Last Thursday I relocated to Huaraz a mountain town in Peru. For the past 6 months I’ve been working a demanding corporate contract. It’s significantly moved my professional skills forward but I felt something was missing. My bank balance was healthy but my soul felt depleted. It was time for a self imposed review. The outcome, a three and a half month mini-retirement.
What’s a mini-retirement?
The idea, popularised by Tim Ferriss of the Four-Hour Workweek, suggests we scatter short retirements throughout our life rather than waiting till a full retirement a.k.a the deferred life plan.
Tim believes that taking a break from your normal routine can actually lead to greater effectiveness, not to mention fun, over the long term, with the possibility of saving some money whilst you are at it.
There are a few assumptions I operate on. The first is that long life is not guaranteed. If we define risk as the potential for an irreversible negative outcome, there’s more risk in postponing the things that you would most like to do for 30 or 40 years versus taking a perhaps sub-optimal, less-compounded return on investment because you allocate some of that to these mini-retirements.
Assumption two is that your ability to generate revenue and to accomplish business objectives is directly dependent on optimal physical and mental recovery. I would argue that when people add hours and only have **“too weak” **vacations, they’ll benefit from taking a mini-retirement and actually return to work with more perspective, greater endurance, and the ability ultimately to produce more money, so that offsets the amount of money spent on that mini-retirement.
There are some very interesting instances and quite simple approaches for actually making money — and let’s just look at making and saving as essentially the same thing, improving the balance. You can actually improve your financial balance by taking mini-retirements.
It sounded perfect. Less travelling, more relocating. Slowing the treadmill rather than abandoning it.
The location was somewhat irrelevant, it simply had to fit my criteria of climate, cheapness, internet, and mountains. The Cordillera Blanca is a majestic mountain range that I longed to return. I exercised the FREE in freelancer and jumped on the first flight.
Clearly defined objectives
Unlike my carefree and aimless backpacking days I have clearly defined objectives.
- To startup: Dramatically reduced living costs means I have time available for new business ideas.
- To climb: It’s a passion of mine and unfortunately not one that’s possible to pursue in my own backyard. I’m looking forward to that feeling of being super fit at the end of this high altitude trip.
3.To write: I’ve finally returned to my shamefully neglected blog. I’m also deliberating about picking up a novel I put on hold last year. I also see writing regular letters as improving this skill set.
- To reflect: determining the importance and value of a key relationship in my life.
- To save: It feels like a challenge. Can I live abroad, take time off, yet return with more money than I started with? Earning in Stirling and spending in Soles it feels very possible.
- To learn: I’ve dabbled with Spanish for a while. Although I’m not going the full emersion route, spending time here can only lead to improvements.
- To reconnect: I’m finishing the trip with a journey down to Buenos Aires to visit an old friend I haven’t seen in 5 years.
A few days in, a world of difference
It’s astonishing how much increased my motivation levels already are. I’m doing things purely for me, chasing what brings me satisfaction now and in the future. I’m writing, I’m developing, I’m thinking, evaluation, and learning. I feel creative and enthusiastic. Time out, but with a purpose. It’s early days but I think the mini-retirement is an concept that may well stick.
If you are a freelancer ask yourself this question - When was my last review? - Chances are your answer will be ‘never’ or ‘review, what review?’
Employees have reviews, so should the self employed
Employees usually meet with their manager once a year. Many fear their review viewing it as a fight for survival, a ‘I’ve already got the job’ job interview. But really it’s an opportunity for both parties to take stock, vent frustrations, solve problems, and plan for future career progression. When I was a wage slave this last point was what interested me. Where could I go within this company? What were my prospects? What was my path of progression? How could I gain more skills and experience?
I recently realised all these questions are just as relevant to the self-employed, but we tend not to ask them as often, if at all. You see us freelancers are usually so caught up with bringing in a monthly income that we seldom stop to ponder the ‘quality’ of said income.
When I began money was money
When I started freelancing I would accept most work that came my way. With the security of the monthly pay check now gone I was scared and if truth be told desperate. I didn’t have the luxury of picking interesting work. I didn’t turn down those ‘alarm bells are ringing’ clients. An hour was an hour was an hour right? Money in the bank. A roof over my head. Food in my belly.
(As a side point I advise starting with a significant amount of money in the bank (3-6 months) to allow you to be picky with clients and build a personal brand)
Now though I’ve worked that bit out. After two year I’m no longer scared. I know I can create my own income selling value directly to a customer. So what’s the next challenge? Where do I go from here?
