I was lying on a beach, clear blue sky, cocktail in hand.
One of the most impactful books I’d ever read sat on my lap.
I gazed at the ocean – kitesurfers moved in concert with the wind while meditative music played from a nearby bar.
I was living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and enjoying an extended weekend break in the beach town of Mui Ne.
During the week I worked few hours, dabbling in everything from freelance writing to English teaching and even treating private physiotherapy patients, providing a comfortable level of Asia income.
Although I hadn’t achieved the level of economic freedom Tim Ferris outlined The Four Hour Workweek, the cult bestseller I was reading, I finally felt a justification for the existence I embraced – living freely.
The Four Hour Workweek
For a whole generation of lifestyle entrepreneurs, Ferris’s book was their gateway drug to a modus operandi that might best be defined as lifestyle entrepreneurship.
After suffering severe burnout from the demands of a successful online e-commerce enterprise, Ferris systematically extracted himself from the business, implementing processes to reduce his input to a four-hour working week.
Side note – if you want a practical read covering similar ground, check out the E-Myth by Michael Gerber.
Since reading the book, legions of digital nomads have emerged, empowered by the online revolution to inhabit every remote corner of the Earth with a stable internet connection.
Working minimal hours on their internet businesses, they revel in the delights of an exotic locale, hiking verdant jungle trails, scuba diving in azul waters and whiling away hours on sandy beaches.
The rest of us
Even for folk who’ve yet to log on in their speedos on Monday morning, achieving a more harmonious relationship with work is now on the agenda.
Instead of being forced into a dismal and depressing commute, wedged into overcrowded trains or stuck on clogged roads, many of us (owing to the pandemic) can now operate remotely, enjoying increased flexibility and family time.
“Remote postings now account for about 2/3 of all postings, up from about 30% a year ago, pre-Covid.”
Obviously, this won’t be true for all industries. Nevertheless, COVID has encouraged the re-assessment of our lives and daily routines, instigating a psychological mindset shift regarding the importance of work-life balance and freedom from drudgery.
Indeed, the 5-day work-week, a hangover from the industrial revolution, is increasingly being questioned, with research outlining the physical, mental and economic benefits of a four-day week.
From this survey of UK business who’ve already adopted the practice, the following findings emerged,
“Just over half (51%) of the respondents thought that the four-day working week enabled them to save costs. Of those, 62% say their staff take fewer days off sick, 63% say they produce better quality work, and 64% are more productive. Our research also outlines that the businesses who haven’t yet implemented a four-day week could save around £12 billion by moving to one. If we add this to the savings made by businesses that already implement a four-day week, we’d get a total combined saving of roughly £104 billion a year.”
Add to this the media attention around COVID-induced fiscal support and its logical comparison to Universal Basic Income (feasibility notwithstanding) in response to impending technological development and potential unemployment, and a definite cultural zeitgeist emerges.
What does living freely mean?
“Living freely is the relinquishing of social and capitalistic norms around economic output, status and prestige to optimise for time and freedom over traditional measures of success” – Me
As a practical example, I stopped working as a physiotherapist to pursue an altogether more uncertain existence as a self-taught marketer with no formal qualifications.
Despite taking a step backwards socially and economically, I opted for a more aligned working role, one which would provide greater flexibility and freedom in the long run.
Although I place less emphasis on the Epicurean indulgence implied by the dictionary definition of free-living, both allow for a conscious individual to spend their time as they wish.
In my mind, the denominating factor of living freely is the pursuit of a more balanced, harmonious life, in keeping with your personal virtues.
Benefits of living freely
Rather than operating on autopilot to meet society’s expectations, embracing this concept allows us to shed the shackles which bind us.
Many of us are trapped in a prison of our own design. As the infamous Fight Club quote goes,
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
Living freely optimises for time above all else.
While society worships money, free livers analyse the opportunity cost behind any financial transaction to determine how much time they lose in the bargain.
This non-renewable resource, over and above the human illusion of money, can be utilised for curiosity-driven pursuits.
Whereas money is a single-faceted investment, time can be allocated to any number of growth-orientated activities which provide a myriad of returns, from psychological wellbeing to physical health and self-actualising life purpose.
Free-living, at its essence, is about freedom.
The autonomy to choose how you spend your life is a luxury, and one that can scarcely be imagined in developing countries, let alone from a historical perspective.
