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The Thrill of the New and the Peril of Too Much Yes // Setting New Boundaries in Early Retirement

Hiya! Quick note that there’s just one post each week this month, as we process all of the craziness of our end to work. Back at ya with more next week!

Mark did something incredible just minutes ago: He got to inbox zero in his work email.

I think I might have achieved this once, at least 12 years ago. But it was fleeting and never to happen again. Even as my emails slow to a trickle, and with that the realization that our careers as we know them are really and truly ending, I still know that inbox zero is not happening for me before we wrap things up in a few weeks. Because I decided years ago that that was not important to me. I respond to the notes that need responding (sometimes verrrrrrrry slowly when it’s not for work, because toomanythings), but then I don’t stress about whether I’ve properly filed or deleted all the remaining notes.

That’s a boundary I set for myself long ago, that I wouldn’t spend time on things that didn’t ultimately affect my productivity or the productivity of my teams, and I’d almost call it a survival skill more than a boundary. When I’m getting up at 3:30 AM to catch a 5:30 AM flight, rushing to a 9 AM meeting, presenting for an hour or two, grabbing client lunch, meeting another client, getting back on a plane and flying home late at night, I’ve got to focus on the parts of my work that actually benefit my clients — and that let me get at least a little bit of sleep. The nonessential emails that come in while I’m on those flights or in those meetings? I could spend hours deleting them, or I could just let them be. The latter takes less time, so I chose that.

Now, on the verge of our next life, we’re contemplating a new set of boundaries. New opportunities are starting to arise, and many of them are so tempting — less because of the money and more because they sound interesting or fun!

And everything we’re facing now is NEW and EXCITING and DIFFERENT — it’s the thrill of the new all the way. It’s easy to want to say yes to everything. But with that comes peril. We didn’t save for all these years to replace one career with another, after all. We want to retire, really and truly. For work-like projects to be the punctuation, not the content. And that means not only setting new boundaries, but sticking to them.

The Thrill of the New and the Peril of Too Much Yes // Setting New Boundaries in Early Retirement

Psst. The DC meetup is this weekend! Come hang out with us Saturday, December 9, at 2 pm at Fado Irish Pub in Chinatown! 

The last few years have been an interesting study in contrasts. Our original early retirement vision was that we’d never work at all, because that was the opposite of the stressful work life we were living when we first developed our plan. Slowly, we realized that was silly, and that there was some work we actually want to do in retirement.

And the life we envisioned for ourselves in the next phase was what we deemed our “Life of Yes,” in which we could say yes to all the things we want to do, instead of being tied up by work or work travel, or just too tired from them to do the things we wanted. And to achieve that, we called this year the Year of No, in which we’d create boundaries at work so that we could get through this year without being unduly stressed when we got to the finish line.

It’s a lot of no, yes, yes, no.

The Peril of Too Much Yes

Now that early retirement is this close to being a reality, we’re looking at actual opportunities instead of just imaginary ones, and to be totally real, things sound fun. I know it only sounds fun in a “kid who asked Santa for homework” kind of way, but what are you gonna do.

The point is that it’s not hard to envision all of the new things that pop up taking up a big chunk of time, like almost the equivalent of full-time work if we let it, especially on top of existing blog and podcast and new podcast projects.

And that’s most certainly not what we want. But we also want to be able to start saying yes more, especially when the opportunities excite or intrigue us.

We’re realizing, though, that life will likely always have to be an exercise in balancing both yes and no.

Defining New Boundaries

We know that some of this will be trial and error, but we’re thinking about new boundaries on a few different levels, through these questions:

Are there big chunks of time when we want no work, like early winter, when we’re catching up on sleep and adjusting to our new arrangement?

How much are we willing to work in an average week?

How much total are we willing to work in a year?

How much money would need to be involved, and what other terms might be attached, like how we’d need to be able to travel? 

What type of deal would be big enough to convince us to bend the rules?

We don’t have rock solid answers to all of these questions, but we have a good start. We know we want a few months off at first. We know we want work to be a small part of our weeks when we do it, and that we don’t want to say yes to anything that requires us to set an alarm or be on email every day. We know we want other months completely off, too. We know that if we do have to travel, we are going to be more particular about when and how (and maybe sometimes what class of travel). And we have a sense of how much it would take to bend the rules. (Hint: It would have to be enough to materially change our standard of living for a year or two.)

