Countering magical thinking about early retirement and financial independence, expectations and happiness, not setting yourself up for disappointment in retirementwe've learned

Countering Magical Thinking About Early Retirement and Financial Independence

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had this thought: “When I get to financial independence/early retirement, I’ll finally have the time to __________, and then I’ll be so much happier!”

(Don’t worry. We’re all raising our hands.)

Magical thinking is something humans are especially gifted at, and the “If only _____ [insert thing you wish would change], then ______ [insert state of perfection]” phrase is practically written into our DNA.

Also written into my DNA? An actual genetic basis for my crappy sleep! (And that I can smell asparagus pee. Because apparently 23andme thinks I needed an elaborate test to tell me that.) 


Nope, definitely did not go down a massive genetic testing rabbit hole last week and scare the crap out of myself. The opposite of magical thinking.

Magical thinking is the result of good intentions, and our natural tendency to be problem-solvers. We identify a problem, look for the likely solution, and then strive toward that solution, expecting the problem thenceforth to be solved. And sometimes that works. Like if the problem is that we have a stack of dirty dishes by the sink. We look for the likely solution (washing the dishes), strive toward the solution (wash them) and then rightly reap the rewards of no more problem, at least for that moment (until more dishes appear).

But sometimes the solution we’re striving for is bigger and takes much longer to reach, and in that time gap, our minds begin to exaggerate things, namely how we’ll feel about it all when we get there. That exaggeration is the magical thinking, and sometimes it’s harmless — but often it’s not.

Today we’ll get into all of that — why magical thinking about early retirement and financial independence in particular isn’t harmless, and what we can do to counter that tendency when we feel our minds drifting toward the magic.

Countering magical thinking about early retirement and financial independence, expectations and happiness, not setting yourself up for disappointment in retirement

I have described part of this journey as magical before, specifically how surreal the latter portion has felt as we’ve watched our numbers grow without it feeling like we’re doing anything to make that happen. (And yes, I know that is exactly how compound interest and passive income work. But knowing it rationally and seeing it happen are two different things.) Talking about magic that way is what I might call “the magic of wonder.” Like when Harry Potter first finds out he’s a wizard, and everything is just awe-inspiring and surprising to him. (Obviously there are going to be more Harry Potter references in this post. Fair warning.) It’s the magic of the present moment, the magic of observation, the magic of surprise.

Let’s call that the good magic.

The other kind of magic — let’s just go with it and call it the dark magic — is magical thinking, that tendency to create a causal link in our minds between one action and an outcome, and then to build up that outcome into an exaggeration. (And totally transparent fact check here: both anthropology and psychology have clear definitions of magical thinking that I’m not strictly sticking to here. I’m going with the more contemporary vernacular meaning of the phrase.)

Let’s use an example that most of us can likely relate to, using that if-then construction:

If I didn’t have to go to work every day, then I’d be so much happier. 

Action: Stop going to work. Outcome: Happiness!

There’s so much loaded into a simple statement like that, it’s easy to miss it. But here are a few things going on there that are worth noting:

  • The false notion that work and happiness cannot coexist.
  • Ignoring the fact that happiness is the result of many factors.
  • The overemphasis on work’s negative attributes (the ones that feel like a barrier to happiness) while ignoring the positive ones.
  • The huge burden we place on the end of work to deliver us nothing less than happiness.

We all think this way sometimes, and the point of this post isn’t to get us all to dissect every thought we have. Rather, it’s to help us identify when that natural tendency to oversimplify our thinking steps into the realm of dark magic.

Why It’s Worth Countering Magical Thinking

A magic-like sense of wonder in the present moment is a glorious thing, and something I hope everyone gets to experience from time to time in life. Hold on tight to that good magic.

It’s when we shift that magic into the future — expecting a not-entirely-realistic future outcome from a set of actions we’re taking or planning to take — that we risk peril. And there is a scientific basis for this, focusing on our expectations. In that example in the last section (no more work = happiness), our expectation quickly got lofty, to nothing less than the ultimate aspiration of humankind. And there is research to suggest that happiness results when the outcome exceeds our expectations, but not when it only meets our expectations or falls short. We could definitely have a robust discussion around how and when that’s true, whether it applies to all situations, whether happiness is often a choice and not an outcome (as we believe it often is), etc. Those are all important questions. But it’s easy to see how, if we expect one (big) thing to result, and we don’t quite achieve that, or we achieve it but not the way we expected, we’d feel disappointment. And that’s the first problem of magical thinking:

Magical thinking builds up the end state so much that it can’t help but disappoint us once we arrive there. 

