#541       Innovative Leader  Volume 10, Number 10          November 2001

Is It Time to Downshift?
by John D. Drake, Ph.D.

Dr. Drake was founder of Drake Beam Morin, a human resources consulting firm.  He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine (drakemaine@aol.com).  He is author of Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2001). 

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, like coming in on Saturday because the boss and some coworkers are likely at the workplace.  Other forces are overpowering, such as a demand to “meet the numbers” when the numbers probably can’t be met.  On top of these pressures, management may be forced to get more productivity from fewer people. 

While such efforts enhance profits, they also make for long, strenuous work weeks that can drive conscientious workers into the ground.  When people are continually overworked, it can unbalance their lives, interfere with their relationships, and even ruin health.  Certainly their workplace creativity will be inhibited.  How bad are these pressures for you?  How bad are they for your staff?  Perhaps you should take action, if you want to retain your own, and your staff’s energies and dedication. Consider downshifting to a schedule and pace that will help you, your family, and your organization.  Have your staff read this article as well.


Here’s a test, for you and your staff, that will indicate signs of overwork:

___  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.

Low-Risk Strategies for Downshifting

If you’re serious about wanting more time for yourself and your family, you may need to make significant changes in your work patterns.  These changes can be low-risk, including:

  Keep your lunch time personal.  Make personal calls, exercise, or simply rest and relax.

  Set more reasonable deadlines.  The stress of unrealistic deadlines result in longer hours or weaker performance.

  Say “no” to some assignments.  By rejecting those you dislike or find unsatisfying, you’ll gain time and enjoy your work more.

  Declare your priority for family.  While in some organizations, this can be the kiss of death, in others it will be honored and respected.

  Avoid wasting weekends on business travel.  Try not to attend distant meetings on Mondays or Fridays.

  Make your personal and family appointments firm.  Without putting your personal commitments on your calendar, your work commitments will take priority.

 Take your family on business trips.  Add a fun weekend to a business trip.

  Set stop lines.  Set a time beyond which you will not work, with the exception of a high-priority or crisis situation. 

  Negotiate extra vacation time.  Perhaps take this extra time for no pay.

  Move closer to work.  So many people spend several hours just commuting.

Moderate-Risk Options for Downsizing

These changes are riskier because they mean a reduced physical presence in the workplace and are more difficult to sell.  The upside is they have great potential for helping you change your lifestyle.

  Arrange for flextime.  To sell your company on flextime, explain exactly why it won’t impede your effectiveness and how, ideally, it may enhance it.

  Work part-time.  While it may mean feeling out of the loop or dealing with resentful co-workers, you and your company may find your total productivity matches that of your former full-time schedule.

  Make a lateral or downward move.  This calls for identifying a position or department that requires less time, knowing the extent to which you have the qualifications to move into it, and understanding the ease with which your boss can find your replacement.  Put a positive spin on the request—for instance, speak of it as a “developmental step” that will enhance your value to the organization—so it isn’t viewed as a sign of weakness or doesn’t give the appearance that you can’t hack it.

  Telecommute.  If this is relevant to you, present it’s benefits, i.e., it will reduce office overhead or increase your productivity by eliminating your commuting time, and make clear your flexibility about coming in whenever necessary.

  Job share.  This often enhances productivity—you and your partner may bring different strengths to the job—and shows you’re no less committed to the work or the company.  Find another qualified person who wants to share your job.

  Take early or gradual retirement if you’re near retirement age.  Present a plan to show how the phase-out can be accomplished with minimal disruption to your work.

  Refuse some promotions.  In turning down a promotion, be careful not to convey a lack of ambition or zeal for the organization, and, instead, emphasize your satisfaction with the company and your present role, as well as your appreciation for the vote of confidence.

  Create a portfolio career, a mix of part-time work, perhaps with self-employment.  Determine how you can leverage your knowledge and experience in a variety of settings.  How much do you want to work?  What skills do you want to employ?  Search the marketplace and, ultimately, approach your organization with a plan.

Getting Your Organization’s Buy-In

Winning your organization’s approval for your downshifting plan requires effort.  Enlist the strategies below and get started.

  Know what you want.  Don’t be wishy-washy.  Know exactly what you want to do and how it will play out on the job.  If you are torn between downshifting options, go back to the drawing board and narrow the focus.

  Make your boss a friend.  You need your manager’s support, so it’s great if you already have a close, trusting relationship.  If you don’t, begin to gain his or her favor by initiating new avenues of communication or volunteering for a project that needs doing if it won’t hurt your other priorities.  Also consider “pre-selling” your downshifting desires by mentioning the possibility of cutting back in ways that won’t alarm your boss.

  Put it in writing.  It is essential, especially with high-risk options, that you submit a written proposal with the same style and objectivity as a capital expense request or a sales proposal.  Be specific about what you want to do, explain how it enables you to meet your performance goals, and pinpoint the benefits to the company.  If your salary will be altered or prorated because of the new arrangement, state clearly how you envision it.

  Tap into your support network.  There may be others in your organization, such as the human resources staff, who you’ll need to bring on board.  Seek out other influential persons who could serve as advocates of your plan and ask for their reactions and support.

  Highlight your flexibility.  Be explicit about your willingness to adapt to the organization’s needs, assuring your boss you’ll be available during peak times or crises.  To demonstrate your flexibility, consider offering to downshift on a trial basis.

  Investigate human resource policies and practices.  Get to know you organization’s policies—formal or informal—about issues such as part-time work, flextime, telecommuting, and job sharing.  If the policies support downshifting, cite them in your proposal.  If they don’t support downshifting, at least you’ll be aware of the potential obstacles.

  Anticipate your manager’s objections.  Even if you make a strong and positive presentation, objections are bound to arise—“What does this say about your commitment?” or “Everyone will want to do it.”  While it is helpful to have some answers ready for anticipated objections, don’t fall into the trap of responding quickly with your prepared answers.  Instead, listen carefully, ask questions, and clarify all objections.

  Have a “Plan B.”  Suppose you run into a stone wall—even a flat-out “no”?  Instead of thinking this is the end of it, have in mind a next step you can propose—something that keeps your downshifting proposal alive.  For example, “I understand why you’re not positive about my downshifting idea.  If it’s OK with you, I’d like to consider and address the issues you raised.  Maybe I could find some adjustments to make it more palatable.  Can we talk about it a little more next week?”

If you are really burned out, but want to remain a creative and productive, taking the risky steps to downshift may be the best thing for both you and the company.

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