Where to next? My first freelance review
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” Albert Einstein
To know how to progress you need to have an idea of where you want to finally end up. Once we get to the point where we can survive the next step is to work out what we ultimately want our professional life to look like. I went to a cafe and wrote down various headings.
- Current work - Is it satisfying me? Is it challenging me?
- Current clients - Are they good relationships? Is anyone in particular causing a disproportionate amount of problems (80/20 principle)?
- Skillet - What do I want to learn? What do I want to improve?
- Work environment - Am I happy with it? What could I improve?
- Future aspirations and goals - What work do I ultimately want to do? How much money do I want to earn? How many hours do I want to work?
My first annual review led to dramatic results
New kit - I had been struggling with an geriatric_ _Macbook Pro since the summer. A replacement costs £1500+ which I was finding hard to justify. But when I sat down and expressed my frustrations as if talking to a manager it became a no brainer. I wouldn’t put up with this dying kit if I worked at a company. I ordered a new one the next day.
Fired a client - I said good bye to my frontend CMS web build client. It was bread and butter money but I’m striving for finer things these days. You might think firing a source of income is stupidity, especially in a recession, but sometimes it’s necessary to progress. What’s the opportunity cost of this work and client relationship? More to come on this in a future post.
Action plan for new clients - I want to work with startups and tech companies. People producing a product or service. Someone who can take advantage of the business and development value I have picked up over years working as a project lead, project manager, and in three startups. A client simply can’t reap this value on a HTML / CSS / CMS build. I’m now actively targeting clients with interesting projects and vetting ones that come knocking on my door very carefully.
Skillet - I’d been thinking about learning Ruby on Rails for a while. Something new, something supposedly better. But actually would that differitiate me? I would move from a PHP developer to a Rails developer. Hmm. There are many great Rails developers out there; do we need another?
So I’ve decided to get more involved in the business of software with a particular focus on marketing and sales. These skill sets are differentiators. I’m getting more involved in my latest startup Crashouts to squeeze out every ounce of learning. I’m writing more and in different capacities including a book, articles, poetry, to improve this essential skill.
Future aspirations and goals - I want to eventually run a successful small tech company selling a product or service. That’s been the goal I’ve been working towards since taking on my first job as a programmer. I actually remember telling them that in the interview. I love coding and it’s something I will always do in some capacity. But freelancing has a earning cap and selling time isn’t asset building. When you retire, other than the unused stamps on your desk, you will have nothing of value.
My first review: Well that was well worth it
It took me less than hour but has focused my mind and forced me to make decisions which have already had a huge effect. With such dramatic results I will be doing this style of review on a bi-yearly basis. If you are self employed I urge you to get out of your office this week and think about where you are and where you want to be in 5 or 10 years. Will your current actions take you there? If the answer is no it’s time to make some changes and do things differently.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
“All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had.” Steve Jobs at home in 1983. R.I.P.
I didn’t consciously set out to be a minimalist. It happened progressively and naturally with a certain inevitability. Once converted it seemed like the only sensible choice.
Step 1 – Living out of my car
When I left London in October 2010 for the Spanish countryside I was limited by what I could cram into my car. Climbing kit, laptop, clothes, camping kit made the cut. Everything else was sold, given away, or put into storage (thanks Mum and Dad). I took:
- Clothes - 1 rucksack.
- Laptop with case and charger.
- Mobile phone and charger.
- Pen, paper, physical diary.
- Ipod and headphones.
- Ipod docking bay.
- Toiletries – deodorant, shaver, nail clippers, tooth brush, tooth paste.
- Climbing kit – harness, shoes, karabiners, quickdraws, slings, belay device, rope, boulder mat.
- Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove.
For 6 months this was everything I owned. After a minor bit of tweaking, I never wanted more. I was satisfied. This struck me as a stark contrast to my prior fixed location London life where I had so many more things yet was unsatisfied. With the space to have ‘things’ I wanted more ‘things’. I spent time dreaming, saving, researching, lusting. Yet none of the ‘things’ really added any value to my life.
Step 2 – Driving home for Christmas
After 3 months on the road I came back to England for Christmas. Everyone asking what I wanted for my birthday and Christmas presents. I couldn’t really answer; I simply didn’t need anything. What’s more I couldn’t actually take any extra objects I ‘wanted’ with me as I was at max capacity. I could only add a new object if I removed a similar sized object. However nothing I owned needed replacing. To my relatives frustrations I drew a blank.
For the first time I saw Christmas as a exercise in giving for giving’s sake. I didn’t want people to spend money out of a sense of obligation. In the end a requirement emerged. My ipod broke so I asked for a replacement.