Because, like, magic isn’t real, much as we might all like to zip on over to Hogwarts. If we let ourselves get attached to these lofty or overly simplified outcomes, we’re bound to feel let down because life is rarely so simple. And, if the research is correct, we’d need to exceed those expectations to be happy with the outcome, which is essentially impossible if we’ve defined the magical outcome as all-but-unachievable anyway.

But that’s focused on what happens way down the line, after we reach our goal. What about what magical thinking does in the present?

Magical thinking makes our present lives seem worse by comparison and focuses our attention on the negative.

If you (think you) know this magical future is out there waiting for you, then your current circumstances will feel a lot worse by contrast, even if things are actually pretty good. The difference between feeling great about your current circumstances and feeling lousy about them is where you place your focus and expectations. Magical thinking puts the focus on more, better, perfect, ideal, not on contentment and satisfaction now.

Magical thinking also — and perhaps more importantly — places a barrier between us and our desired state, an obstacle that may be entirely artificial.

Saying “When [x future state] arrives, I’ll be happy,” implies that you can’t be happy now. Or be fully self-actualized, or have time for your passion project, or whatever else it might be. And chances are good that barrier isn’t as clear or as sturdy as that line of thinking might make it seem.

Fortunately, it’s possible to shut that magical thinking down before it skews our experiences and expectations.

Magical Thinking and Early Retirement

Here’s a partial list of some of the magical thoughts we’ve had about early retirement:

  • When we retire, we’ll have time to get in the best shape of our lives and we’ll quickly start summiting major Himalayas.
  • When we retire, we’ll be able to read every book we’ve ever wanted to read.
  • When we retire, we’ll never feel any stress ever again.
  • When we retire, we’ll get so much done that’s meaningful to us.
  • When we retire, we’ll be super motivated to get outdoors and to be productive, and we’ll never waste days sitting on the couch or surfing the internet.
  • When we retire, we’ll be two little Buddhas, radiating love and positivity, and never getting frustrated or irritated.
  • When we retire, we’ll be able to travel the whole world, climb every mountain we want to climb, read tons of books, write some other books, ski every continent, make videos and podcasts and all kinds of other stuff, relearn piano and painting and ballet, and have lots of time to catch up on sleep. (Just reading that sentence is exhausting.)

If there is one thing I’ve learned from talking to people who early retired ahead of us, it’s this:

Even without work, our to do list will never get shorter, only longer. We will never have enough time to do everything. 

Add to that: It’s still real life, and it’s still us. We’re procrastinators now and that won’t magically change just because we’re retired. We’re sometimes lazy and we’ll still sometimes be lazy. We’ll still have things that need fixing and bills that need paying, and we’ll still fall into those clickbait black holes sometimes. We’ll still have the fragile body and fragile tummy that occasionally force us to spend a weekend wrapped in ice packs instead of getting out there and crushing it. We’ll still react like human beings and get cranky sometimes, even if we’re happy and content overall.

The point of the last paragraph isn’t to dash all our dreams. It’s to do a little reality check on all that magical thinking we’ve done over the years, and to adjust our expectations accordingly.

Because if we go into early retirement thinking it’s a magical cure-all, or that we’ll magically become our happiest, most fully-actualized selves, we’re bound to be disappointed.

And after working so hard for so long to reach this big goal, the last thing anyone wants to be is disappointed. Given what a rare and special thing early retirement is, anything less than wonder and gratitude is borderline tragic.

Questions We Ask To Counter Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is pretty easy to shut down once you know you’re doing it, so the big step is just identifying it in the first place. And we’ve found that asking ourselves these three questions works especially well:

Could that outcome be an exaggeration? — Is the end state we’re expecting what’s likely to happen, or is it a hopeful projection of what we wish could happen? Are we truly going to become superheroes capable of scaling 8000 meter peaks, or should we maybe set our sights on more modest altitudes, at least at first? Or is quitting work truly going to make us happy, peaceful and stress-fee, just like that, or might true happiness take a little more thought and work?

What’s stopping me from doing that thing now? — Is the barrier we perceive, usually in the form of work, really as much of a barrier as we think it is, or might we actually be able to get around it? If travel is that important to us, why would we wait until we’re retired to stop doing it? If I dream of writing more in retirement, why wait until then to prioritize it? (Good news on both of these: we are doing them now.)

Does that really sound like me? — We probably all dream of this magical version of ourselves whom we plan to become in retirement, but it helps to put things back in terms of our present day selves. That totally blissed out little Buddha who never gets stressed about anything? Yeah, that doesn’t sound like me, and also, I don’t want to be like that. I always want to be fully engaged in the world and all its messiness, to get outraged when things warrant it, and to fight to make the world better. I can’t do that if I’m just sitting under a bodhi tree. And being super productive all the time? I’m not going to put that pressure on myself because I know that my creativity comes in waves, not in a river.

