Geek Downshifting

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Downshifting is a term I’ve heard thrown around now and then, and not in the automotive sense. The basic idea is to adjust lifestyles to be slower, balanced, more meaningful, and less consumer driven. It’s not something that seems to have caught fire as a fad or even be particularly well-defined, which is probably fortunate. It’s an idea of deliberately and consciously scaling back complicated lives, and from what I can tell the term’s been around since about 1998 (I found it first in this chapter of the “Overspent American“), and I see it used enough that I can declare it “a thing.”

(Sort of like “Creative Class” is a useful term, even if hard to relate to any mathematically identifiable set of things. So it’s in my vocabulary and you have to live with it.)

However I didn’t think about the term as much until I’d actually begun Downshifting. Without using that term, of course, but I’ve been doing it for a few years. As a hardcore geek, who had an Atari 2600 and who has his Star Wars figures on a memorabilia shelf, I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences because I think they may be relevant to we geeks, our lifestyles, and our future lifestyles.  In fact, I think we geeks are prime candidates for Downshifting and would benefit from it greatly.

So going on, I’ll basically define Downshifting as seeking a more balanced, harmonious, conscious life that’s less consumerist and more integrated. The term is important, I think, as it really tells us right now that we’ve made life too complex, too hectic – and oddly, less meaningful.

My Downshifting Experience

For me, my first Downshifting began when my (now) ex-wife and I were moving nearly a decade ago and we had to throw out a lot of stuff in the storage room. Actually it sort of made me wonder “why the hell do we need a storage room” because we got rid of a lot of stuff.  As in I was measuring the amount in cubic feet and just standing there amazed – and I liked having less stuff around.

A few years later, when we had to move out to Silicon Valley, another purge of possessions happened. Even when someone’s willing to help relocate you, you ask “why am I taking this stuff?” It made me think – where did all of this come from?  Why did we have it?  That felt almost purifying.

Then a few years after that, I was getting divorced, and that really made me rethink.

I’d read Azby’ Brown’s “Just Enough” a book on the Edo period of Japan and the efficient and often eco-friendly behaviors of the time (even if some where unpleasant and out of necessity). It’d made me think about possessions and about diets and environment.  How much do you need?  Why don’t we have more environmentally-friendly diets?  That led to a few changes in my life:

  • I moved to a vegetarian diet originally out of environmental consciousness first and health benefits second. However I quickly realized how many benefits there were to the simpler food, the simpler lifestyle, and less processing in the diet I chose. Really I was eating the “don’t eat crap and cook it yourself vegetarian diet” – less eating out, less proceeded food. Since my doctor wanted me to loose weight, it was a good idea.
  • I also had to live on my own after a series of possible roommates didn’t work out. That required me to ask what I needed and what I was keeping, and what was my ex-wife’s and what was mine and what we didn’t care about. That really makes one think about needs and posessions.
  • Once I had resettled after the divorce, I had also sought a walkable area – and in Silicon Valley we’ve got quite a few of them if you shop around. I could walk to stores and so on.  Less driving, less fuss, less hectic planning of shopping trips.  More exercise as well.

So I went through a big life simplification – and I loved it.  I loved the increased simplicity. I liked the ability to just walk somwehre. I liked eating food I made that was both delicious and healthy – I always liked to cook but as I got more and more into the health benefits I really grew as a cook. I lost weight (40 lbs), my health was great, I and I felt less pressured.

Hell, most pressure had been my own doing.  Still is, but you get the idea.

At the same time I was still the geek I am. Computers and video games, high tech jobs and web pages were part of my life. I was simplifying my life in the middle of one of the craziest places on earth. In many cases the high technology made it easier to simplify, from doing spreadsheets for relocation to researching food, finding the best deals, or finding social events where I’d just hang out.

Even now, I’m considering a few more changes. I’m making even more food for myself (pickles, peanut butter), and looking at places to live that would make my car optional. I evaluate the gadgets I get, maximizing power and experience while minimizing cost and waste. Even my time management is changing as I examine ways to optimize parts of my life.

I’ve seen other geek friends Downshift and clear out unneeded possessions or relocate, and be much happier as a result.. Perhaps we’re at at time where we’ve overdone it and it’s time to slow down.

In fact, I’m slowing down and being as big a Geek as ever. And I’m thinking that Downshifting is something we geeks need to seriously consider.

Why Downshifting May Be Good For Us

So I can say right off the bat that my original Downshifting – and now my conscious Downshifting – has had a lot of benefits:

  1. I eat much healthier and make less of an impact on the environment with my diet – as well as learning much more about cooking and healthy lifestyles.
  2. I get more exercise, taking time to walk and not drive.
  3. I buy less crap, better using my money better and leveraging my purchases more effectively.
  4. I make the most of social time, enjoying the ability to walk to a coffee shop, or play video games in person at jams, or go out. I even am helping out in museum archiving. I live in an area bursting with social opportunities that are face-to-face and cheap or free.
  5. I feel happier, even in stressful times.

Really, right now how many of we geeks could use better health, better money management, more social time and less stress? Especially those of us working in high tech industries and challenging situations? Yeah, probably all of us.

