You don’t need to earn millions. Chances are, if you already have a pretty good job, you may not even need a pay rise.
The real valuable commodity for a better life is time.
Time for yourself, to spend as you choose.
I remember back in the nineties when I was still a teenager, people were worried that new technologies were going to take people’s jobs. The message we were sold was that it was going to be a gift, post 2000 we would finally have more free time to enjoy our lives.
Many people wondered what on earth they would do with all that extra free time, and here we are now decades later. It seems that we’ve got even less time for ourselves than ever.
A lot of people don’t really know what would make their lives happier and more fulfilling. There is just an assumption that more money and things will help. That’s the message we are sold because consumerism is what makes the current economic model work.
Yet why is it so many people who’ve one the lotto say it was the worst thing that could have happened to them? Even without the pandemic, it seems that fewer and fewer people I know are actually happy. Instead, I hear more and more people talking about stress and mental health.
So many people working in the corporate world are working more and more, to try and earn more, to buy things and create a lifestyle they don’t have time to enjoy. And you never reach a point of contentment because it’s an endless cycle. If you died tomorrow, what value will it all have had?
We all have the ability to make changes and re-design our lives to suit us better. You can challenge the societal norms. In fact, I dare you.
Less is more.
You know those people who go live on a tropical island somewhere, that you envy? Most of them don’t actually have much money. Sure, some do. But I didn’t. I went and tried it out for myself for a year and most of the people I met had given up most of their possessions and chose to live more simply and within their humble means.
I believe the secret to living better is to prioritise your time and money on what actually gives you joy and optimises your sense of wellbeing.
This kind of life generally requires less of everything. Less work, less stress, fewer things, fewer commitments, fewer bills, fewer cares, fewer worries.
More time. More contentment. That’s it.
When I say less work, I don’t mean being a “bum” and doing nothing – unless you can afford that and that’s what you choose, in which case, good for you. Of course we probably still need an income to take care of our basic needs. I just mean not burning yourself out just trying to pay for a lifestyle you don’t have time to enjoy. It about finding, what buddhists call, the middle way. A healthy balance.
What’s your dream lifestyle?
Have you really ever thought about what your ideal day would actually be like? If you truly do some soul searching, you might find it has less to do about possessions and more about a quality of experience or feeling.
My idea of a nice lifestyle is one where I can get enough good sleep every day. I want that that fresh and good-to-be-alive feeling. I want to live slowly and unhurriedly so I have “time” to enjoy the moment and all the wonderful delights of feeling curious and present.
If I expanded on that, my ideal lifestyle is about having more freedom to structure my day that suits my sense of wellbeing. It’s having the time to cook wholesome delicious meals for my partner and I, to have time to meditate, to spend time being creative or reading, to enjoy some time doing exercise or in nature, to do something grounding like some household chores or playing with the neighbours cats, and to do some hours of solid work. I don’t have to do these things every day, but regularly enough.
I actually want to have time to do my own household chores and not pay someone else to do them.
My physical requirements for this lifestyle are a quiet, comfortable place to live (small is fine), somewhere with access to nature, access to fresh food and ingredients for cooking, some essential belongings and not much else really.
This lifestyle is all about spending less so I can have more time to enjoy and savour my days. It’s not about being rich and owning lots of things. It’s about not having mortgages, debts or commitments that constantly cause me stress or worry about the future.
This is the life I have now. One day I’d also like to have a garden to look after and maybe grow my own food. But I’m really content.
A bigger salary doesn’t mean more happiness
One of my first jobs was for a very junior role in a big international investment bank. It could have been my long term career. I was put on a training programme to become an investment banker. But it was the most miserable place I have ever worked. Everybody looked so unhappy all the time, some even confessed to me that they wished they could do something more meaningful with their lives, but felt trapped by the expensive lifestyle they had become used to. That was not the way I wanted to spend my life. I felt like my soul was literally dying in that job, so I quit, without any savings or another job to go to.
I eventually found a great job for a company I really loved working for, but I still had lessons to learn about what is really important about work and income.
One day I moaned to a senior colleague of mine about my pay, I felt I worked really hard and wasn’t rewarded fairly. Thinking I’d get some sympathy, my colleague actually warned me that as you earn more you just find more ways to spend it. They pointed out that the cash flow doesn’t get better, because you simply have bigger expenses to look forward to: a mortgage, a loan for a car, a big wedding, day care or school expenses for the children and so on.
I thought to myself that that won’t happen to me because I thought I wasn’t materialistic and wouldn’t spend my money on those kind of things.
A few years later I got the promotions and payrises I had wanted, I was making a good income, but I just found other ways to spend my money instead.
I spent all my money eating out with friends or getting take aways most nights. I couldn’t actually cook. I travelled abroad several times a year on vacation, took up expensive hobbies with expensive equipment to go with it. And rather than borrow things I rarely needed, I would have to buy the best and newest things.
Be more clever about spending and saving. Spend less.
Yawn. It sounds so obvious and so boring at the same time.
But it’s the simple, simple truth. I had to learn it the hard way.
Don’t spend what you don’t have, or on things you don’t really need.
Live within your means.
And before you tell yourself you couldn’t possibly spend any less, ask yourself how true that really is. I used to say that to myself all the time until one day my friend told me she was buying a flat.
Now, she is the same age, we lived in similar areas, we had similar salaries and in the space of 5 years she managed to save for a deposit on a nice flat.
I, on the other hand, was drowning in debt and was panicking about how I would pay the bills that month. She ended up lending me some money to help tide me over for a few months. But it was a huge wake up call.