You may find that you have a different set of questions that help you sniff out your own magical thinking. These three have worked well for us, and helped us stop making those sweeping pronouncements we used to make, meaning we’re going into early retirement with surprisingly low expectations and minds ready for lots of present-day magic.

Let’s talk magical thinking!

Anyone care to join us in confessing your own magical thoughts about early retirement or financial independence? Any questions you’ve found to help keep your expectations more grounded? Want to quibble with anything in that expectations vs. happiness research? Or are you immune to magical thinking and have secrets you can share with the rest of us about how you do it? Let’s chat in the comments!

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78 replies »

  1. I’ve been so inspired to do more today rather than wait until we hit our magic number by your stories!
    Thanks for putting yourself out there like this!

    • You totally made my day, Elisia! :-D That’s so awesome that you’re focusing on living your best life today and not waiting! xoxo

  2. If I learned anything from this weekend and the last few weeks, it’s that I’m capable of a lot of hard work and I’m happiest when working towards achieving a goal. However, I still fall into the internet/couch black hole occasionally. I learned I need a detailed to do list for the day (day split into time blocks) to keep chores manageable and to get everything done without feeling overwhelmed. I’ve gotten more done than I thought was possible and I’m over the moon about it.

    This definitely showed me how early retirement will have to go though. Structured days with clear goals to hit. No schedule means wasted time and unhappiness.

    • High fives for all the things you checked off your list! We’ve pondered the structure question, too, and think we’ll sometimes need to give ourselves structure, but other times want to just let ourselves drift to see what happens. I hope you’ll do a mix of the two, also!

    • That’s an interesting perspective, but in the very short time I’ve retired, I’m giving myself time to just be. I had a rather “unproductive” week a couple of weeks ago where I spent several hours each day hanging out with an old friend and her family who were in town and just mostly talked and sat together. Not having any time constraints on the various things I wanted to get done made me spending many hours at the beach shoving her kids into waves quite joyful – so much so that I literally completely lost track of time. I felt some small twinges of guilt for not getting a lot done but honestly, it was nice to just be present and not stressed about the projects. Last week, on the other hand, I got a $%it-ton of stuff done – made some serious progress on my yard (that was about 6 months behind). But I didn’t feel pressure or guilt about when I started and didn’t really define exactly what I specifically wanted to do, just kept the end in mind and worked on what I felt compelled to work on. I’ve spent a large part of my life concentrating on what’s next, accomplishing big and small goals and going pretty hard. It’s been nice to sit back and just enjoy what presents itself! I have some goals, but I think it’s time to take my foot off the gas for who knows how long. I’m sure things will change over time, but I’m happy about where I am for the time being.

      • Oh my gosh, I HOPE you’re still very much in the detox phase! Meaning: no obligations, no need to be productive, just time to focus on resting up and relaxing! Glad to hear you’ve let yourself lose track of time, and I hope your trip was great!

  3. I recently compiled a list of the things preventing me from being happy and the list was surprisingly small. Some things I can change (the hours I’m in the office) and some I can’t (my cat’s insulin injections every 12 hours). Like the serenity prayer, I’ve accepted those things I can’t change and I’m focusing on everything else.

    Sometimes we feel so stressed out or tired that we forget just how much power we have over our lives. While removing work from the equation very well could increase happiness, I agree that there are so many other factors that determine happiness that ER alone won’t lead to that outcome.

    • I love that you went through that exercise and made that list! So wise to make peace with the stuff you can’t change, and to recognize that just subtracting one factor from your life won’t automatically create happiness. A lot of us have all the pieces for happiness, we just don’t have them in the right places. ;-)

  4. Good to know that you aren’t falling into the magical thinking trap. I feel into that nearly 10 years ago when I went into full-time blogging. I was going to start at least 2-3 financial apps and a bunch of other stuff.

    I hadn’t looked the mirror to realize that I had chosen my name partially because I’m often to “lazy” to finish the grandiose projects in my mind. Writing short blog posts though? I can do that.

    When you wrote:

    “I always want to be fully engaged in the world and all its messiness, to get outraged when things warrant it, and to fight to make the world better.”

    I couldn’t help but think of a better summary of why I wrote way back then and continue to write about MLM. Fortunately, professional journalists are covering this now with a great example coming in Quartz last week:

    The messiness of this year, even this last week, has me aiming for a little more bodhi tree time. Ironically, for me, that’s often washing dishes to get that feeling of instant accomplishment.

    • Oh we have absolutely done our share of magical thinking! We’re just working hard to get past it. ;-)

      I really applaud you for continuing to beat the drum on MLM, especially in the face of the attacks they’ve thrown your way. I’m glad for so many reasons that these things are getting more attention now.

