away.
  • Reduce spending and clutter, reducing the emotional overhead of having too much stuff, spending too much and feeling pressured to work long hours.
  • Support the local community by volunteering, or buying locally, or participating in local activities instead of travelling.
  • Help the environment by reducing consumption.

My Downshifting Journey

I was forced to downshift after multiple operations and diagnoses of chronic illnesses, unfortunately, most without cures. Overworked in a high pressure, unrewarding corporate job, I realized I needed to change my way of life to prevent burnout and worse health.

Although I still struggle with the pressure applied by society to work long hours and buy more than I need, downshifting has meant the symptoms are less severe and more easily dealt with. Even though I do something I love (teaching languages at a community college, photographing and writing), I often find myself without time to relax, stressing over the out-of-class workload and low income.

Steps to Downshifting

Think about your ideal life, where you want to be, and what you would like to change in your current situation.

  • Do you want to work less?
  • Have less stress?
  • Be healthier?
  • Be happier?
  • Have more time?
  • Spend less?
  • Have less clutter?

Search for small steps that will get you closer to your ideal situation. Plan to gradually and consistently take these tiny steps to reach your ideal. Don't forget to plan for an unexpected and more drastic downshift!

Plan how you will approach a downshift.

Plan how you will approach a downshift.

Planning to Downshift

Even if you don't want to downshift right now, it is a good idea to think about what you would do in case you (or a family member) became ill or lost your job. Companies can also use these questions to plan for unexpected bad economic situations.

When and In What Situations Would You Consider Downshifting?

  • How would you deal with new or different stress caused by downshifting?
  • What is your plan for gradual downshifting?
  • What is your plan for an emergency downshift, if you or a family member becomes ill or loses their job?

How Could You Manage With Less Income?

  • Could you sell some of the items in your home—reducing clutter and earning a little at the same time?
  • Would you consider moving cities, or even countries, for a new job?
  • What about moving into a smaller house or apartment?
  • Would you start a 'side' or part-time job to earn a little extra?
Downshifting meant I could spend more time hiking! Healthier than sitting all day on office chairs and then spending the evening on the sofa.

Downshifting meant I could spend more time hiking! Healthier than sitting all day on office chairs and then spending the evening on the sofa.

What Would You Do With Your Spare Time?

  • Could you learn something new, take up a hobby, or relearn an instrument?
  • Would you volunteer or spend more time with your family?
  • Could you plant a garden and grow your own food?
  • How would you focus on improving your health and losing weight?
  • Would you learn to cook or bake from scratch?

In What Areas Could You Save Money?

  • What can you recycle and reuse?
  • Could you go paperless in the office or at home?
  • How would you reduce expenses?

How Could You Encourage Others Around You to Be Comfortable With Downshifting?

  • How would you encourage the members of your family, especially children, to accept downshifting?
  • What about the employees in your company?
  • What free activities could you enjoy with your family and friends?

A Well-Planned Downshift Is Best

Planning to downshift, whether it be due to an unexpected situation or not, lessens the pain of change, for individuals, families and even companies.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Would you consider downshifting? Why or why not? Have you downshifted?

Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on November 27, 2014:

Agreed Janet - I took that 'ideal day' as more of a joke - appealing to the ideal day of the 'average' man with/without a family.

Janet Speake on November 25, 2014:

I listened to about 3/4 of the TED talk. I was horrified by the man's attitude towards his children. He is a father of 4, yet the perfect "balanced" day he describes involves no time with his children save for one meal. His own son thought it was the "best day of his life" when his father hung out with him once after school. Presumably, as someone who is advocating "balance", this man has achieved a degree of flexibility in his day. Yet he seems to regard parenting as largely his wife's responsibility. I find this appalling and to me it means he has little credibility.

Scott Petoff from USA and Ireland on December 04, 2013:

Thanks for the excellent overview of downshifting including the life/career causes and benefits to work-life balance. I also agree with the comments that the TED talk you shared was inspiring.

While you suggest that people who downshift will likely travel less, my perspective is different. Yes travel can be financially difficult for some, but that also depends on the type and goals of travel. You do not need to buy an expensive plane ticket to enjoy the rewards of visiting new places. It can be as simple as taking more time off to visit state and national parks or nearby small towns and big-city neighborhoods.

Of course some people do decide to take more time off work specifically to travel and not wait until retirement. It certainly can deliver the benefits you talk about such as greater life fulfillment and stress reduction. Remember too that travel could be for leisure, cultural enrichment, volunteer reasons and adventure.

-Scott, VacationCounts

Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 17, 2012:

Eliza - I'd also love for employers to recognise the productivity boost and encourage more of their employees to work from home (and shout down those who complain about 'preferential treatment'). Thanks so much for your feedback! TED talks are always inspiring!

Lisa McKnight from London on May 17, 2012:

Gorgeous, nice layout and an inspiration to anyone considering a change in lifestyle and approach to work. Love TED talks. Super duper inspiring stuff on there. I hope more employers will realise that creative types, especially, can do a lot better working to their own tune from home, in a downshifty type way. :)

Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 13, 2012:

Marisa - Thank you! I love the TED talks, they always are interesting and full of information. Have fun, and best of luck in gradually shifting to a slower gear!

Marisa Hammond Olivares from Texas on May 12, 2012:

This is great food for thought. Downshifting has certainly been on my mind lately and I'm really evaluating my quality of life. I'm a big fan of Ted and I'm glad you included a video from Ted. You've got me thinking and it may be high time for me to adjust my gears a bit.

Thought provoking

Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 11, 2012:

Alissa - Glad you have enjoyed downshifting (and this hub!) Unsurprisingly, downshifting often increases happiness, both in the downshifter and to those around them (through their happiness). Thank you!

Alissa Roberts from Normandy, TN on May 11, 2012:

A fantastic hub! I downshifted over 4 years ago to be with my boys and it was the best decision of my life. Financially it has been hard but so worth it because I am a much happier person now. Thanks for this great hub! Voted up and sharing!

Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 11, 2012:

CleverCat - Thank you! That section was inspired by people who thought I'd be shifting back to the 'stone age' :-)

Teresa - the flexibility is great isn't it! And working part time lets us still do something we love (teaching)!

Teresa Coppens from Ontario, Canada on May 10, 2012:

I took a lead ve from teaching full time after my third son was born. I went back a few years later as an occasional teacher. It gave me the gift of being able to do what I love with the flexibility to spend a lot of time with my kids. It was very necessary downshifting at the time but has turned into a grat lifestyle!

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on May 10, 2012:

This is a beautiful hub. I liked it all, but especially where you explained what downshifting is not. Voted up and beautiful!

Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 09, 2012:

Thanks Suzanne! Let me know what your family thinks of it, and good luck! Downshifting can introduce its own stress at time, but in small steps, it's very manageable.

Suzanne Sankey from Sarnia on May 08, 2012:

Wonderful Hub!!! I am in the process of trying to convince my family to "downshift". I would love to be almost completely self sustainable and not have to work extra hours just to pay for utilities. I have to make sure I show them your hub. :) Suzy