A brave experiment in lifestyle design, or a crazy scheme to save a few quid?
Part 1: The Why
About 18 months ago I joined a cruise ship to find a book in my cabin left there by the previous entertainer. It was called “The Four Hour Work Week”, which made me laugh because that’s precisely all most entertainers on ships work anyway.
The author, Tim Ferriss, says how our current system, where most people sacrifice the best years of their lives for unfulfilling careers, is a mistake.
We give up time with our loved ones, put off perusing our ambitions and spend our lives glued to laptops and mobile phones. With luck we retire at 65 and hope our pensions afford us to do all the things we’ve been putting off. That’s providing our friends haven’t forgotten who we are, and we’ve still got our health.
There is, he says “an insanity of consensus, if you will – to get rich from life rather than live richly, to “do well” in the world instead of living well. And, in spite of the fact that America is famous for its unhappy rich people, most of us remain convinced that just a little more money will set life right”.
I think he has a point. Maybe we should explore other ways of living and working.
One of the benefits of travelling to poorer countries, as I have, is that you realise how little money you actually need to enjoy a good quality of life. Instead of working till we drop, we could chose to work less and give ourselves more of that truly finite resource: time.
By spending less we can afford to work less, and that means more time for what's really important: time and experiences, not money and “stuff”. As traveller Ed Buryn said: “Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”
The good news is that numerous studies have shown that living more simply and avoiding unnecessary purchases makes us happier than when we’re obsessed with material possessions and money. Lusting after new stuff never produces the long-term satisfaction we think it will. No sooner do we have the latest, fastest, shiniest or coolest thing, an even better model comes along to tempt us all over again. Before we know it we're sucked in to a never ending cycle of working, producing and consuming – with little time for actually living. Sony, Prada and Tesco would love us to believe that shopping is all we need for a satisfying life. That's something I don't buy.
In "The Conquest of Happiness", Bertrand Russell puts it like this: “Very many people spend money in ways quite different from those that their natural tastes would enjoin, merely because the respect of their neighbours depends upon their possession of a good car and their ability to give good dinners. As a matter of fact, any man who can obviously afford a car but genuinely prefers travels or a good library will in the end be much more respected than if he behaved exactly like everyone else”.
Having tempted us with an ideal alternative lifestyle, Ferriss presents some practical solutions on how we can make this happen: goal setting, delegation, downsizing, focus and outsourcing.
The starting point is to work for yourself or at least find a job that gives you plenty of autonomy. Control over our own working day is consistently shown as a significant factor in increased happiness and satisfaction.
I didn’t go along with everything in the book, but it was enough to inspire some real changes in my life, which have ultimately left me homeless.
Part 2: The Planning
It's all well and good wanting a better work-life balance, but what does that mean?
First I thought about what I actually wanted to do with my life. To think this through properly is actually surprisingly tricky and does (or at least should) take some time to get right. I find it easier to start from the end and work backwards, for example: imagine you are eighty years old, looking back over your years and telling your life story to a new friend. What sort of a life do you want to have led? What kind of stories would you like to be telling? What kind of experiences do you want to have had? Write it all down and then figure out how you can make it all happen. Plan when you want to do those things and consider how you'll be able to fund them.
I won’t bore you with the details, but for me, broadly speaking, the important things fall into three categories: my singing career (keep doing more of the same), travel (spend more time in my favourite places and really understand local cultures), and personal relationships (see as much of the people I care about as possible).
Deciding What’s Important
I want to work less so, unless I win the Lotto, I need to spend less. In choosing to lead a simpler and more frugal life, I've come to realize how much money I’ve been wasting on superfluous “stuff”. We live in a material culture. We work hard to buy stuff we don’t really need so we can show everyone how “successful” we are, then we throw it away and work some more, so we can buy the next thing. After 9/11, George Bush’s rallying call to the nation was: “Shop!” It’s the way our economies keep on growing: people keep working, so they can keep consuming. Round and round it goes. To do anything else was considered almost un-American! But, as Ferriss points out, “neither self nor wealth can be measured in terms of what you consume or own”.
Of course, all this shopping creates mind-boggling amounts of waste. In the fantastic little book “The Story of Stuff”, I learned about “planned obsolescence”, “externalised costs” and what problems all our waste creates. Our world is fast running out of resources and we need to use what we have we care.