  5. I’ll start off by saying that I’m FIREd and I much prefer being FIREd to not being FIREd. Not a shock, I’m sure. :)

    But I definitely understand the Magical Thinking problem. I spent 7 years going to a Zen Center and one of the things it finally beat out of me is “I’ll be happy when…(fill in the blank)”. Like I’ll be happy when I get a job, or I’ll be happy when I get married, or I’ll be happy when I FIRE.

    The problem was that I’d be unhappy until those things happened. And, oh by the way, whenever I did complete one I’ll-be-happy-when another one would immediately popup. So I was never really happy for very long.

    I finally decided having a goal is OK only if I decided achieving the goal is NOT a prerequisite to happiness. My new mantra is “It would be nice if…(fill in the blank).”

    • You’d be breaking all of our hearts if you told us you WEREN’T happier retired than working. ;-) But as you’ve seen yourself, checking some box, even if it’s a very big box, doesn’t grant us lasting happiness. I LOVE your new mantra. It’s absolutely fine to strive toward things, just not to make our happiness contingent on them. :-D

  6. Ooooh, I’ll be the first to admit that I have some magical thinking around retirement! I took last week off and all I could think was “how awesome is it that I don’t care what day it is and I have all the time in the world to do what I want?!?” But guess what- I didn’t get everything done and I didn’t do all that I wanted to do… my list of activities and to-dos just got longer! (Like you mention here: “Even without work, our to do list will never get shorter, only longer. We will never have enough time to do everything.”)

    I think it has been key for me to try to pose Question #2 to myself… What is stopping my from doing it right now? Often, the answer is “nothing, go do it!”. It just takes that step to realize all we are capable of doing regardless of our day job :)

    ~Mrs. Adventure Rich

    • I love that you’re tackling Q2, and focusing more on doing things now! It’s so easy to get sucked into that “work is horrible, work makes me unhappy, work is a barrier to everything I want to do instead” thinking… but so much of that is an illusion, not reality. ;-)

  7. “Happiness is a how, not a what” – Herman Hesse

    Everytime I read that quote it still resonates. So is it “having climbed mountains”, “having time to climb mountains”, the “act of climbing mountains”, or “climbing mountains joyfully (even at 230am)” that will bring joy?

    • I guess my version of that quote is: happiness is a choice in the present, not a future destination. ;-) And given how much of climbing mountains is NOT type 1 fun, I’d say its often “having climbed mountains” that’s the happiness piece, though there’s a big part of it that’s just “gratitude for being able to even consider climbing mountains” that’s much more present-focused.

  8. Great post, the types of folks trying to achieve FIRE would probably lend themselves to be high achievers in life in general. And high achievers tend to never be satisfied from my experience (I consider myself one). So they always add another thing on the to-do list when one is crossed off, and usually the thing added is grander in scale or difficulty. I guess we could call this “achievement inflation” (akin to lifestyle inflation)

    I’m guilty of this. I guess the key is to have perspective that, as a human, you have to realize you can’t always be “on” and achieving. You must rest, and you will have bad days where you body is telling you to rest.I find that on those days it’s best to think over what you have achieved and be proud of yourself.

    This past Saturday I had a short 4 mile run planned in the afternoon. Halfway through, I felt horrible, like on the road to bonking. I shortened the route and jogged home early. I felt light-headed and weak for the next 3 hours and just simply had to lay on the couch and realize that I should have taken a rest day. I chalk these things up to “Mama told me there’d be days like this”, and just try to roll with them now. Thankfully we have the internet and cat videos on YouTube to entertain ourselves when they happen.

    • I love “achievement inflation”! So true. And I’m glad you listened to your body’s signals on Saturday and didn’t beat yourself up or feel like a failure. You had one of those days, these things happen, and there’s no point dwelling on it. And I’m impressed you managed to watch cat videos instead of getting sucked into the horrible Charlottesville black hole. You probably had a more uplifting weekend than we did! :-/

  9. I think one thing that can be really difficult for driven, goal-oriented people, is working on separating our idea of success or failure from a particular condition or result. It’s something that I find easiest to access and work on via my yoga practice. For example, being mindful that it doesn’t matter if I achieve any particular variation of a pose, or if I meditate for 5 seconds vs. 30 minutes. What matters is the practice itself, and if that’s so, then my ‘success’ is entirely within my control. And the funny thing is, it’s often when we detach from specific outcomes, that we make the greatest progress towards them. I might find a new depth in a particular pose exactly when I stop pursuing it so much. But the key is recognising, and continually reminding myself, that that does not determine the success of my practice.