Sometimes when I watch the latest high-tech gizmo get announced, talk to a programmer who worked 90 hour weeks, or watch my fellow geeks get overloaded I think we’ve overdone it. We’re in the age of geek, where in a time where its our movies and our careers that are big, where there’s all sorts of cool stuff. But there’s too much for us to all do or enjoy and somehow we seem to have less.

Ever encounter someone who is living La Vida Geeka, with games and technology and gizmos and they seemed miserable? Yeah, I know what you mean. And i’m not exactly Mr. Sunshine No-Stress-Joy.

So I think we Geeks need to consider Downshifting.

In fact, I think we’re uniquely suited for it.

Downshifting As Part Of The Geek Way

So establishing that we probably all could use a little Downshifting, here’s why I think we as a population are actually well suited to it.

  1. We’re pretty high-tech. Sure that can enslave us to our cell phones, but also means with have the knowledge and tools to use our gadgets to make life easier. When we can find health advice online, log new recipes, or retrofit an old laptop as a media box as opposed to buying one.  We can use our knowledge to make life easier.
  2. We’re science-savvy. If you’re at all scientifically aware, you’re aware of the economic, climate, and other issues troubling people. We can make lifestyle decisions to work within these limits – and engage socially to make changes. Hell we usually know global warming is an issue, which is all to rare these days.
  3. We know different pleasures. Geek culture has a long history of thinking outside the mainstream, even if now it is mainstreaming. We still have a sense of knowing how to enjoy things we like as opposed to what’s “hip.” We can blow seven bucks a month on an anime streaming site and have more fun than using all that money on one game ticket.  That attitude means we can structure our lives to be enjoyed, not follow trends.
  4. We’ve got social ties. The idea of the antisocial geek concept was never true. We’ve got conventions and writer’s groups and comic shops and all that. We have ways to connect and have fun and be part of our communities. We can slow down and have fun that connects us and is often free (Well, free if you’re on say,the convention staff).
  5. We’re still a bit out of the mainstream. I think though we’re now being catered to by the culture, we’re still a bit “different” enough that questioning our consumer culture and culture in general is easier as it’s still our culture. We have enough distance to make changes in our lifestyles easier – and own them.
  6. We’ve got options. A lot of us are in professions that give us choices in life. We can move or work remotely or whatever to Downshift, save money, and so on. I know engineers now who barely even go into their office.
  7. We can play the locations – a lot of geeky areas have downshifting options. Sure I live in an area where rent is excessive – but also has many options to live cheaply and well if you do your research. There’s also services like Zipcar or public transportation that can allow us to downshift and save time and money – if we’re in the right area and know what we’re doing
  8. It’s a good time. In an age of streaming media, downloadable games, and so on there are options to Downshift for geeky pleasures.

Really, we Geeks, we high-tech science-minded people with options, should be embracing the idea of Downshifting. Hell, our lives are probably crazy enough as it is considering the amount of TPS reports we have to produce that we ought to try it for our sanity.

The One Barrier To Geek Downshifting

However I see one barrier to Geek Downshifting: Consumerism.

One unfortunate issue of geek culture is there’s a consumerist element to it. We often identify ourselves by choices in media, gadgets owned, games played, and so on. Part of our culture, as I’ve analyzed before, is about what we buy (and not always a good area to identify with)

That’s a bit of an issue because it makes buying part of our culture. Sure there’s the understandable element of buying a CD we treasure, but then there’s random crap we turn out never to use. Consumerism is always lurking in the shadows, in useless stuff we buy at a con or the gadget we don’t need but just think we have to get.

I think it’s worth scaling that back in practice and in identity.

We geeks are people that love things and get into them. We don’t need to buy everything or own everything. We’re about what we experience and do and apply. We’re about connecting with each other.  We’re not a pile of unwatched CDs or action figures in a closet – those are side effects to being a geek.

If anything, I think we’ve had too much encouragement of geek consumerism as geek is hip – and thus people realize they can sell crap to us. Well we don’t need more crap.  We can make our own, as anyone leaving an artist’s alley at a big con can tell you.

Besides, there’s many geek things we can enjoy for free.  Fanfic is free.  Having friends over to play games is free (well except for gas and original purchases).  Just hanging out online only costs electricity.

So I’d recommend a bit more geek consumer awareness here. Let’s buy what we need (and buy local when we can) and focus on what’s important. It may also help us Downshift more as we have less stuff, the stuff we has is more important, and we save money.

Closing Thoughts

Donwshifting is probably necessary for our sanity in todays go-go-culture, and to be honest in these troubled economic and ecological times we may not have much choice. Better to do it consciously now than have it forced on us by external events.  Better to do it now and leverage our geek advantages.

Me, it’s made me a healthier and happier person. I’d rather taking my homemade bread to a video game jam or writing these posts to buying a bunch of stuff I don’t need. I’d rather my walkable small apartment than a big one away from everyone. I’d rather a career where I know the boundaries than killing myself at a startup where someone else gets all the money.

I think Downshifting can make a lot of us happier.

So what’s next, my geeks? Ready to Downshift?

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at