How to escape the hamster wheel – tools and tips

För att komma till inlägget på svenska, klicka här: Tips och verktyg för ett rikare liv bortom ekorrhjulet

What is the hamster wheel, even? The dictionary hints to an unfulfilling activity leading nowhere, but our modern day interpretation builds more into it than that. We use the term when we speak of a tiring work routine with little time to do the things we truly love. When we feel a bit lost in where we are headed in life. When it feels like all you do is count down until the weekend. When you work tirelessly to bring in money that seemingly disappears into thin air. When you catch yourself daydreaming of a different life. The list goes on. If you’d like for more space to breathe, perhaps time to pursue your passions and feel ready for a life of more life, but didn’t exactly win the lottery last week, can you escape the hamster wheel? Can you design a life of less work and more play without having to risk your own and your family’s wellbeing? Yes and yes!

Ultimately, escaping the hamster wheel can be interpreted in many different ways. What is true for one person doesn’t necessarily have to be true for another, but we can definitely agree upon a few things. It has a lot to do with ways of cutting or redistributing costs in your life, so that you either don’t need to work as much as you currently are or can get more true value in your life, and it has a lot to do with finding our what actually makes you happy. It’s certainly not about becoming a burden on “the system”, claiming social security or not being responsible about life as a whole. If you’d like to read more about us and our journey, the following blog posts could be interesting:

Thank you, life (part 1)
Thank you, life (part 2)
Costs of living and shifting down
The Simple Life
On Detours and Finding Your Way Home: An Interview with Sophia
A Transplanted New Yorker in Sweden: An Interview with Michael

“Am I living my life the way I want to? Am I investing my time in a way that fulfills me?”

Before we dive into some ways of escaping the hamster wheel, here’s a short list of helpful tools to get you started with the thought process:

  1. Allow yourself to daydream! What are your dreams? What does your dream life look like? What are the things that truly make you happy?
  2. Make a list of priorities. Which aspects of your life are negotiable and which ones aren’t? Examples include where you live, hobbies, how you eat, various “comfortable” habits etc.
  3. Ask yourself how you’d live if no one was watching. It’s as simple as that. What’s the answer?
  4. Clear out your home. This serves triple purposes: you’ll make a little extra money, you’ll be able to visualize how big of a living space you actually need and you’ll more inspired to change things up in a less cluttered environment.
  5. Look into your expenses and make a budget. What are your current monthly costs? Which ones can be cut out? What would your ideal budget look like?

Leaving the hamster wheel behind is often associated with early retirement, financial independence, a total escape to the rural countryside and an overall complete life change. But we’d like to argue there are endless ways of feeling free – even if you still work a 40 hr work week. It’s much more about being content with your life than it’ll ever be about risky stock market investments, never having to work or living remotely, in our opinion, and with that in mind, we’ve have listed a range of different ways in which one could change their lives in order to feel more alive and free.

Switch career

A mighty step in many cases, but perhaps more doable than many might realize. The first question to answer would be: would another type of job make me happier and make me feel more free? For some, it’s the nature of a certain field that feels too draining and not so much the act of going to an office and working a 40 hr work week – and for those people, a career switch might be the answer! This is a perfect example of how “escaping the hamster wheel” can be about finding joy and not always be longing for something else all the time. You can feel free, wake up happy AND get a monthly paycheck for sure!

“You can feel free, wake up happy AND get a monthly paycheck for sure!”

Even though we know it’s true, it’s a good reminder to get every so often that it’s never too late to switch careers. In many cases, you can do so without having to return to school, but even if you have to – what’s a few years at university compared to the rest of your (work) life? Mike is an excellent example of someone who decided to switch careers. He was thriving back in New York, where he was working as an engineer at a very reputable firm and climbing the ranks quickly. When we moved, his mind was set on taking our one year off (read more about that in Thank you life) and then picking up where he left off by starting to work for a Swedish company. You all know the story so we won’t tell it all over again – but that year came to an end and we found ourselves with completely new dreams at our hands. Today, if Mike would be asked what he “is”, he’d say he’s an aspiring photographer as the short answer.