    I see that in a FI context as well. There is no sense in waiting until we reach a specific net worth number to feel we are living our fullest lives. Reaching the number is good, nailing the pose is good, but what’s better is finding happiness and acceptance that is independent of those binary pass/fail metrics.

    • Yes to all of this! Some days I want to change the blog tagline to “Becoming FI didn’t make us happier, better, smarter or kinder people” just to underscore this point. ;-) BUT, doing all the personal reckoning necessary to get to FI (and to blog about it twice a week!) has absolutely made us more mindful of our tendencies, and more able to choose happiness now and define success in the present, not the future.

  10. I think the big harm that comes from magical thinking is that it makes us believe that tomorrow will be better. There’s nothing wrong with having hope, but it’s like we’re putting off today’s happiness.

    • Totally! I love that way of thinking about it. Don’t cede happiness for tomorrow that you could be enjoying today!

  11. I agree with your magical thinking reasoning. What worked well for me when I retired six months ago, was to keep my top three goals in mind:

    1. My health – continue my Pilates practice that I started several months earlier in anticipation of retiring. I had some issues to address after nearly 29 years of poor posture/sitting at a desk job;

    2. Catch up with home projects and establish a good home maintenance/cleaning routine; and

    3. Get a library card and use it!

    Six months later, I’ve pretty well stayed with these goals. It also took me awhile to not feel guilty about sometimes just relaxing, and not doing anything.

    Now, I’m going back to work part-time September 1, to earn a little extra income for some home reno projects. I’ve just committed to one year, so when that time is up, I may or may not continue. But I consider my retirement a success so far.

    So, to sum it up, my advice is to temper your expectations and just enjoy!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Lisa! I think that’s super smart of you to go into it all with minimal demands on yourself, but enough to give yourself some priorities and structure and not let yourself get aimless. I hope your new part-time gig goes well!

  12. Yup, “grass is always greener” over in that other area that we aspire to be in. Whether that be a new job, new location or new phase of our life, the tendency to believe that everything will be “better” when… is far too natural. We’ve all done it.

    Early retirement is just another phase of life. It ain’t the cure-all, and people tend to realize that pretty quickly after quitting their jobs. If you aren’t retiring TO something, that grass will probably be a different shade of brown.

  13. This will sound a bit woo-woo (especially coming from me), but the happy has to come from within.

    External factors like jobs/spouses/commutes/locales we don’t like can certainly make that harder, but the removal of those things won’t on their own make us happy.

    Six months into my first period of semi-retirement I hadn’t magically become more motivated, or fulfilled, or productive. To some extent I was surprised by this, and found it a tad frustrating.

    I also hadn’t gotten any smarter, taller, or better looking. However I was more content, owning my own time to do with (or not do with) as I chose.

    I recognised that all those things I’d put off until after I escaped the rat race had (almost without exception) been put off unnecessarily. With the benefit of hindsight I should have JFDI.

    Now four weeks (and counting) into my second period of semi-retirement I’m much more accepting of all the above, because I know what to expect. I’d love to cure world hunger, write a bestseller, invent a commute busting “beam me up Scotty” transporter, and learn to cook amazing dim sum… but I probably won’t.

    A surprisingly great aspect of early retirement is it strips away all the excuses, there is nobody/nothing left to blame for our shortcomings. If nothing else it forces us to be a bit more honest with ourselves, what we really want and how hard we’re willing (or not willing) to try to achieve it. Our time is our own, the rest comes from within.

    For the record I have learned how to cook yummy dim sum, so there is hope :-).

    • You know woo-woo is my favorite. ;-) And I’m totally with you on happiness. I think it’s a choice more than a journey, though some of the journey metaphors are apt in that we need to let go of some stuff before we can truly embrace lasting happiness. And for sure some moments make it MUCH harder to make that choice than others do, but most of us see obstacles between us and happiness that aren’t really there.

      I love hearing your experience and that you’ve gone into this mini-retirement with no more magical thinking. And hey, learning to cook dim sum is a big accomplishment!

  14. Thank you – I really needed this post today. I returned to work from maternity leave last week and have been feeling pretty down about the long stretch of working years left until semi-retirement. But, I don’t want to waste this time just dreaming about the future.

    There was a lot on my “to-do list” during maternity leave. Granted, we were dealing with newborn twins and three young children, but I didn’t get very much done. It’s a perfect example of your point. We’re still us. We still procrastinate and have lazy days. The biggest issue with work is being away from my family, but if I focus during work hours, then I can still have some time for them and other things.

    Take reading – I anticipated being able to read a ton of books while out on leave. With everything else going on, I ended up settling for a few minutes before bed. There’s no reason I can’t do the same thing while working full-time.

    Semi-retirement is still our goal and it will give us more time for lots of other things. However, we have to make the most of the present as well.