Sticking to Those Boundaries

So of course now the trick is sticking to these boundaries, which we historically have not been perfect at. We’ll definitely take tips if you have ’em, but we’re starting from a place of reminding ourselves how hard we’ve worked to earn the free time that’s almost here, and how we wouldn’t have done that if we’d known it was just to trade one type of work for another.

Share Your Thoughts!

Who’s got stories or tips to share on boundaries, or the perils of saying yes too much? It’s been interesting to observe how many different things I find myself wanting to say yes to, which risks filling up so much of my new free time, and while that’s totally in character, it’s also unexpected. I’d love to hear from others who have similar impulses or have had similar experiences. And for those who’ve set boundaries and stuck to them, what’s your secret? Let’s chat about all of it in the comments!

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77 replies »

    • That’s funny, I was thinking the opposite. Say no to everything at first (2 months?) to give yourself some space to just be and get used to filling your days and redefining who you are without work. The things that linger in your mind and you keep thinking about are the ones you should go back and say yes to. And if you’ve missed one opportunity, I’m sure another will come along.

    • I would say the opposite. I picked up a quote from a Tim Ferriss interview with Derek Sivers (the whole interview which I would highly recommend BTW), that really stuck with me. It dealt with the tendency to say yes to everything which is what tends to allow you to become successful in the first place. However, once you achieve a measure of success you find yourself smothered by all of the things you have said yes to. He switched his entire framework when evaluating these decisions. Everything has to be a “Hell Yes!” or it is a no. Otherwise you don’t have space for the truly awesome experiences. I’ve found it very helpful to my wife and I who are traditionally terrible decision makers and traditionally have piled way too much on our plates.

        • Only possible caveat is to *consider* saying yes to things once in a while for experimental value, so we don’t accidentally only do things that are already familiar. Some of the things in life that became my favorite weren’t hell yes at first, but eventually grew into that. ;-)

      • Everyone’s disagreeing with Jim! ;-) I do agree with the idea of only saying yes to things that feel like a strong yes, not a tepid yes. But I also think about some things I’ve loved in life that I wouldn’t have loved if I hadn’t tried them. So I always want to allow space to say yes to things on a purely experimental basis. :-)

    • I agree with Jim. In our first year of ER, and living in the same area as the ONLs, we were cautious about saying yes. But many of the things we tried weren’t what we’d hoped, and I ended up a bit bored. I’ve now jumped into a bunch of new things, and it’s settling down to a level that feels right. I’d say yes to the chance to try anything that sounds fun and doesn’t require a long-term commitment.

      I do agree with the idea of taking the first month or so off. We did the same, and it was a good time to figure out what we really wanted.

  1. I wish I had some sage advice here, but I often find that a lot of the things that seem like a waste of time can become amazing. I didn’t have a really good reason to start a blog except that I wanted to learn more about blogging. I think you said recently that sometimes being bored is a good thing. This might be one of cases.

    I’d probably try to identify all the attributes you’d want in a perfect opportunity and put them in a spreadsheet. Then when a new opportunity came up, I’d rank each attribute on a scale of 1 to 10 and add them up to see how close it matches. This is probably too analytical for a final decision, but it could be a good way to get some quick, rough idea of whether it’s really want to do.

  2. Great post Tanja. I’ve only been semi-retired for about two months now and I did a post on my blog about how I actually have more anxiety than I thought I would because of “all the things”. There’s just so much to do, so much to learn, too.. many…. hobbies….

    Of course it’s a silly problem, and I want sympathy from no one. But I do find that the questions you posed in the post are important to consider. And I’m also finding it might be helpful to actually make a schedule or a rough planner. Our jobs did most of the scheduling for us, without that there is a bit of a vacuum.

    Cheers and hope I can meet you this Sat in DC!

    • So nice to meet you in DC!! I’m glad you could make it out despite the snow. The anxiety from too many choices is an interesting problem to have. ;-) Though I could see us feeling something similar — like a different kind of FOMO.

  3. I’ve been FIREd over 5 years and it definitely took awhile to learn how to manage my own time. My only advice is to do one or two challenging, moderately uncomfortable things every day. The challenges can be physical, mental, or social. You pick.