The ability to finally say no to things you hate in favour of a more congruent existence is a power that remains severely underutilised.
Sure, an abundance of choice comes with its own set of problems, but compared to living life in a straitjacket, freedom wins out.
Free-living fosters greater connection.
A corollary of increasing self-awareness is the attraction of like minds, creating a supportive, empowering network.
This natural phenomenon emerges when we relax into ourselves, shifting our mindset to a more aligned philosophy.
Moving away from the traditional metrics of success, despite society’s potential resistance, is a cathartic experience,
“When you create yourself to make it you’re going to have to either let that creation go and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are…or you’re gonna have to kill who you really are and fall into your grave grasping onto a character that you never were.” – Jim Carrey
Drawbacks of this existence
Naturally, there’s significant kickback from certain segments of society regarding this concept, with critics arguing that practitioners are unproductive at best and subversive at worst.
However, in my experience, the liberation of oneself from the traditional hedonic treadmill of consumption, through lifestyle design and simple living, does not create a void that can only be filled through self-indulgent craving.
Rather, time can be spent on constructive activities.
Despite working as a freelance marketer and supposedly having the freedom to sit in my pants watching Netflix all day, I work harder than ever – but on projects I find more fulfilling.
The second major drawback of living freely is that it’s not an instant transition, so it’s essential to play the long game.
Extricating yourself from the trappings of society takes time and at first, your doubters might be proven right.
When I quit my old job, I was completely unsure what I was doing.
But I was incredibly fortunate to be able to stay with my parents while I figured it out.
Despite the uncertainty, I had the time and freedom to invest in further learning and slowly worked my way through online marketing courses, before securing my first remote digital marketing client.
From the outside, it would have been an unenviable position, but this recalibration was necessary and it was only by optimising for a few years hence that I could justify the toil.
How to live freely
State of mind
Want to change but feel you can’t? You’re not alone.
Children, jobs and lifestyle expectations are common barriers.
Living freely, however, is mostly a mental attitude and with the right mindset, can be achieved independent of your roles and responsibilities.
Firstly, it’s crucial to actually want a different lifestyle, making the conscious decision to optimise for time and freedom over money.
It won’t be an instant shift, as society’s values leave deep marks, increasing the likelihood of friction and falling prey once more to status games.
This philosophy, of course, must also lead to meaningful action, but that behaviour can start small.
You needn’t sell all your possessions and live in a cave.
But perhaps you could introduce your children to free activities, like walking in nature, rather than taking them shopping.
It’s important to plan – years ago when I started investigating alternative career options, I wanted to find a location independent role.
I could see the emergence of the remote working trend and having lived abroad, was keen to maintain the option of extended travel.
So I started freelance writing, providing the experience to transition to copywriting and finally digital marketing.
But the planning phase was vital, providing a concrete, behaviour-guiding target.
Sit down with a pen and paper and document your perfect day.
In an ideal world, what are you optimising for?
It’s only through conscious lifestyle design that we can reverse engineer the steps needed to make it happen.
This is where the rubber meets the road – thinking about change makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it stops there.
The primary sacrifice most people must make in living freely is a material one, by slowly reversing their consumerist tendencies and adopting a more minimalist philosophy.
This might mean exiting a stressful, lucrative career and discovering a role with a greater work-life balance.
It might mean unplugging from the marketing matrix and ignoring the latest iPhone release.
It might mean slowly building up an emergency fund, providing the freedom to pursue a passion-project or side-hustle, like freelancing.
This article isn’t an attack on capitalism or your current lifestyle.
I like to buy fancy toilet roll as much as the next person.
If you have a well-paid, stressful job but feel the trade-off is justified to provide for your kids and/or future financial security, fine.
Rather, this article’s a call to arms for the discontent, who’ve been operating on autopilot, without realising the alternative options.
Also, this philosophy is an ongoing process as opposed to a permanent shift.
Chasing the Yankee dollar is so ingrained in the culture that I often feel pressured to seek more freelance work.
And I’m not always successful in ignoring the temptation.
It takes constant vigilance to protect the lifestyle we’re optimising for; something I’m still working on.
Living freely is liberating and opportunity-laden, allowing extra investment in loved ones or the exploration of new hobbies and interests.
If you want the extra freedom for such lifestyle delights, consider where you can make changes and execute accordingly.