    • So glad this post helped you when you needed it! I hope your first day back isn’t too rough. I can only imagine how full your hands must have been with five little ones, two of whom are newborns, and I hope you’re not beating yourself up about not accomplishing more on your maternity leave — just healing and taking care of your babies is the only thing we should expect of moms, but it’s so easy to want to pack every non-work moment completely full.

  15. “The false notion that work and happiness cannot coexist.”

    This one really messed with my head when I started to dive deeper into the idea of FIRE. I usually am pretty happy with my job (and feel it’s very important – I work on super green buildings), but reading about early retirement and financial independence stole a lot of my current joy because I started feeling like I was “missing out” and the little annoyances at work started to feel better. I’ve since started to pull myself out of it, but I really have to focus on reminding myself of the goodness of the journey.

    • You are definitely not alone in this! I see people all the time lamenting the fact that they have to work, and I can’t help but think that FIRE exacerbates this feeling that work and happiness are diametrically opposed. (And we’ve totally been there, too, before we realized we needed to change that and stop complaining about work.) It’s awesome you recognize the goodness and importance of your job — keep focusing on that positive stuff!

  16. I used to fall prey to magical thinking ALL THE TIME and still do (case in point: once I reach financial independence I’m gonna have all the free time to do all the things and will have all the happiness! Obviously not, but it’s hard not to occasionally veer into that territory at the cost of ignoring the stage of life I’m in right now). What’s worked for me is trying to remember to keep expectations low/manageable and hope for the best. And then I’m usually pleasantly surprised when it turns out something is actually awesome.

    • It sounds weird and pessimistic to say we should keep our expectations low, but another way to think of it is just allowing for magic. ;-) If we have clear and high expectations, we’re less open to the amazing adventures that might unfold. So it’s great you’re recognizing that tendency to think magically and are focusing on staying open to present moment magic instead. ;-)

  17. My favorite part about this is the notion of “Why aren’t we doing this now?” Though we are on the slow boat to early retirement, what is absolutely wonderful about how we are choosing to get there is all the breaks that are peppered into our working lives. Doing what we love doesn’t hurt either. Thanks for another fabulous post!

    • Doing things now is a recurring theme here, as you know. ;-) And I’m glad you guys are doing exactly that! Hope you and HP are doing well! xoxo

  18. I really think my dad suffered from magical thinking when he thought about retirement. I believe he thought he wouldn’t need his depression medication anymore, but he was very wrong. He seems to be okay now, but it was quite the disappointment when he realized that he would still need it. He probably thought he just needed it when he was working. This is very dangerous thinking.

    • Wow, dangerous indeed. But he’s certainly not alone in thinking like that! It’s so easy to think of work as the singular cause of our problems, when the reality is more complex than that. I’m glad your dad is okay now! <3

  19. Hmm, I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t think she’s going to be doing magical things post-retirement. I guess when you retire does matter, but I think what keeps me grounded is looking around at ACTUAL retire people. 99% of them (at least the ones I know) aren’t doing much besides just chilling, watching TV. So, I try not to fall into the trap of thinking I’m some kind of special snowflake who’s going to be “super productive”. I fully expect to be a lazy bum in retirement, and I’m OK with that!

    Part of what makes me OK with that is I’m pretty happy with the stuff I’ve done so far. I haven’t had to compromise much (I don’t have kids yet, etc.) so there hasn’t been much to stop me from achieving my goals. Your point: What’s stopping me from doing that thing now? I think I CAN and am doing the stuff I mainly want to do now. It’s just a matter of prioritizing. Sure, I’d love more time to travel more, but I think that could probably get old after a while. I look back at the time I went backpacking to Europe for 6 weeks and man, I missed my bed a lot.

    • It’s funny — I think the common sentiment is that early retirement is fundamentally different from traditional retirement, which is perhaps why so many of us see ourselves doing non-retirement type things. And I think that sentiment is both true and not true. ;-)

      Major props for doing so much stuff now that’s important to you, and not waiting — you know you’re rare among FIers for that, right? ;-)

  20. Great reminder. I constantly ask myself that second question: if it’ll make life that much better, why am I not doing this NOW? So we’ve begun making some changes now even if they won’t be 100% helpful for financial independence, simply because that’s the life we want to live – there’s no point in waiting for years to begin a new journey.

  21. I feel like you’re reading my mind lately! I’ve gone back and forth with expectations, depending on what they’re for. In my teenage years I basically sentenced myself to having no expectations whatsoever so that I could never be disappointed. (I was naive and uh, cynical, to say the least.)

