One of the questions we get most frequently by email is: How do you stay patient en route to early retirement?
And the honest answer is: We have no idea! We’re feeling more impatient than ever.
We’ve written about impatience on the road to financial independence, and we have gotten a little better about it over time, but the truth is that it hasn’t gotten much easier. It didn’t even get easier when we reached financial independence technically (but not comfortably). Hitting FI on paper changed literally nothing in our lives — it didn’t make us happier, healthier, nicer or more patient. We expect leaving work to have more positive effects than just reaching financial independence did, but thinking about that only makes us still more antsy to leave.
So we’re as eager as ever to leave our careers, despite having a year-ish left (actual timing TBD at the end of this year). But the impatience itself isn’t what we’re talking about today: it’s what we do with that impatience.
What we do with it is a whole other choice: Whether to stay engaged in what we’re doing at work in the meantime, or whether to check out mentally. Our advice: No matter how impatient you feel, don’t check out early. Let’s talk about why.
Similar to our recent post on how much we should care about work when we know we aren’t in it for the long haul, how engaged we stay at work can make a big difference about how we feel about that home stretch, regardless of how impatient we are. Because we can be impatient to leave work and still stay engaged, or we can be completely patient and still disengage. And while patient is probably better than impatient in terms of our own sanity (though impatient is probably better for saving faster), it’s the engaged/disengaged question that really makes the biggest difference in our happiness:
Engaged Vs. Disengaged
Not a subtle chart, eh? ;-) That’s for a reason: we’ve been researching this stuff pretty heavily, as well as testing out our theories in our own lives, and we have concluded that the biggest predictor of happiness in the journey to early retirement isn’t how patient or impatient we are, it’s whether we stay engaged or let ourselves disengage at work.
While we’re saving for early retirement, we all have to spend the same number of hours at work whether we’re investing ourselves in it or not. If you are spending all of your work time going to your happy place in your mind instead of engaging meaningfully with your work, you won’t get out of it any faster. But more importantly, you are unlikely to be any happier. If you’re twiddling your thumbs and counting down your days, especially for months or years, quite the opposite is true.
The Benefits of Engagement
Research clearly shows that being engaged at work leads to greater satisfaction with all areas of life and makes us much more likely to be happy. So there are a whole bunch of benefits that come from being engaged at work that apply to everyone, not just those on track for early retirement. But these things still apply, even if we only have a few years or even months left to work:
- Ownership of success — When good things happen at work, we can feel good knowing we’ve contributed to that success.
- Purpose behind the overtime — Fingers crossed you’re not in the large majority of workers who work far beyond 40 hours per week. But if you are, staying engaged will make you feel better about that overtime because you understand why it’s necessary.
- Greater sense of meaning — Committing yourself to your work gives you a sense of contributing value to your company, the economy or the world. That provides a greater sense of meaning or purpose, even if it’s not your main purpose in life.
- Greater health and happiness in the rest of life — This one is more of an effect of the preceding three. When we feel successful and have meaning in our lives, everything else is better, from our relationships to our well being. But even without all those other benefits, greater work engagement is still strongly linked to better health.
Staying Engaged In Your Home Stretch
Of course knowing that engagement is good is one thing, but actually staying engaged when you have one foot out the door is entirely another. There’s a reason why the customary notice to leave most jobs is only two weeks and not longer — it’s because once we know we’re leaving, we’re not very motivated to stay productive or profitable. So what if we know we’re leaving for months or even years?
The key here is to reframe for ourselves what engagement means.
It doesn’t have to mean staying mentally invested in every bit of office gossip or internal politics (and it shouldn’t mean that). And it doesn’t have to mean staying obsessed with sales figures and bottom lines. It’s possible to free ourselves of some of the unpleasant aspects of a job (like the hardest work that it will take to get promoted, if we know we won’t stick around long enough to get that promotion) while staying fully engaged in the more meaningful aspects.
In our most impatient moments, we’ve started asking ourselves, “What do I want my legacy to be?” And it helps focus us on what’s important. Even better, the answer gives us clear direction on what we need to focus on. We may feel antsy as all get out, but we’re still entirely engaged in our work and expect to be until the end.
If you feel yourself checking out a little more each day, don’t lose hope. You can still re-engage, and some ways to do that could be to:
Pick a legacy project — Think about what you want to be remembered for, and do that thing. Maybe it’s winning some new piece of business that will provide revenue long after you’re gone. Maybe it’s making some new innovation that will pay off for years. Maybe it’s making office birthday parties more fun. Whatever you want on your “office tombstone,” make it happen.
Improve systems — We all see things in our work that could be improved. When we’ve got our noses to the grindstone, it’s much tougher to come up for air to focus on big picture things than it is when we’re on our way out. Use your fortuitous position to improve the systems that need improving — no one needs to know why you’re so focused on that.
Nurture client relationships — If you do client work, there’s no downside to making sure your last batch of clients is extra happy. Maybe you’ll realize one day in retirement that you’re bored and want to do a little work on the side — and then you’ll be glad you have former clients who are willing to hire you. Or you just want to leave your career with an abundance of good karma and gratitude flowing your way — no better way to do that than to leave client work in good shape.
Mentor those coming up behind you — Mentoring is one of the best ways we can each pay it forward, and it also provides benefits to us in terms of boosting our happiness and gratitude. Invest yourself in setting up a few people junior to you to succeed after you’re gone, whether it’s by helping them learn new skills, taking them out to network, teaching them the ropes in senior management, or getting them onto the company softball team.
I suspect most of us on the early retirement path struggle with impatience, but do you ever struggle with engagement at work? Have you found any great ways to stay engaged and interested even with short-timers syndrome? For those who’ve already retired, how was it for you to stay engaged in the end? Any secrets to share? We always love hearing from you in the comments!