How on earth was it possible?
She went on holidays, dressed nicely and seemed to have a nice lifestyle so I didn’t get it. She didn’t buy the cheapest things either, in fact she always seemed to have good quality items. I thought we were living such similar lifestyles that we must have had similar finances.
But probing her further and just starting to pay attention to how she lived her life, I learnt so much.
Really all it came down to was that she didn’t waste money. It was little things like bringing a packed lunch to work each day instead of spending it all on take away like me. She walked to work most of the time and saved on gym and transport fees. She bought good quality items that lasted many years and didn’t need replacing all the time. She put a modest amount of money aside every month, avoided unnecessary spending and it all added up after 5 years.
The way I live my life now is very much inspired by her. She was very mindful about how she spent her money. She was always great at finding ways NOT to spend it while still enjoying a good quality of life.
Different ways of working.
Work less. Do more of what you enjoy.
An important part of the equation is looking at the way we work.
We need to create a society that supports better quality of wellbeing and life. Giving people the flexibility to work in different ways will benefit businesses and individuals alike.
I love what Ariana Huffington is doing with her company Thrive Global, for example. She learnt herself the lessons of overworking and not getting enough rest. Too many of us have lost our boundaries and are expected to be available to reach 24/7. Most of us are not actually saving lives so this is crazy. It helps no one. We are least productive and make more errors when we are not well rested.
You don’t necessarily need to quit your job to find happiness. It could be you just need to work less. If you can identify what it is you really love, and also dislike, about your work, maybe you could find the happy balance.
The goal of working less is simply to reclaim time for yourself so you can have time and opportunity to nurture your wellbeing and give space for your soul.
I have always hated working in an office. Even when working for the company I loved the most, I found it a massive challenge. I loved my job and the people I worked with, but physically, from a wellbeing perspective, I could never feel good about spending that much time in an artificial working environment looking at a screen.
No pretty views, no quiet space or privacy (it was open plan), no nature, having to wear clothes I didn’t feel comfortable in just to be seen to fit in and impress (buying work clothes can get very expensive!), having meeting after meeting in stuffy airless rooms and barely any time or energy left to exercise. I was exhausted every day, just the act of commuting across London was exhausting in itself. Knowing that pretty much everyone living in London and in cities across the globe probably feel the same, it made no sense to me why we continued to live like this.
Then one day our company introduced hot-desking which was the death knell of whatever little joy I had left for working in an office.
The 4 day working week
My life changed when my boss told me that if I wanted to consider going part time, he would be ok with that. He knew that although I wasn’t planning on having children, I had lots of creative interests that might one day lure me away. He wanted to keep me happy and also still in his team. I was really lucky that he was so supportive.
I liked the idea of trying the part-time lifestyle. Although it would involve a reduction in pay, I knew I could afford to, so I gave it a go. I started working 4 days a week and it was the best thing ever!
Having more time for myself made me happier, more relaxed and more productive on the days I was in the office. I also spent less money overall. The desire to spend dropped when I was enjoying my quality of life more.
One of the employee benefits my company also offered was that you could buy or sell one week of your holiday back to the company. I had always bought a week of extra holiday each year, but when I went part-time, I ended up needing a lot less holiday.
I just didn’t feel like I needed to get away on vacations anymore because I was enjoying my life so much more.
Dropping to a 4 day work week — with a reduction in salary — worked out financially the same as working full time, because I naturally started spending less. That was without even consciously trying to make the effort to be frugal.
I also lost all desire and the pressure to keep climbing the corporate ladder at this point. I had only ever felt a little bit of ambition previously, because when I worked full time, that was all I had going for me in life.
Once I made space in my life for creative pursuits and a more relaxed lifestyle, I didn’t feel the need to keep striving more and more.
I appreciate that not all employers show that much flexibility, but unless you ask you may never find out. And unless everyone starts asking more, nothing will change.
Consider other alternative working arrangements
I’ve tried out pretty much all the different alternatives of employment, from full time corporate work with unpaid overtime, to part-time, freelance/self-employment and contract work. I’ve had jobs with great salaries and bonuses and also really low paid jobs. I don’t have an opinion on which is best, it really depends on all the circumstances.
The benefit of a part time arrangement is that you have the security of a monthly salary and any other employee benefits to cover your monthly bills like rent. Anything else you do or earn is a bonus. And you still get to feel part of a company, a team while having your independence and freedom to pursue what nourishes your soul.
Life was a lot more challenging once I committed to full time self-employment. You can’t just put your earnings straight into your pocket, you have to take care of your own overheads, equipment, you don’t get sick leave – so if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. And you have to remember to put money aside for your taxes. So it’s worth having a bit of a financial plan for yourself and learning about running a business so that it doesn’t just become a new source of stress.
What kind of life would you design if you worked a little less?
I invite you to think about what your dream lifestyle would look and feel like, and whether you could find a way to design that lifestyle with what is already within your reach.
If you were to go from full time work to part time, perhaps you also wonder what you would do with all that time on your hands.
You might find enjoyment in the simple things like gardening, cooking, spending time with your kids, starting to write that book you keep thinking about. Simply not feeling rushed all the time and being able to savour the moment is wonderful.
Or you could use your time to give back to society, maybe volunteer for something, get involved with your local community. Something that is meaningful to you and will therefore nourish you.
There are many different options you could explore. I hope that post pandemic, more businesses will be supportive of more flexible arrangements because we’ve seen how working models can work in different ways already.
What I am suggesting is that we can learn to love and feel content with what we already have, if we have the time to actually enjoy it.