Move to the country side

A fairly simple yet highly effective action is to give up the city life for one in the countryside. How will this help you escape the hamster wheel? Well, first of all: it’ll be far cheaper to live in a rural area than in an urban. Lowered expenses mean less work needed to make ends meet. A simple equation. Add to that closeness to nature and more quietness and many common yearnings are being met.

But it probably wouldn’t seem that simple to most. What are some potential issues we could face here, and how could those be solved? Some fear they’ll need to get a car as soon as they leave the big city behind. That’s true in some cases but far from all. We do feel like we need a car, yes, but we use ours perhaps once or twice a month, when we go into town for a big grocery haul and random errands. That’s it. In other words, we work from home. If you’d like to move to the countryside, could you investigate if you could too? The COVID-19 spring has made us all realize we don’t need to be in the office five days a week. Could you go in once or twice? In that case, you won’t put yourself in that state of car dependency many associate living rurally with.

“But what if you want Chinese food in the middle of the night?”

There’s also the “but what if you want Chinese food in the middle of the night?”-thing (hands up, those who remember that famous line by Phoebe in Friends). In other words, can you live without the constant access to restaurants, entertainment and shopping? Only you can answer that, but we haven’t missed it one bit. We also think people tend to overestimate how much they actually take advantage of their city life – really, how many can say they regularly go to concerts and museums? If the countryside concept is intriguing in the first place, we’ll go ahead and assume you have a thing for nature and like the idea of living where it’s a little more woodsy. In that case, you’ll have plenty to do and enjoy! Also, don’t forget: the city isn’t going anywhere. It’ll still be there for that one music event a year and those special occasion restaurant experiences (that’s how we treat restaurant visits – as a special occasion only thing).

What else? You could fear the lack of social stimulation close at hand. Here, we believe it’s key to know yourself – or try getting to know yourself. Are you an introvert or extrovert? Do you thrive with people around you and see friends multiple times a week or do you like a sense of solitude and don’t mind your own company? If the former, a very rural countryside scene might not be your cup of tea, but there’s a spectrum even to this. And hey, you could always try to sell the idea to some of your friends and family members, and create your own community somewhere out there!

Lower your expenses

In many ways, this is the core of the whole concept of leaving the hamster wheel, but we thought it still deserves its own paragraph. Because while it might sound all too easy when put just like that, at the end of the day, lowered expenses will automatically open up doors for you to live a freer life. If you need less money in to make ends meet, you’ll naturally need to work less as well – or perhaps continue to work the way you are and bring in the same, but invest the surplus in activities, adventures and experiences that add real value to your life. If your work situation actually feels decent and your issue is more that you feel like you’re not living life to its fullest outside of work, lowered expenses could mean financial space to take fun weekend trips, start up a new hobby, get an allotment to grow vegetables and let all your interests thrive. That counts as a hamster wheel escape just as much as any other one. In this post, you can read more about different money saving measures: 20 Ways to Save Money (And Reduce Consumption).

Work less

Could you simply work a little less but remain at your current work place? Could you look at your finances and see if you could make do with, let’s say, 80% of your salary? Do you have costs you could cut that wouldn’t necessarily affect your quality life – or those that would be compensated by that fact that you always have a three day weekend? The reason why you feel stuck in the hamster feel could simply be that you spend too much time at work – not that you dislike your life as a whole or hate your job. Working a little less could mean more time to do what you love – but also not having to stress when doing… normal life stuff. Because let’s face it: it’s not always about the time to pursue wild hobbies, let your inner artist blossom or get into mountain climbing. We always say living life is a full time job, and what we mean by that is exactly what it sounds like. Living life is a full time job. It’s the home that needs to be cared for. The laundry that needs to be done. The relationships that need to be maintained. The food that needs to be planned, bought, prepared and eaten. The body that needs to be exercised. Etc. Most of us rush around like crazy to fit in 40 hrs of work, some sleep and all that life stuff every single week – and many of us end up exhausted when trying.