  4. Tanya, Excellent questions. I agree with Lisa above in saying pretty much “No” for the first couple of months. You already have listed a couple projects you are working on and books to read. Just let it all settle in.
    A couple years ago, I did a 13-month intensive Master’s Degree course in the evenings after teaching school all day. That, plus 2 teenage boys made for a very trying year. I kept planning all the books I’d read and things I would do when I finished. The reality turned out totally different. I was so mentally drained that I couldn’t even summon up the energy to read a book – and I’m an English teacher!! I love books. The only activity that I actually could manage was watching YouTube for hours. I think it took approximately one month of watching Jimmy Fallon Tweets videos before I had even mental fortitude to read a book. Although, I rebounded nicely and learned how to read in the Korean alphabet during the next month – just in time for our trip to Seoul.
    All that to say, give yourself permission to detox and just let the first few months just be what they need to be.

    • I appreciate this advice, and not to worry — we have big, long detox plans! :-) And your story in particular reminds me of when I graduated from undergrad as an English major. I was so burned out on reading and writing about books that it took me forever to get back to reading. And it was the Harry Potter books that brought me back in. So I’ll forever be grateful to JK Rowling for that. :-)

  5. I think this is really smart not just for work opportunities but also for volunteer opportunities. Once I got involved with one volunteer project it opened my eyes to the difference it made, how great the need is and how few volunteers they had because so many people work or are too busy with other projects or too involved in their own lives. I got asked to help with a related project which I said yes to but then found it wasn’t run well because the too-few volunteer leaders were overwhelmed. It was so hard to sit back and say no when I have the talent to help a worthy cause even if I didn’t really have the time either. So I totally crossed the boundaries I set and said yes even though I had no problems turning down several other paid opportunities. I’d love to hear the follow up to “year of no” and what boundaries worked and what didn’t and how you handled it when your heart says Yes Yes Yes but your brain says Don’t even think about it Stupid! I suspect a lack of sleep is involved??

  6. Is this your shortest post ever? ;) No judgements here, I’m just amazed you’re keeping up your posting schedule while wrapping up work life and launching new projects!

    I can relate to the difficulty saying no and setting boundaries. Our small farm is my main gig, but I have several other part time/freelance jobs. I know I need to simplify, because my brain and schedule are going in too many directions, but it’s really hard for me to say no. I’ll cut back for awhile, but then pick up more work again when asked to. I’m planning to quit one of them for good by next spring when the farm really ramps up again, and I’m looking forward to it!

    • Full disclosure: I was fighting off a migraine and had to wrap up the post quickly so I could crawl into bed and sleep it off! So it was a miracle I got 1000 words out before I couldn’t write anymore. ;-)

      And it’s good you recognize that you take on too much! It’s so tempting to say yes to everything, but over time, all of that stuff takes a toll. Come on back if you need any moral support in saying no. ;-)

  7. I think you should try pretty hard to say no to everything for at least a couple of months. Sleep instead. I’m a chronic over-yes-er, not because I don’t have mental boundaries between work and life, but because work things never sound like they’re going to be as big or complicated or take up as much time as they do…and I end up crunched and stressed out. I’m not saying don’t take stuff on, I’m saying don’t take stuff on right now before you’ve had a chance to cool down :)

    • Oh dude, that’s so true! Saying yes never feels like it’s quite as big a yes as it turns into! I have a few yeses already lined up that I’m super excited about, but it’s minimal. I’ll do my best to go slowly on the rest! Thank you for the sage advice. :-)

  8. I feel like when I finally decide to call it quits I’m going to suffer from analysis paralysis for a while, plus just mentally unpacking. My goal is to have 0 things planned (save for maybe one long trip to CA and FL to visit family if they’re still around, etc.) within the first 6 months, and just do whatever happens to be something I want to do.

    I figure there’s plenty of time to do other things. I’ll need some real solid decompression time, and if I happen to find something within that six months that really sparks my interest – then I’ll bend the rules.

    But I think having some unstructured decompression time would be incredibly valuable.