Taken by my revelation about the nature of possession I considered donating the money I normally spent on my family to charity. I however didn’t go through with the ideas as I wasn’t yet solid enough in my thinking and perhaps a little embarrassed about the attention this statement would bring. Maybe I will have the confidence this year.
Step 3 – Living in London out of a rucksack
I flew back with two rucksacks; one large (clothes, books, climbing kit) and one small (my office – laptop, diary, notepad, chargers). Between the two I was carrying everything I needed for an 18 day holiday back ‘home’ to London. But my brief visit took on a degree of permanence. In the end I stayed for close to 5 months all the while living out of my two bags.
It was great. I was completely free. I could pack up to move house in less than 10 minutes. Whilst my friends wondered how they had accumulated so many ‘things’ I sat by in amusement. They booked Vans to transport their goods from A to B where B was either their new house or more frequently the dump.
During this time I was constantly surprised that I never lacked for an item. People didn’t seem to notice that I had been wearing a small subset of my clothes for months on end. My washing and dressing routine was greatly simplified (Steve Jobs knew this). If I could live without issue from two bags why have more? By this time I was well on my way to the epiphany.
Step 4 – My parents dilemma
I paid a visit to my parents. Despite having spent years de-cluttering their house they seemed to be no closer to being able to move. My mother holds onto a loft worth of childhood memories yet seldom does she look at these things. My Dad endlessly complains that there is too much stuff. I thought about their 6 week world travels. They both lived out of rucksacks without a problem. It’s clear that they didn’t need all these things. Their possessions seem to be enslaving them and tying them to a location they no longer wanted to be in. I vowed never to let this happen to me.
As people left with trucks and vans full of my stuff I felt like I was scamming them somehow. Here were things that I’d identified as clutter that other people were now burdening themselves with. Would that Virtual Boy actually improve that guy’s life, or would it take up space in his closet? At the same time, I felt like a sucker. I’d spent thousands of dollars on these things, and giving them away was the best outcome I could find. - tynan.com
Minimalism is liberation - meditating on the qualities of possessions
Every item that enters your life comes with a series of costs beyond the list price. A research cost, a delivery or collection cost, a storage cost, a maintenance cost, a moving cost, and finally a disposal cost. At every step in the lifecycle we expend money, time, and mental energy. Every item we own restricts and costs us. Every item you don’t own frees you. Living with less created some clear benefits and perception shifts:
- Freedom and mobility - I can move quickly and easily. No objects tie me to a location. I can take opportunities and move as I please. It’s a liberating feeling.
- Reduced stress – Having a mindset of challenging every item that comes into my life seems to reduce my stress. I’ve dropped my consumer ‘acquire as much as possible’ mindset. Adverts and marketing no longer have an effect on me. If I buy a new book I give my old one away. I enjoy having an uncluttered bedroom. Tidying and cleaning is simple.
- More money & less work – Knowing I can’t have any more means I don’t spend money on material possessions. That means I don’t need to work as much. That means I have more time. That means I can do more of what I love. That makes me happy.
- Possessions as practical objects – I started to look at the value in items. When you place a limit on what you can own everything must have a purpose. A statue of an elephant might liven up a room but what does it actually do? Not a lot which is why you don’t see backpackers lugging them around the world. With this mindset every object must fight hard to enter your life.
But being a minimalist on the road is easy. How do I do it at home?
Sure, minimalism when travelling is a given. You have a very real space limitation. But when ‘home’ we have a lot more space which makes it all too easy to acquire. The trick for me was to impose a limit and think like a backpacker. I am allowed a backpack’s worth of clothes. Any new item I add means taking something away. With a bit of discipline it was easy to prevent myself from acquiring more. That hard part was the initial reduction.
It feels so hard to throw things away. I would scan my possessions and begrudgingly move one item to the other side of the room where it would stare at me making me question whether I really wanted to ditch it. It was a slow and tedious process. Everything was essential.
Would my life be any different if I didn’t have this thing?
So I asked myself ‘Would my life be any different if I didn’t have this thing?’ I quickly cut down to the bare essentials. Afterwards I wondered why I had found the process so difficult.
What’s odd is that throwing away is so hard in the moment yet so obvious afterwards. I think we are aware of the money we have spent in the past so we desperately cling on. But our investment is sunk. We need to cut our loses, for minimalism is letting go.
After three and half years of smoke free living, I cracked. It astounds me how deep that hook goes. Once a smoker, always a smoker. Whilst my physical life is undoubtedly deteriorating interestingly my work seems to be the up. I am making good decisions, am less reactive, and more relaxed in my approach. Is nicotine stimulating me to new levels of coding productivity? Nope. It’s the regular breaks I am now forced to take.
