When we first began dreaming of early retirement, I had this recurring thought: We’re going to have SO much time! I can do everything I’ve ever dreamed of doing! Go everywhere we’ve ever wanted to visit! Relearn French and Spanish, relearn the piano, learn to paint and throw pottery and do woodblock prints! Write novels and adopt a dozen shelter dogs and volunteer with every organization in town!
I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s believed that in some form, delving rather deeply into the magical retirement thinking that drives many of us to explore financial independence in the first place. But after talking to quite a few already-retired people, that notion quickly got smacked out of my head. This thought is what now lives in its place:
Even in retirement, we still have limited time. If something is important to us, we have to prioritize it and make time for it, and not act like time is an unlimited resource.
Recently I attended a writing workshop, and the advice I remember most clearly from it was: “If you want to find more time to write, turn off the television.”
I didn’t take it as a knock on TV specifically, but more a big picture directive: If you want more time to do this thing that’s important to you, don’t waste time on stuff that’s not. Every moment we spend doing something meaningless is a moment we no longer have to do the meaningful thing.
I’ve known this innately in our pre-retirement years — that’s why I’m writing this late night instead of sleeping, because writing is more important to me right now than sleep. But it’s been startling to recognize that this won’t change all that much after we quit our full-time careers — we’ll always have to make big trade-offs, even when the promise of future time feels so much less limited than now.
To Retire Early, We Optimize Like Pros, But Then…
I’m fascinated by a phenomenon I’ve witnessed multiple times now. People who achieve early retirement are top-notch life hackers by nature. They excel at budget optimization, side hustling and all the rest, which often also means making the most of every moment and being super productive. But, after they retire, they quickly wonder how they ever had time to work at all. (I’ve heard this from numerous now-retired people.)
And I always wonder: Are you actually getting just as much done in retirement, albeit different stuff from what you did while working, or have you just dialed way back on the optimization, making a shorter list of tasks feel just as long?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to pay close attention as we transition late this year, to try to find out! But if it’s the latter answer — fewer tasks feel like just as much — then it’s even MORE important in retirement to prioritize the stuff that’s most important to us, and avoid frittering away the hours and days in meaningless time-wasting.
One Person’s Fulfillment Is Another Person’s Waste of Time
This whole idea of “wasting time” is one that deserves a cold, hard look. Because it’s so relative. I know I’d be bored out of my mind in under an hour if I had to sit on a beach and do nothing, but that’s plenty of other people’s definition of paradise. (Side note: While I have never excelled at sitting still, I hope to build this skill in retirement.)
Meanwhile, all the time I want to spend writing would I’m sure be a waste of sunshine and fresh air to lots of other people. And hey, if you love watching television more than anything, and it brings you honest-to-goodness fulfillment and happiness, then watch away without guilt, my friend. All that matters is what feels like the best use of your time, not anyone else’s.
Make Time For What’s Permanently Important
Over the years, I’ve gotten dozens of notes along the lines of, “I retired early, realized I had no direction or purpose, regretted the whole thing and went back to work.” I am not joking about the dozens part — this is not uncommon.
Of course none of us working hard to save over multiple years want to end up in that situation, so it’s worth putting real thought into this question of not just what you want to retire to (we all know to ask that question by now), but what is truly and permanently important to you in your life.
I recently asked the ONL newsletter subscribers (Sign up! It’s so fun!) what things they are aiming to do in retirement are the must-do, permanently important tasks, versus what they’d be okay never checking off the list. I’m still compiling answers and responding to those notes, so stay tuned for more on this subject. But it’s an important thought exercise to go through.
Some questions you could ask yourself to help figure this out:
What do you want to be remembered for?
What things would you really regret not checking off your bucket list?
What’s a legacy you’d like to leave future generations?
What activity makes you the happiest of all?
And, as always with these early retirement questions, it’s worth asking yourself if you truly have to wait until ER to pursue this stuff, or if you could do more of what makes you happiest and most fulfilled now.
Let Go of What’s Not Meaningful
The flip-side of this thought experiment tis obvious: pay attention to the stuff that rises to the top, but pay just as much attention to what sinks to the bottom. Care about writing most of all? Then maybe you don’t need to watch 12 TV shows regularly. Care mostly about TV shows? Then perhaps aspiring to be a novelist is only going to make you feel overly stressed and anxious. (Okay, dropping those two examples now. Insert whatever feels applicable to you.)
There’s room for balance, of course, and early retirement is supposed to be a time of broadening our horizons, not of limiting our focus down to a tiny tunnel. But, it helps going in to know that we can’t do everything, and we will face some hard choices.
Determine the Transitional Period — And Avoid Making the Choice By Default
I’m a huge believer in the power of streaks, inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach. It’s why I don’t let myself miss a blog post here, because I’m actually afraid I would accidentally quit altogether if I missed even one. But by keeping that streak alive, I know I can keep this up, even if right now it means writing in lieu of sleep. (That part changes soon, at least!)
Why streaks matter is they work in the other direction, too. If we don’t choose, and we just let ourselves drift through life, we make decisions by default, by not affirmatively doing the thing that’s most meaningful to us. And that’s what I’m slightly terrified could happen after we retire.
We all deserve a decompression period, right? We both know we have years of sleep debt to pay back, we know we want to give ourselves lots of free time to think and reflect and just do whatever strikes us, and we don’t want to try to plan out our whole lives while we’re still working since we probably don’t even know our future retired selves all that well. All of which means: we have earned a transitional period.
During what I’m calling “the detox,” we don’t want to put too many expectations on ourselves or set too many goals. We want to let ourselves go with the flow and take each day entirely as it comes. But if we aren’t careful, that short-term detox could easily and invisibly turn from a transitional period into the whole rest of our lives. Which would be a terrible outcome, at least in my mind.
Right now we’re thinking about what length of detox makes sense. What gives us enough time to exhale all those years of work, break the smartphone twitch and catch up on sleep, but not so much time that we begin drifting aimlessly? (Please share your thoughts! I’d love to know how other aspiring FIRErs think about this, and what those who’ve already retired have learned!)
I know this is a weird thing to say, but I really don’t want to get this wrong. I don’t want to pressure myself to prematurely start tackling more projects in retirement when what I really need is to heal my body and mind from years of all-consuming work. But I am terrified to let the days fritter by without filling them with meaning or purpose. There’s going to have to be a lot of just listening to our guts on this one when the time comes, which is hard for a planner like me to accept, but going into it with the intention to keep listening, instead of not even asking the question, is an important difference of approach.
I hope never to be as productive again as I am now, because it’s just way too much. But if I can subtract the productivity that doesn’t add meaning to my life and focus on the stuff that does, it will be a great balance. Even if it means I still won’t watch much TV in retirement and will miss out on the cultural references. ;-)
How Will You Decide?
So much to discuss here! How have you figured out (or how might you go about figuring out) what’s truly, permanently important to you to do or accomplish in retirement? Have you had any realizations lately about what you maybe thought was important but actually isn’t? Any meaningless stuff you’ve either cut out, or have found was actually more meaningful than you thought? Any advice on how long we should make our detox? Let’s discuss it all in the comments!
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