    • Obviously I think you should do whatever feels right for you, but I don’t think you necessarily have to be so hard-lined about the detox time. Like we have one big trip planned, and a few little things in the first six months, and that feels right for us. There’s still tons of unstructured blank slate time in there, but enough plans to feel exciting and to give us some things to plan for instead of feeling aimless. It’s feeling like the right mix to us, but we’ll report back, of course. ;-)

  9. I sympathize. We have a hard time saying no to things and love doing meaningful work. So we have had to set up some hard boundaries to protect our time. And it’s definitely a balance, especially when you’re self-employed. You may also want to add a filter for whether it’s something you really are excited to do, too (now that your time is all your own). This is an area we have grown in tremendous the past few years.

    • I think this is super solid advice — focusing on the things that are a TRUE, STRONG YES, and not a lukewarm yes. I do have a pretty good filter for “does that seem fun?” and that’s what I’m leaning toward. ;-)

  10. I’ve found that my ability and desire to take on more social & work engagements is pretty fluid. I’ll go through periods where I want to hang out with folks 5 nights a week, and then others where I hermit up and maybe get out to see friends just once or twice and only on the weekend.

    So your flexible approach sounds pretty close to perfect, to me. It allows you to ramp up and down as needed.

    But having the courage to say no to the good-but-not-quite-right opportunities is the key. A lot of us go through life just saying yes when we know we shouldn’t.

    • Well said! The courage to say no to good but not quite right opps is the key. The things where we don’t necessarily have a super solid reason to say no except that it just doesn’t feel exactly right. But it’s so important to trust that gut sense!

  11. I retired in April this year, and aside from a couple of planned family vacations (which I enjoyed even more knowing I didn’t have to go back to work afterwards), I am still trying to “find my groove” and do more of things I’ve wanted to do in retirement. Most of this year has been spent figuring out finances, healthcare, as well as supporting family and daily chores which my daily work routine would have prohibited before. I still have to reduce clutter and catch up on household projects (new year’s resolutions, here we come), but I’m finally starting to feel like I’m over the hump and can start reviving a few hobbies and trying some new things.

    It doesn’t help that each news cycle brings more concerns that could affect our post-retirement cost of living and lifestyle. I’ve never spent this much time following the news. It’s been a major distraction and, in hindsight, a time waster!

    So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to take some time to unwind, reassess, and find that new balance. After all this preparation and planning, you certainly don’t want retirement to feel like work!

    • I have no doubt that we’ll feel that same thing you’re feeling — the need to find a new rhythm and routines. I think a big thing for us will be figuring out how much news to consume. We have no desire to unplug entirely (disagree with the “low information diet” approach, at least for us), but we also don’t want to get consumed by every bob and weave of our national political debate!

  12. Hi Tanja!
    From my perspective, taking a couple of month off (for your physical and emotional self) to re-evaluate your daily schedule is key. As you know sometimes our expectations don’t match the reality. Something got my attention in your post, you are using a lot the word “work” which for me has a counter effect on the idea of being early retiree and letting go off the rat race and use this freedom as you wish. I am not early retired (working toward financial autonomy though) but a french frugal homemaker, hiking mama, yoga and challenge lover and to be honest it took me some times to go from full time work mom mode to where i am now. Prioritizing which activity or personal project will impact your day/week/month the most. I think the “Hell yes, or it’s a no” concept shared by Elephant Eater is a great advice. From my point of view an early retired you should not feel obligated to do anything beside what makes she/he happy. If you choose to do it, it should be fun not work :) Thank you for sharing!

    • When I say “work,” I don’t necessarily mean “employment.” I mean “tasks that resemble work to the untrained eye,” but the real key is whether they are fun to us. Something that looks like work to someone else but feels like fun to us is fair game in my book. ;-)

  13. This is exactly where I’m at right now. I’ve got a couple of things that have come up and I need to consider if I want to do anything and I’m asking myself the same questions though I have one other question. If the job has some boundaries but might lead me to starting to check my phone and email on a very regular basis because of the nature of the activities with the job (some sort of sales component or time sensitivities), the answer is no. If it can be done at a much slower pace and doesn’t require responsiveness, I might consider. I’m with @elephant_eater though and try to use the “Hell yes!” or no decision making tool.