Please don't think I am having a go at one who likes so shop. I certainly am not. I still enjoying buying nice things as much as anyone. The difference now is that I stop... and think... “Do I really need that designer banana tree, Voice Recognition Grocery List Organiser, or for matter anything else from the Sky Mall catalogue?”
After one trip I got home to find my closet packed with clothes almost identical in style, size and colour. Having lived quite happily out of a small suitcase for weeks, the excess staring me in the face was sobering. I immediately gave most of my wardrobe to charity. I've never owned so little and felt so liberated.
Temptation is hard to resist and the advertisers know just how to push our buttons. So when I walk down the High Street, I try to remind myself of the real cost of the stuff we buy.
Dip in to the best-selling book “Affluenza” and you'll find some sobering statistics:
- Americans spend six hours a weeks shopping and only forty minutes playing with their kids
- Two thirds of the US economy is spent on consumer goods
- America has twice as many shopping malls as high schools
- Household debt stands at 125% of disposable income
- Every fifteen seconds an American goes bankrupt
The ancient Hindu Upanishads refer disdainfully to “that chain of possessions wherewith men bind themselves, and beneath which they sink”.
In “Vagabonding”, Rolf Potts put it like this: “The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget there's a difference between the two. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way we can play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we'll never be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience.”
It's simple: spending less means we can afford to earn less, and that gives us freedom.
Part 3: The How. Once I decided what was important, here's how I set about trying to make it happen.
Delegating and outsourcing is not just for managers and large corporations, we can all enjoy its advantages.
It took me a long time to learn this. I never saw the point of paying someone else anything I could do for myself. Trouble was it would take me hours to do something a professional would do in minutes. Nowadays I'm happy to pay other people to share the workload. I've consolidated my suppliers and now work with a handful of people I trust to help me get everything done. Yes, there is a cost, but my extra free time makes it worthwhile.
If there are never enough hours for your to-do list, how about outsourcing your tasks to an Indian call centre? Get Friday, the company I used, will do pretty much anything that doesn't require a physical presence. For say $10 an hour they'll organize your birthday party, complete your tax return and research your dream holiday. If your time is worth more than $10 an hour let them help you to get out of the office and spend more time with the kids.
Protect Your Time – It's Precious
I used to spend half my life on the phone. I loved making calls and taking them. I especially liked checking my voicemail and hearing: “You have 17 messages”. I think it made me feel important and necessary – like dentistry. I felt successful. Then one day I thought: “Who is more 'successful': the man running around like a maniac on the phone all day, or the man sitting on his beach with his phone switched off?
I lived under the delusion that nothing would work properly unless I dealt with it personally. Delegation was a dirty word.
Precipitated by working away, I stopped taking as many calls. I weaned my colleagues and clients on to email as the easiest way to get hold of me. In time, I grew to like it and so did they. Instead of having the phone glued to my face 24/7, I'd check my emails once or twice a day. My staff rose to the challenge; and guess what? Everything got done. Suddenly I had more freedom, less stress and more control over my time.
These days everyone is so used to it that my phone hardly ever rings. I can be anywhere: Leeds or Lima, and it makes no difference to how I conduct my business. It's liberating.
This simpler lifestyle has freed me from the the 9-to-5 and given me choices over how I spend my time. At last I have the opportunity to do more of what I really love – travel. Whether it's working on cruise ships or backpacking for pleasure, I don't care. The thing is, now I can.
I am, in fact, away so much these days that I began to wonder if I could manage without a home at all. Could I survive living out of my suitcase for a whole year? Would the benefits of someone else paying my mortgage be worth the inconvenience of having no place to call my own? The answer was a tentative “Yes... probably”.
Since I've got rid of most of the stuff I own, what little I have has gone in to the loft. With luck, the new tenant will be happy for me to access my stuff once or twice a month when I'm between trips.
The rest of the time in the UK I'll stay with friends, family and when necessary the odd hotel room. If I do find myself with a few weeks off, I’ll just go traveling instead.
I am aware that I may well hate not having a base – somewhere to call my own – but I won't know until I've tried. It's an experiment. If it doesn't work out, I won't have to bear it for long. Hopefully it will encourage me to see more of the people I care about, and the money I save on mortgage payments will mean I can travel more, unencumbered by material excess. That's the theory at least, so let's see what happens.