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Why You should Think about Trading Income For Time

Photo by: Adrien Robert

How can you reverse a transaction that you’ve only ever known to go in one direction? And why should you bother?

Most people’s life plans follow a typical script: school, then job, then bigger job, then bigger job, then financial independence and retirement. Maybe sprinkle in a spouse and kids along the way, a mental breakdown or two, but as long as we keep moving up the “success” ladder, we’re told it’s all ok. But here’s the painfully ironic piece of this equation: the end game is gaining more ownership of our time, which is something we had an abundance of when we started.

Let’s say you live to be 80 (even though we know 100 is probably more likely given modern medicine). You spend the first 20 years controlled by your schooling and parents, the next 40 years controlled by your employers, and the last 20 years controlled by your health limitations. That middle chunk of 40 years must have SOME wiggle room, right?

So how do we find practical ways before the end of this journey to trade income for more time? Especially when we’ve been so deeply conditioned to spend our most vibrant years doing the opposite?

How I got here

You know those stories about highly successful entrepreneurs who were C students growing up, only to discover years later that the confines and structure of the school system limited their true potential? That wasn’t me. I’ve always been hardworking and have found success, but generally colored within the lines to get there. I went to a good college, went straight into an MBA program, and began a 10 year career in the highly lucrative San Francisco tech scene, jumping up a rung on the corporate ladder every two years or so. My path has been relatively conventional—which is fine, I suppose. After all, this is what I’ve been taught success looks like.

The issue is that somewhere along the way, unless you blindly love the work, it’s easy to fall into the “going through the motions” abyss. And that’s what happened to me.

The damage of trading too much time for income

So, what happens when you don’t address this type of purposeless grind for too long, working 70 hours a week on something that doesn’t make you jump out of bed in the morning? For me there was a point, difficult to pinpoint exactly when, where the physical and mental effects began to appear. This included some of the predictable things like lack of focus and concentration and chronic fatigue, but it also included things that gave me some serious pause. A sense of apathy toward things in my life and work, which had significant repercussions. A sense of feeling outside of my body, watching my life from someone else’s perspective.

If you’re a basketball fan, or even if you’re not, you may have noticed that Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers recently published an essay documenting his in-game panic attack and how it erupted from deeply unaddressed internal conflict. It’s a powerful post that transcends far beyond the sports world, surfacing the crippling inclination to bury mental health issues under the guise of being an unwavering team player.

I’m fortunate to have never suffered from a panic attack, breakdown, or any other incident of equal magnitude. However, when you feel on the VERGE of this for long enough, it means that your body is violently screaming warning signs to make a change, even if it’s a short-term one. The simple thought of recognizing this and choosing to act will lead you to find an alternative, as permanent or temporary as you choose.

What are you passionate about?

I’m not one to tell you to follow your dreams no matter what. That’s nuts. If I did that, I’d start a fantasy football podcast with my league, generating a subscriber base never exceeding double digits even from friends and family. That said, a passion project can be a great way to recharge if you’re in a financial position to devote time to it.

For me, that meant taking a hiatus to brush up on writing and other priorities. I’m not doing this purely on a whim—I’m taking a moment to re-energize after a decade of working to the bone, now that I’ve progressed to a point where maximizing income at all costs does not need to be my top priority. When you can accept this type of choice as a process of improving your life and not just one of bleeding money, taking a gamble becomes an easier decision.

Read everything you can about personal finance

If you’re even thinking about a major change to your money and time allocation, you have to understand the current state of your finances so you know how much risk you’re willing to absorb. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What will my resulting cash flow look like after trading income for time? If it’s net negative, am I willing to be all in on where my newly found time is directed, because it can’t just be a casual hobby?
  • What’s my net worth? What do I want it to be, realistically? How will a major life decision change the timeline for getting there, and am I OK with that?
  • Am I readily equipped and comfortable with reducing my income all the way down to simply covering my living expenses, relying only on my existing investments INSTEAD of my savings rate to fuel future growth?

All of the above should guide your decision, and if you decide to make the leap you should have pretty concrete answers to these questions.

Taking the first leap will shift your mindset

Creating a basic, ugly blog. Starting an online business. Building a new company. Taking time off. Whatever the leap is that you’re taking, something will change in your brain the first day that you jump into it. It expands your way of thinking to simply acknowledge that there is more than one way to find progress and personal growth. Even if this is the only thing you get out of taking some time for your own pursuits, it’s a win that you can carry with you into all future endeavors.

Don’t let the first wall of doubt stop you

Be prepared: there are times where this will be hard. However, the psychological hurdle of starting is the first and heaviest domino. The idea to remember is that motivation doesn’t just spark action—action sparks motivation. Redesigning your life takes consistency and getting yourself off of the couch.

Finally, remember: the decision is up to you

You’re not a bad person for sticking with the big tech job for the money. You might have a family to support, a house to buy, or frankly just like buying stuff you don’t need. No judgment from me. The important thing is simply to reflect on all your options and figure out what you really WANT to do.

After all, there are risks. It’s easy to say that you can simply trade your time back for income whenever you please, but that doesn’t happen with a snap of your fingers. So as with anything, be deliberate with every decision you make. But as long as you accept the opportunity cost of what you’re not doing, you’ll have made the right choice for you.


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