  14. I’m still working on the right balance. I retired at 55 last March, had a full six months off, which I throughly enjoyed, and then my former employer offered me part time work doing partially what I did before, so I decided to accept. It’s just a one-year contract right now, and I’m working approx. 24 hours a week. My schedule is flexible, I just need to work a set number of hours for the year. I’m enjoying it so far, three months in. I really enjoy the sense of achievement, working with my former colleagues, and the pay check. It is financing some wished-for home improvements. I feel like if they offered me another contract, I might want to go to closer to 20 hours a week, but I still feel like I have a life that doesn’t revolve around work. So I think it works for right now.

  15. Boundaries are my favorite! I think it is wise to set up check-ins with yourself to see if the March and August versions of you are still thrilled with the choices you are making. Desires change over time and reveal themselves in funny ways. And how you feel about money and travel may shift as markets or your spending shift. Allowing yourself room to grow and change is probably the key to continue having a fulfilling life.

    • Such great points! And though I didn’t address this here, I definitely think it’s true that we’d not commit to ANYTHING long-term anytime soon. So while we might say yes to some work-like projects, they’d be short-term things that allow us to reassess frequently as opposed to being stuck for a while.

  16. Create your boundaries as you experience early retirement and find what works and what doesn’t. Just like you thought you wouldn’t want to work at all post-FI and then slowly changed your mind, let your boundaries evolve. No need to put pressure on yourself to already have it figured out before you experience it.

    Husband and I are not yet FI, but I quit my job about six months ago. I didn’t like showing up for something I didn’t want to do and I didn’t enjoy the work. I promised myself I wouldn’t work a similar job, but I ended up having a problem with that a few months later when I only did stuff that sounded fun and interesting to me. I realized that I actually needed to do stuff that I didn’t naturally gravitate toward; that’s when I felt challenged and grew most, whether I enjoyed the work or not. I’m now about to start a similar job that will make me do stuff that I sometimes don’t like to do, and I’m really excited for the challenges.

    Maybe think of the boundaries you come up with as guidelines; revisit, edit, experience, repeat. Let yourself experience your next life a bit before you decide what you want and what you don’t want (saying YES to everything? Only doing stuff that sounds fun? Making yourself work 3 days a week, even if you don’t want to?). Explore and have fun :) Excited to read about it.

    • I couldn’t agree more with all of this! I absolutely think our boundaries will need to evolve — I think the only thing now is to recognize that we NEED boundaries, so we don’t go into the next few weeks saying yes to everything and overwhelming ourselves.

  17. This might not be super relatable to you (perhaps to other readers), but we learned to say no when we accepted my husband’s chronic pain condition. We had to learn to say no to many things that we enjoyed, but we’re eventually draining on our overall happiness and quality-of-life. Pausing and reflecting with the benefit of stillness and quiet helped us to control over committing our limited time and energy.

    It’s hard to remember that “boredom” can lead to innovation, but my hope is that in ER I’ll find the patience to be more bored.

  18. once you’ve won the game, stop playing. you know how you paid yourself first when building up a big ass nest egg? i think paying yourself first with your free time applies. i can say we’re had down periods with nothing on our plate in the smidlap house in the past and forgot to exercise and we got what you call “soft.”

    • Something tells me we’re playing a different “game” than you. ;-) We’ll never stop doing stuff that looks like “work” — it’s just a very different financial point of view, and if we make no money, it’s totally okay.

      • good point, T. you mentioned lack of diversity at fin-con and in the community and it’s diversity of thought, too. i try and embrace differences from more of a hunter s. thompson or charles bukowski get their finances together angle. anyhow, i enjoy your writing and the dedication to participate in all the discussions.

  19. I think it depends on why you would say “yes” at all. If you are “retired” but something sounds interesting regardless of the money (high or low) and you WANT to do it for some reason, go for it. BUT, your contingency-planning inner self seems to feel like you SHOULD say yes to things because you might miss some important opportunity. Basically it’s FOMO from a work-life perspective. If that is your reason (a vague feeling that NOT doing something is a mistake) then DON’T DO IT! Hitting FI is supposed to be about doing what you know you WANT and letting go of worrying about what you SHOULD do. The top comment about only doing the “HELL YES” stuff is a great measuring stick for that! Just my $0.02

    • I should clarify that I meant “….. letting go of worrying about [vague feelings] about what you SHOULD do.”
      We all have responsibilities and things we SHOULD do. Wasn’t trying to suggest that reaching FIRE is about a hedonistic decent into self-indulgence!