    However, I got caught up in the expectation trap just last week when I went on vacation. This was the first time in *years* that I had both taken off from work and gone away to relax. And yet… I found myself regretting how I was spending my time in the moment, and getting disappointed. How ridiculous! And it’s all because I set my expectations way too high. I thought that going away would leave me recharged and ready to tackle work again once I returned, but I was getting exhausted in the middle of the trip because I kept forcing this vision of a vacation and it wasn’t aligning with reality. (And maybe I just don’t know how to relax.)

    Nothing is a panacea for happiness – I agree there’s no magical solution. Life is always going to have its difficulties, even when work isn’t in the picture. I’m taking this as a lesson learned and hopefully will make my next vacation a bit more fun. ;)

    • Great minds think alike! ;-) I hope you aren’t beating yourself up about that vacation… we have all let ourselves fall into that trap of not enjoying something good because it didn’t meet our expectation. What matters is that you recognized that and won’t repeat it. And I hope you also had some fun on your trip! ;-)

  22. I am basing my current expectations on my unemployed summer a few years ago. I cooked lunch more often, visited with friends and family, got to daytime yoga classes. I was also productive in my job search. I know my future state will require a balance appropriate for the time, and some of those items could be achieved with work from home or part time work. I’m gaining experience in my field, so I can have that option some day. :)

    • Nice job not just frittering that summer away! Sounds like you have a knack for finding balance easily. :-)

  23. A year ago, I think it was a lot worse. Every sentence started with “When we retire…”, at least when we were alone. For myself, I was convinced that the moment I became FI I would revert to a 19th century British aristocrat, living in a large Victorian mansion (possibly a crumbling one, but so much the better), spending my days taking nature walks, then tea a cake promptly at 4:00 (served by myself – no budget for a butler), then reading a book in my tufted leather chair by the fireplace with the dogs at my feet.

    Slowly, my fantasies have taken on a pretty decent dose of reality. While I do want a Victorian house, a modest cottage-sized one will work much better for us. While I do want a much more slow-paced lifestyle eventually, I also need activity, mental stimulation and social interaction. We can’t move out to the middle of nowhere for the low property taxes and expect to live full happy lives. We will probably choose a location close enough to our families to keep them a regular part of our lives. And we will probably work at least part-time for a good while after we’re FI.

    We have been doing a lot to tackle the “once we’re retired…” daydreams now. I am already working on my first big writing project, cooking more (and healthier), exercising more, spending more time outside, etc…

    The one thing that I still have magical thinking about in a big way is, “My life will be so much better when I don’t have to work for this jerk anymore.” It’s like someone put the school bully in charge of the school and my constant instincts to tell him off have to be suppressed for the greater good of getting to FI so we don’t have to work for jerks anymore. We’ve both considered changing jobs, but the options in our area haven’t been great and the trade-off still seems worth it to get to our goal as fast as possible. We keep giving ourselves the freedom to re-examine our options, but we keep returning to the conclusion that we’d just as soon ride it out.

    So, yeah, the lack of boss who is not such a nice human being is definitely something I expect to improve my life immensely, but is that magical thinking? ‘Cause I think that might actually be true… :)

    • I laughed out loud reading this because I can SO relate. It’s exactly like when we first started planning to buy our house in the mountains. I was convinced we’d never turn the TV on, and I’d spend hours a week reading books by the fire… even while still working! Sometimes we’d use oil lamps instead of lights… you get the idea. ;-) Yeah, turns out it’s just like regular life anywhere, just with pointier landmarks out the window! Ha.

      I love that you guys are tossing that magical thinking out and taking action now! And please…. no excuse needed for wanting a bullying boss out of your life!

  24. Gosh, I’m late to the party! I first came across this idea from a meditation and mindfulness perspective. The saying goes “happiness is an inside job”. So if you are unhappy with your life now, what makes you think that will change when you have ‘everything you want’. You’ll fundamentally still be the same person. I find myself slipping into this magical thinking when I day dream about our tiny house: I’ll be so much happier when we have it, I’ll have more free time, and will be able to do what makes me happy. I’ve gotten better at squashing those thoughts, because they do lead to unrealistic expectations of the future. Like I said in a post not too long ago, the present is the only place we’ll ever be, so we might as well enjoy it.

    • I love that saying. So perfect! And on the tiny house front, I think the claims that come along with tiny homes in particular (and minimalism generally) are SO lofty, and feel rife with potential for magical thinking. This promise of instant happiness from less stuff or less space to clean, especially — knowing me, I’d probably have MORE stress, because there’d be less space to hide stuff away! ;-) Which is not to say that tiny houses aren’t great and utterly perfect for some people, but like everything, they’re just a thing. Not a magical cure-all. Just like early retirement. ;-)

  25. I worked hard and saved hard. I didn’t think about happiness as I make the most of everyday. Hinging happiness on a future goal is dangerous and I love this quote from you “happiness is often a choice and not an outcome” .. I think it is ALWAYS a choice if we live a life if mindfulness.