“Most of us rush around like crazy to fit in 40 hrs of work, some sleep and all that life stuff every single week”

Cutting costs to then be able to cut back on work a bit could mean you have one day a week to take care of the normal chores without having to suffer a heart attack. It could mean less stress on your work days because you know you’ll have time to clean the bathroom another time, which in turn will make you sleep better, make better decisions for yourself and perhaps even end up happier in the end. And also – with the theme of this blog post in mind – it could make you feel much less stuck in the hamster wheel. It’s not always about leaving all things ordinary life behind and becoming a self-sufficient hippie – it could just be making a little room in your day-to-day routine, so there’s time to both breathe, sleep and think (doesn’t that sound nice?). We’re so focused on money making, consumption and all the grand stuff that we forget a simple thing such as time to sit down to plan for this week’s dinners could generate a much improved quality of life.

Start freelancing

This is what we’ve done, and we can’t ever picture ourselves going back to working for someone else. If you’re in a field where freelancing is an option, could you consider it? It’s not something that would suit everyone, as it requires a certain amount of self-discipline, structure and drive, but if those attributes apply to you – go for it. As a freelancer, you can decide when and how you want to work all by yourself, and this is probably the biggest advantage of all (it means that you for example can do your long run on a sunny Friday and work on a rainy Saturday morning instead).

“It has put us entirely in charge of our lives, made it possible to work together as well as from home and enabled us to do what we find inspiring and fun.”

We don’t need a bank holiday to take a day off, nor do we need to limit our summer vacation to a few weeks, but can choose to work more certain other times of the year to compensate. If you, like us, enjoy being in charge of your own schedule and the feeling of fulfilling your own dreams instead of someone else’s, freelancing is definitely something to explore. To us, this is the ultimate escape from the hamster wheel, as it has put us entirely in charge of our lives, made it possible to work together as well as from home and enabled us to do what we find inspiring and fun. And with limited expenses to top it all off, we find ourselves needing to work way less than 40 hrs per week.

Grow your own vegetables

You can grow your own food, save some money and get fresh air, a workout and vitamin D as a bonus. The mere act of caring for a patch of land may feel like exactly the break from the everyday work routine that you’re after. You get to connect with the origin of your food, spend time outside, learn new things and reestablish a relationship with nature and the ground that many of us have lost. And could perhaps the lowered food expenses make up for taking an extra day off here and there, or even dropping down to working 80%? The one thing in our budget that always causes raised eyebrows (in a positive way) is our food costs. Our food budget is set to SEK 3000 (USD 340) a month and we – truthfully – almost never break it. (We’re hungry athletes and basically eat for four, we should add.) Having our own garden and basically being able to walk straight past the produce section at the store every time between June and January saves us a lot – and that’s taking into consideration the money we spend on the actual garden itself. After the setup three years ago, it doesn’t cost us more than perhaps SEK 200-300 per year (basically, our online seed order from Runåbergs). By composting, mulching and overall caring for our soil, we never have to buy manure or new soil, and we of course collect rain water. In other words, you can create your own self-propelled food factory if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves a bit – and isn’t some manual labor refreshing sometimes? It’s at least immensely rewarding, creating something “real” with your own hands.

Turn a hobby into something profitable

What are you really good at that you also love doing? Could that be turned into a business? Sometimes it’s the mere thought of working for someone else and feeling as if your role isn’t fulfilling you that makes you feel as if you’re spinning around in the hamster wheel. When it’s all just a grind. Working for yourself is a game changer in that regard! Everything that you do – from the thoughts you think to the tasks you carry out to the people you connect with – will ultimately come straight back to yourself, and there’s something so inherently satisfying in that. It’s also scary, sure, to be solely responsible – but when you succeed, it’ll taste all the sweeter.