Every few hours my body lets me know that it’s time for some more nicotine. As an addict I am a slave to the craving, so obediently leave my desk to go outside for my fix. Inconvenient? Far from it. I have started to relish the rthymn smoking adds to my day.
We all know regular breaks are essential, but how many of us actually take them? If my working method is anywhere near typical we tend to struggle to get going and then once moving struggle to tear ourselves away. The only break I take is for lunch (interestingly another mamaliam desire triggered by the reward circuit).
To consciously take a break, not a dopamine rewarded one, is surprisingly difficult. We always have a little more to do and don’t want to stop in the middle of a chunk of work. But the ‘plough on’ mindset isn’t the most productive. Everyone programmer will know the situation where they have been stuck in a task, taken a break, and come back to fix the problem straight away.
With global indoor smoking bans, ironically another plus for the cigerette is the way it get us out into the fresh air. There’s something rejuvenating about stepping out of your work environment onto a street, road, garden and taking 5 minutes to think. Although this is perfectly possible without smoking it somehow doesn’t feel quite right. You have no purpose; you are just loitering.
So am I proposing programmers take up smoking? Nope. I will be smoke free again in a couple of days when I make the transition back from Londoner to my alter ego, the rock climbing bum. But what I am proposing is to integrate these mini breaks into our working lives. Set a timer every time you start a chunk of work. For me my sweet spot is around 1.5 hours. When it rings, down tools and go outside for 5 minutes. Try this for a week. If you feel improvements make this a part of your working life. I am interested to hear people’s results.
If you’ve ever read a lifestyle, digital nomad blog, or ebook you will no doubt be jealous of the author’s awesome lifestyles. Lying on a beach, cocktail in hand, laptop rested on their board shorts, hot girls running around. Leveraging currencies. Working a few hours a week. Sauntering around the world as if they were James bond.
The stories and images are always positive and aspirationl. But what you are seeing is filtered. The bloggers and authors (you know who you are) only ever tell you the positives because they are businessmen.
They paint a vision of a dream lifestyle which is all so achievable if you just buy their ebook, join their academy, or go to one of their conference. They are salesmen and profiteers. They preach a message and get people excited with the sole purpose of obtaining the very same dream lifestyle for themselves.
If a blogger wrote about the annoyances and negatives of being perpetually in motion would you be as willing to buy his ebook? Would you sign up to his Digital Nomad academy? Of course not. It seems to me if you want to have a four hour work week your best bet is to write a book explaining how you can have a 4 hour work week.
It somewhat bothers me that I never hear about it from any of the lifestyle business folks I follow. They seem to all be “I got a macbook pro, a 3G usb adaptor and a pair of sunglasses” and I’m like “but in the sun you can’t read #$%!#$ mate”. Seriously, unless I’ve missed some new piece of technology even the most advanced screen is almost unreadable in the sun, working outside is a pain no matter what. Not to mention that the battery won’t last forever either! – Spike Morelli
I’m officially calling BULLSHIT!
If you are a digital nomad whose income doesn’t come from selling the dream of being a digital nomad the reality is very different. I have now been on the road for 9 months working as a freelancer. It’s time to set a thing or two straight.
The joy of travelling
The joy of travelling is the complete freedom and abundant free time which enables you to meet fascinating people and make spontaneous decisions which ‘real’ life doesn’t allow. People connect with travellers because their lives are exciting. They act on impulse. Their time is their own. Partying every night. Hitting the beach because it’s a Wednesday. They are the masters of their universe. They are free.
A digital nomad is not a traveller
Unlike our travelling counterpart a digital nomad needs to work. They require some level of regularity. They often need a home, placing them in an unique situation. They don’t have the endless time and absolute freedom of a traveller yet they never reap the benefits of being connected to a single location like a local. It’s an unsatisfactory position between the two camps. All disadvantages of both lifestyles without fully enjoying the advantages of either.
Working from a hotel room is hell
When I was living in Albarracin, a world class bouldering area, I wanted to rock climb everyday but needed to work. My hotel room became my office. And a less than satisfactory one; no large tables, monitors, or ergonomic chairs here.
Putting in a full working day was a frustrating experience. In fact it became comical.
_I decide to try lying on the floor. Perhaps this will be more comfortable than the chair? Yes this works great; 20 minutes later I need a position change. Lets try the bed. Yes the bed is definitely the best. However I soon realise it’s flaws. Over time the bed slowly slides forward and I gradually sink into the the growing gap between the bed and the headboard. From lying in the bed, till feeling myself falling takes on average 20 minutes. I can increase this time if I perfect the the pillow arrangment.