    Now that I have FIREd I think I may be busier and have more on my plate. I think that actually stems from being too much of a Yes guy though. Always willing to do something for someone or volunteer or hear their story.

    On the work front I stepped away from the corporate career path and haven’t looked back at that world. BUT, before leaving work I was building a path to generate income in retirement. Well it has proven successful and I have been very busy writing, reviewing and taking photos. All of this is doing something I love in the outdoors but I haven’t had the full out freedom I expected I would have.

    So maybe I created a new job and I’m no longer retired but I’m happy and there is no magic involved. I choose each day and determine where my path will lead me.

    Side note, love to hear you procrastinate too :) Although with 3x blog posts a week I’m gonna call you out on that lol

    • Dude, it’s only 2 posts a week! ;-) Hahaha. And if I didn’t have that structure that I stick to religiously, I probably wouldn’t post at all, because the procrastination is a sickness. You understand!

      Amen to all you said on happiness, and stop being such a pushover yes man! Ha. All that matters is that it works for you, and if that looks like “work,” who cares?!

  26. The primary “I’ll be happier” thinking for me is the thought of being able to decide what I want to do rather than my job telling me I have to show up Monday-Friday without exception. That’s a realistic “I’ll be happier” that I cannot choose to make happen today, nor do I think I’m hyping up the level of happiness I will experience when that day finally comes.

  27. Hmmm, I can’t say I’ve succumbed to the magical thinking too much. Mostly in thinking – I”ll have the energy to play music more. I always tend to want to play banjo around 10am so, like now, yet I’m in the office sans banjo – boo… Mostly, I’m more scared of retirement in the sense that I know becoming a stay at home – default parent is going to be way ahrder than how I spend my days at the office now.

    Other than that, I think a lot of “why am I not doing that now” has made its way into my life already. I realize some things I just don’t want to do very badly. I could do woodworking, but not at the expense of what it would take away from currently – so it must not be that important. :)

    I am looking forward to occasionally being able to nap midday again though. OMG, midday naps are so awesome!

    • All easy for you to say, since you rake in the big bucks without having to look at your phone after 5 pm! Hahaha. (But also, seriously. You have the sweetest gig ever.) ;-)

  28. Everything really is about setting expectations. Although early retirement is pretty wonderful, you get used to it after about six months to a year. The key is to enjoy the moment now and have a plan for the future.

    • I wonder about that often — at what point will it all stop feeling novel and just start feeling normal?

  29. You are spot on with 2 statements

    Action: Stop going to work. Outcome: Happiness! –> if only that would be true. Happiness is more than avoiding what you do not like. It is about being grateful, having a passion, a purpose (and all the other items you have written about)

    Even without work, our to do list will never get shorter, only longer. We will never have enough time to do everything. –> I even see this during a month of holiday. Long list of things I want to do, an even longer list that pop ups during that time

    How far are you on the procrastination cure?

  30. I definitely can fall prey to this. Especially when I am working long hours at the job that is supporting my (other) business. If I didn’t have to work this hard, I would be less stressed and happier. Except I know that when I am able to switch to my business full-time, there will still be stress. The safety-net of stable pay will be gone, and so I imagine the stress could be higher. Frankly, I may even work more then because I value the work that I do and many people in my profession work terribly long hours because of what their heart wants for the world.

    So yes. I need to remember that I can choose to be happier now and may be able to choose to feel less stress about things.

    • Good for you for recognizing this! Almost all of us could be happier now if we recognized that many of the barriers we perceive aren’t real. But of course that stress of working long hours in a demanding job (or jobs in your case!) is real, so take care of yourself! <3

  31. This is a very eye-opening blog. Retired just a few months ago after 38 years in the workforce. And while I have been very productive with a number of worthwhile activities (physical – work out 2-3 x’s / week, lost 16 lbs; community – spearheading the local school district’s referendum vote in November; home – since wife is still working, do all the home chores: cooking, cleaning, baking, shopping, yardwork, etc). BUT – since I’m not still doing a traditional job of work / get $$, I still feel guilty. Can’t even read the newspaper without a little voice in my head saying ‘stop wasting time, get cracking’. Am certain it will go away and I truly do NOT miss my old job. Just didn’t expect this ridiculous feeling of guilt.

    • Congrats on losing weight and doing some really good things for yourself! I can’t speak to this directly, because we have yet to retire, but I’ve heard from others that the guilty feelings last 6-12 months and then gradually disappear. So I would not expect that to be a permanent state for you. Sending you good wishes to get past those feelings!