5 Steps to Develop your Personal Agency (and start something new)

Vulcan (Hephaestus). Engraving by C. Bloemaert after Pietro” is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In my last post On Authentic Frugality, it became clear that to achieve financial goals faster, just playing defensive isn’t enough. For many of us in the online personal finance space, we yearn something outside of the 9-5 to give us more meaning in life. Many blogs in the FI/RE domain are branded with the keyword ‘Escape’, suggesting that the FI/RE community eschew working a traditional job and are in search of a deeper meaning. For some of us, our job keeps an early retirement comfortably in the cross-hairs, but there are many others who yearn for a faster route to FI/RE.

Simply put, your level of personal agency equates to how much control and freedom you feel you have. Low personal agency is prominent in those who are trapped working a job they don’t like, in order to pay the mortgage or simply to keep up a basic standard of living. People with normal (or high) levels of agency are typically people who feel in control of their thoughts and actions at all times.

That isn’t to say that someone working a 9-5 cubicle job can’t have a high level of personal agency. But judging by the appetite there is for people to break free of the 9-5 job and the general level of disengagement in FI/RE enthusiasts, most are not doing something they enjoy. This can result in a low sense of efficacy, self-devaluation and depression. The only logical next step is to change something and increase your locus of control. After all, unless you believe that your actions will achieve a desired result, you will have little incentive to persevere in the face of difficulties.

Everyone has more time than they think they do. Even when you feel really busy, there are small fragments of time here and there in the day that you can use to your advantage. I know what it’s like to use up all your mental capacity during the day that you haven’t got anything left to give… but it is important to realise that if a job has become part of your identity and yet you do not want to stay in it, you need to start taking action. Starting a new side project (even if it isn’t for money) is a great way to help mentally separate yourself from your job, as it requires a different set of skills that help increase your confidence and your mood.

Against laurel-resting

Apollo and Daphne, 1625, by Poussin

I know… the term ‘side hustle’ leaves most people grimacing, there’s no denying. But call it what you like, we can’t ignore the profound importance of it’s accelerative effects towards achieving financial independence. Given that freedom from a 9-5 job is the main motivator for most people, earning money from a side-project gives you just that, plus the advantages of being your own boss and having complete autonomy and influence.

Although moonlighting is a well-known shortcut to early retirement, it isn’t actually a well-beaten path for most people. It is simply easier to stay in your comfortable 9-5 job and not take the risk of doing something new, all the while complaining about how long it takes (or simply giving up).

The side-hustle has spawned myriad of websites and services dedicated to the art, and countless other micro-services hoping to help your part-time business to grow. Ironically, these are all side-hustles in their own right, creating a rich ecosystem of entrepreneurs. But whilst this all seems very glamorous, there is an underside of really hard work that rarely gets the attention it deserves (it is in the promoters interest to make it seem easy). Ignore what you read on social media. There is no easy way, and those who quickly achieve huge profits are either lying or have made their money from ‘selling the secret to earning money’, both capturing and manipulating people’s hopes at the same time (e.g. selling e-books on how to sell e-books).

Once you learn there is no easy way other than to pursue something you are passionate about, this should hopefully cast doubt over your expectations about bringing large amounts of money from your fledgeling business ideas. But that’s a good thing! We need to be removed of these expectations to take the next step forward.

Step 1: Give yourself focussing time away from your 9-5 job

Almost everyone has some spare time. If possible limit the hours of your day job to no longer than your contracted hours – unless you are getting paid overtime you are freely giving away precious time needed to change your future. If you break the habit of overworking you will free up more mental energy to devote to being creative.

Step 2: Develop a sense of personal brand

Gone are the days where company loyalty paid and where people stayed in the same job for 40 years. In those days companies took the primary responsibility for your career, but since the demise of final salary pensions and the ascent of the gig economy, this responsibility has migrated to the employer.

Now, more than ever, you need to be able to market yourself. This isn’t about window dressing but thinking deeply about your motivations and the the ideals that you want up uphold. Your thoughts and actions are the only things that define you, and you know these better than anyone else.

Step 3: Don’t get hung up on coming up with original ideas

This is the first barrier to entry and where most people fail, never to return again. By piling the pressure of coming up with the next big idea, you are dooming yourself to fail.

First we need to learn from what has already been done. New ideas nearly always come from looking backwards first, and almost all the products and services you buy are the result of incremental scientific innovations. This means you don’t have to be at the bleeding edge of invention, you can simply learn and observe the performance of other products and service.

There can be a temptation to succumb to the wider internet community and buy a book or a course. Sometimes these can be useful but bear in mind that they are often out for one reason – to pray on your aspirations.

Step 4: Take the smallest possible step and keep moving forwards

We are impatient creatures and when your motivation is buoyed off the back of a great business idea, it can be overwhelming to face up to the difference between where you are and where you want to be.

Make it as easy as possible to take the first step. Wake up early and make your favourite coffee, boot up the computer and plan your day and what you want to achieve. Develop a real passion for your subject, study it and immerse yourself in the love of the process. At this point, don’t worry about making yourself accountable, or even about making any money at first. This is about establishing what you enjoy for the sheer love and excitement of trying something new.

Step 5: Treat this side project as if it were as important as your day job

The idea is to put enough pressure on yourself, but only pressure to take the next steps (not pressure to achieve an outcome). Until you place enough importance on your side project it will inevitably fall down the priority list. Some ideas for what you can do to simulate the same level of organisation and administration that you would otherwise have in your main job:

  • Use a planning board to map out activities / tasks that need to be actioned (I use Trello for this blog)
  • Start each day with a toolbox talk and plan what you want to achieve for the day
  • Try to build processes that automate a lot of the drudgery that you would normally have in your day job. I’ve found it really exciting and rewarding to explore new process flows that I don’t have available to me in the day job, due to being bound to the infrastructure we have.
  • If possible try to get feedback early on, and not just from people who are close to you.

In conclusion

You aren’t defined by any job and there are steps you can take to increase your personal resiliency and agency. By increasing the time you have available to work on passion projects and by having the right level of motivation and direction, there’s no reason why any of us can’t use this FI/RE catalyst to bring our retirement dates forward.

The added advantage of finding a passion project is that it gives you an opportunity to explore what you might want to do beyond your retirement years. This is something that a lot of us dream about, but the reality is that many get bored without a distraction or a greater meaning.

There is absolutely no reason why you have to start a side project. But for those of us who are still a way off retirement, the environment created by the pandemic has afforded some people with more time to assess what they want to pursue in life. One potential argument is that the world of side-jobs is becoming more diluted with demand for online / part time gigs.

As long as you are willing to work hard at creating a service that people want, I firmly believe that the above advice can apply to anyone, particularly those interested in FI/RE, as this indicates the presence of motivation and bigger-picture thinking that the majority of the population don’t possess.

What will hold us back is our efficacy beliefs and our lack of agency. But it’s all out there waiting for us.

Your Thoughts

Do any of you have a side-job that is helping you fast-track your way to financial independence and would be interested in an interview? If so I’d love to hear from you. Please drop me a direct message here or on Twitter @ad_otium.

Further reading:

Personal Agency Drives a New-Look Motive Hierarchy: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/getting-proactive/202004/personal-agency-drives-new-look-motive-hierarchy

Understanding Personal Agency: https://philosophicaltherapist.com/2017/03/21/understanding-personal-agency/

Social Cognitive Theory and Clinical Psychology: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B0080430767013401

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