Then there was the cleaner who wanted to clean my room at 9 every morning. That’s great, everyone likes a clean room, but every single day? Sure what’s odd about that. After all it’s a hotel. People don’t normally stay for 3 weeks.
I moved hotels 5 times in one week during a Spanish festival. My criterion was the internet connection. Now that’s not easy to access before taking a room.
“Would you like a sea view sir?”
“Nope, just give me the room with the best wifi reception please.”
Nowhere was ever perfect:
- The hotel wifi which cut out sporadically.
- The hostel where my laptop refused to join their wireless network.
- The cafe which had one power socket. Usually taken.
- The wifi which didn’t allow SSH.
My life became a Goldilocks like quest for the perfect internet connection (if anyone wants a breakdown of the best hotels and room numbers in Albarracin ranked on internet connectivity give me a shout). After a lot of searching I finally struck gold and found a connection that was just right. But it turned out to be short lived. I could only keep the room for 2 days. I could come back next Monday but the hotel was fully booked for the weekend. When I came back my great ‘internet room’ was taken and I got a different ‘slower’ room. Enough was enough. This just wasn’t working. I wasn’t an empowered digital nomad. I was like some weird local who dabbled in the travel community. I needed my own place.
Lets try renting an apartment
I rented an apartment in the South of Spain, again near (20 minute drive) a world class climbing area. I picked the apartment unseen out of necessity. I had a large project kicking off so didn’t have the luxury of time. It turned out to be far too remote. I worked from my apartment (living alone), satellite connection dropping out every now and them, and started to get cabin fever.
All the climbers in the area were travellers. None were residents, making it tricky to network. The friends I made would disappear after a few weeks. Luckily I found some great long timers. But I felt cut off from the rock climbing scene I came out to be a part of. When I finished the project I banked the money moved out and into my tent. I started to live like all the other climbers. And I loved it.
What about my clients?
Working on the road changes the projects and clients you can handle and take on. You can deliver a project to a deadline but can’t guarantee to be around during normal working hours. I had to manage my clients expectations carefully.
I ended up saying good bye to a couple who were after a service which I could no longer provide. One unseen benefit though was that my client list became very low maintenance. Perhaps I wouldn’t of dropped them myself but I wasn’t particular sad to see them go.
Wow your getting me down. Tell me about the good stuff
The major benefits of the relocation stemmed from the lower living costs. Working on a London freelance wage I could afford to go part time. The extra free time opened up all sorts of creative avenues and ideas.
When I settled into a pattern and stopped trying to work as if I was still in London things started to click. I met some amazing people, improved my Spanish, formed a writing habit, became a minimalist, developed a life ethos, improved as a rock climber, and become super fit and healthy. I met some great girls and took two fun holidays to England (it is interesting that I think of my native country as a holiday destination now) to catch up with friends, family, and clients.
I never felt the stress of London. I never had the feeling of being on merry-go-round that I couldn’t get off. But I used to feel however much money I made the city would swallowing it up. I always needed, or more accurately wanted, more. In Spain everything is cheaper and the rural lifestyle I was living was less consumption orientated. It was hard to share the stress of my London clients, living in the Spanish countryside with glorious weather day in day out. I escaped the British winter, and was enjoying 20 degrees when friends back home were freezing (literally).
What does the future hold for me?
When I left England in October 2010 I decided I wanted to find a place to call home. A place where I could follow outdoor pursuits such as climbing, mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding. I said I would stop and throw a stake in the ground when I found somewhere or someone worth staying for.
In April I came to England for a short 18 day holiday. This has ended up ballooning into a 4 months. I realised how much I enjoy it here. I guess it takes distance to appreciate what you have. Or maybe I am just changing. When I came back everyone’s lives seem to be developing. I could see friends nesting. On previous travels I never really missed friends or family, but now things feel different. I don’t want to be a distance relative. I want an active part in people’s lives.
I can always see travel being a large part of my life. It inspire, excites, and feels like a large part of who I am. I have mountaineering and rock climbing aspirations that I want to pursue whilst in my physical peak. I am young (24) and want to see and do as much as possible whilst I am responsibility and commitment free.
But this 9 month experience has shown me that perpetually being on the road is not desirable or sustainable for me. In my ideal life I would have a base in London and go on numerous trips throughout the year. It’s am ambitious dream. I’m excited to see what the future holds.