Starting your own business doesn’t always have to be so grand and so big. It can be turning those little sewing projects that you return to into a small online shop. It can be trusting your photography skills and shooting a few weddings a year. It can be selling your surplus vegetables. The extent of it spans a spectrum from microscopic to full-time – it’s all up to you. If it starts out as a small side project, the extra money could maybe enable cutting back on working your “normal job”. Slowly, it might turn into more than just a small thing on the side (if that’s your desire) and one day, the “normal job” might be the thing you do on the side to maintain a secure income source instead. How does this make you escape the hamster wheel? Again, it’s not always about doing less work, but just as much about bringing more meaning, joy and freedom into your life. 

Move to a smaller city or town

A light version of moving to the countryside is to simply look around you for attractive smaller towns. Here, places to live will most likely be easier to come across at a lower price – whether rentals or real estate for buying – and you’ll lower your expenses automatically. Perhaps you’ll end up closer to nature. Perhaps even get access to a plot or allotment to garden. There might be a quieter environment bringing you better sleep and a life more connected to the seasons on offer. There might be fewer unnecessary consumption traps to fall into and you might find it easier to prioritize what actually provides your life with substance. So many of us carry this belief that we have to live in one of the bigger cities in order to feel successful and as if we’ve “made it”, but this is so far from the truth. Asking yourself why you want to or feel the need to live in a big city is a good first step to see if a move out of it could be a good fit.

“Asking yourself why you want to or feel the need to live in a big city is a good first step to see if a move out of it could be a good fit.”

Downsize

If you’re happy where you are and perhaps have family close by that you’d rather not move away from, could you downscale? Do you need all the bedrooms and bathrooms you current house has or could you do with something smaller? Here, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Can you distinguish your true needs from societal expectations? What do we do to show off and what would we still be doing if no one was watching? (The latter one repeats one of the tools up top in this post – and is arguably one of the most important questions to ask oneself in life, we believe). Downscaling could open up more space and air in your budget, and either allow for cutting back on work and/or introducing other truly happiness bringing things into your life. This bullet point ties in a lot with what was mentioned in the Lower your expenses and Work less chapters up top.

“What do we do to show off and what would we still be doing if no one was watching?”

… and a few words to send you off

Ultimately, everyone wants to be happy. When we feel stuck in the hamster feel, what we really might be feeling is a lack of meaning and an overbearing sense of stress. Stress related to not having enough time to do all the things our lives demand from us, but also stress related to not living up to all the expectations society and those around us have placed upon our shoulders. Those can weigh heavily on us, which means asking ourselves that crucial question of what you would do if no one was watching could be step one away from the hamster wheel feeling. Acting upon your individual realizations will be step two and a little more difficult, and that’s where the potential ways out listed up top come into play. The hamster wheel doesn’t have to be bad, per se – it can mean steady income, a well oiled and clearly structured family life, a beautiful home etc. – and if you don’t feel a desire to live differently, that’s totally cool. What we’d like to inspire others to do and think is this: am I living my life the way I want to? Am I investing my time in a way that fulfills me? And if the answers to those are no and no, then perhaps it’s time to look at other options. We’re all pre-programmed from an early age to think of certain things as attractive and worth striving for – the fancy house, the expensive car, the fat paycheck and heck, even the busy schedule – and that’s what we’d like to change. Where did personal fulfillment, good health, happiness and time to spend with loved ones go? Those are the things we sacrifice immediately when time gets tight, which just doesn’t sit right with us. And we all know that our beloved planet Earth will feel a whole lot better if we just direct our attention away from consumption and towards genuine fulfillment instead, right? A solid win-win, if you ask us.

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If you’ve enjoyed this post (and perhaps other ones as well), maybe you would like to support us on Patreon? For as little as $3 per month, you would play a huge part in helping us create more of the content you like, as well as keep our blog ad-free. And if Patreon isn’t your thing at all, please remember this: each time you like, comment, cook one of our recipes, recommend us to a friend or in any other way spread the word about us, you do us an immense favor. Thank you so much for being part of our mission.

– Sophia & Michael


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