    • I think this is all totally legit, and it’s really a question of defining your own “should” or whatever else. If you have enough money saved and feel like you should say yes to pad your nest egg more, that’s maybe not the best reason. But if you have some new goal for yourself and there’s an opportunity that helps that, then feeling like you should do something for that reason could make total sense. ;-)

  20. Hi Tanja – Great questions!

    I’ve taken deliberate steps to position myself to be able to say “no” more often, which allows me to say “yes” more often to the things I really care about.

    I find that boundaries can swing and move over time, so I set them up as rules of thumb instead of hard and fast “never break ’em” rules. So play it by ear for the first bit (I think that more or less echoes several of the comments above). Remember, everything in moderation including moderation itself!

    Also…

    You mentioned “Slowly, we realized that was silly, and that there was some work we actually want to do in retirement.” I agree entirely. This is connected to being a contributor vs. simply a consumer. Whether or not you get “paid” for said work obviously depends on situation. And if you love it (or its challenge) enough, you might not even call it “work”, even if it pays you!

    • Yeah, I keep using the word “work” because some of the things we do will look like that, but we hope to do as little as possible that fits into the “work” category and more stuff that might look like work but feels to us like fun. ;-) (Like writing this blog!)

  21. Setting boudaries can be so hard, but such a necessary life skill! (Not there yet)

    I think this is such an important thing to be aware of and to keep track of somewhat. Especially when the lines start blurring and calendars fill up and you want to, but not Really and… etc.

    Great post. and a great reminder to work more on my boundaries. Thank you! :)

  22. MsONL started this post with “Hiya! Quick note that there’s just one post each week this month, as we process all of the craziness of our end to work. Back at ya with more next week!”……

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! I can’t make it through w*rk on Wednesdays in December anymore!!!!! ;-)

  23. After years working in a corporate office, I love that you’re intentionally choosing what you want to be a part of your life! I can’t wait till I have the freedom to say no to all those work obligatory things. Have fun feeling out your new boundaries!

  24. Hi Tanja and Mark!

    This is Luis Gronda from the Yomiuri Shimbun, we are a Japanese daily newspaper based in NY. We are looking to do an interview with you guys as transition into early retirement. My email address is lgronda@yomiuriny.com if you would like to get in contact (I sent you an email already if you see this comment first).

    If anyone else who is in the FIRE process or preparing for it would like to speak with us for our story, please feel free to send me an email! We are looking for people to interview for a story we are doing on FIRE. thank you everyone.

  25. Isn’t that exciting to zero the inbox for work emails? Huge achievement! About setting up boundaries, I would say, only 100% of yes is YES. All the rest are NOs, and this big pool includes partially yes, partially no, or 100% of no. Take your time to decide what you really want to do, and don’t feel pressured or obligated. Once retired, you are the boss. For most of the days on my calendar, it’s blank. I make the decision every day after getting up: what excites me today, and then go for it.

  26. I’m sitting here evaluating two decisions and have a question:

    Now that you’re certain there will be income coming in during “retirement”, are you still glad that you’ve worked this past (and final year) vs. going ahead and quitting when you reached your minimum number?

    I am not sure I want to give 40-60 hours a week to my employer for the last fifteen months, but I could do a lot of good in the world with the money and have a nearly risk free retirement with the money they’re willing to pay me.

    • Good question! And the answer is still very much YES. We are glad we worked this year, and not only because the markets are absurdly high and we feel especially at risk of sequence of returns risk. Also, our minimum number was truly minimum, and we only hit our original ER number a few months back… so really we’d only have cut a few months off our journey, not years. And we’re glad to have a lot more in the DAF based on working these last few months and getting year-end money. And don’t underestimate the value of that extra insulation from risk — that will give you huge peace of mind, and that’s pretty much priceless.

      • Thanks for the reply as always, three different things line up to make March of ’19 a practically risk-free date, but don’t know about 56 more working weeks after vacation, even if I do enjoy my job

  27. My husband and I are weeks away from early retirement. Quick question for you…where do you keep your two or so years of cash for your first couple of years expenses. Anywhere to make any money at all?

  28. Congratulations! Happy last week of “must” work! A friend posted this and I thought it might resonate with you: “Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t you so that you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”
    ~ Unknown

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