I’ve noticed when I talk to regular people about early retirement, nearly everyone falls into one of two camps:
- Those who ask what we do all day, and who then proceed to talk about how bored they’d be without their job, and
- Those who get excited thinking about having more free time, and who start rattling off everything they’d do if they had more time.
That pattern has played out in conversation after conversation since way before we actually retired (and I’ve tackled the question here of whether we actually could get bored in early retirement).
And to answer the question from our experience: No. We’ve never been bored. Not even a little bit. We’d actually hoped to be bored occasionally, based on the Bored and Brilliant idea that boredom breeds your greatest creativity. (It’s also now a book. <–affiliate link, and affiliate link policy) But nope. No boredom here.
When we’re talking to those who are pursuing financial independence, those two camps aren’t exactly the same (those who say they’d be bored without work and those who start listing off all the things), but they’re not far off:
- Those who talk about how ready they are to leave their job, despite not really having a clear picture of what’s next, and
- Those who have a list 10 pages long of all the things they can’t wait to have more time for.
When I talked to a bunch of new-to-me FI aspirants at CampFI Midwest a few weeks ago, I’d say that many more people in that particular group fit into category 1 than category 2 — focusing far more on what they want to leave behind (mandatory work) than what they actually want to spend their time doing (a lot of blanks). (And these are all blog readers who know the gospel about retiring to something, not retiring from something, and yet still find themselves focusing on what they’d like to subtract, not what they’d like to add.)
Despite Mark and I not having experienced any boredom (at least not yet) in early retirement, and the fact that confirmation bias will likely stop most bloggers from fessing up to feeling bored — because, you know, early retirement is the best thing ever and totally cures everything wrong in your life (sarcasm) — boredom in early retirement is a very real possibility, and something that happens to very real people.
Like this poster in the FI subreddit:
Retired early, now bored out of my [bleeping] skull, anyone have tips on how to stay active and interested? 32 M, retired early a few months ago. I wake up at noon and do nothing but eat and watch TV all day, except for occasional walks. Anyone else who FIREd and found themselves bored, or without a clear path?
Or the person who responded sympathetically:
I retired over a year ago — at 41. I’ve been through the boredom. It’s almost like there’s too much choice and it’s paralyzing. Then I started volunteering. It was okay, but didn’t give me that boost I wanted. I still volunteer one day a week but it’s become more of a chore than anything. Then I tried creating things — mostly writing. I’m a competent writer, but it was a major ego bruise to generate stuff that sucked. At least in my opinion. Then I went through a period where I stopped trying. For some weeks I’d tell myself I didn’t need to rush it, that it was my job to keep my mind open for the universe to send me inspiration. That didn’t last long. I realized I was totally addicted to the internet. Like, while on the toilet, stopped at a traffic light, reddit over coffee, reddit til noon, other forums, other sites, etc. mint.com, yahoo finance, portfolio management.
Reading the thread, there are clearly plenty of people who retired early and quickly got bored of it all, some of them going back to work to quell the boredom. I’ve heard from lots of others via email of similar stories of early retirement boredom and returns to work. And well-meaning folks might start listing off all the things you can do — volunteer! work out more! travel! — but as the quote above shows, volunteering itself isn’t a silver bullet if that’s not fulfilling your purpose in some way.
Let’s talk about why how you answer the question, “What are you going to do all day?” is such an important indicator of whether you’re ready for early retirement.
This problem of potential boredom seems to apply equally to early retirees and traditional retirees, and may stem from any number of places: lack of purpose, lack of identity, lack of self worth, lack of social connections with people who are free when others are working, unwillingness to spend money on things that would be fun, and on and on.
There’s this story from the New York Times of a man who retired at age 42:
For the first few months after Jon Helmuth retired three years ago, he slept late, acquired a tan and showered at odd times. Actually, some days he didn’t bother to shower at all.
After that pleasantly aimless interval, Mr. Helmuth, a divorced father of four who is now 45, began organizing his five-bedroom house in the woods of Vandalia, Mich., a village near the Indiana border. But once he alphabetized the spice rack and finished making an easy chair out of castoff designer jeans, “I started running out of things to do,” he said.
Those who recall their own freshman year of retirement will, perhaps, nod knowingly and sympathetically. Been there, done that.
But the situation is different when you retire very early — too early even to get your first membership solicitation from AARP. While early retirement and a life of leisure may sound like the stuff of daydreams, the reality can be jarring for people who are used to being busy — and important. There can be boredom, a sense of isolation and a lot of awkward social questions.
No one saves up and works hard to retire early only to sit on their couch all day. No one pursues financial independence solely to indulge an internet addiction. And no one walks away from a lucrative career so that they can alphabetize the spice rack. Just like no one looks back on their life and thinks, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”
We all want to do things that make us feel like we matter, and that keep us connected to a larger world outside of our own bubble.
It’s clear that all of the folks in these examples retired from something, but they didn’t do enough thinking beforehand about how they’d actually spend their time, and the result was they all ended up struggling to fill their time with anything meaningful.
The “I’ll figure it out when I get there” approach that they most likely assumed would work ultimately let them down.
That, friends, is both a failure to plan, and some perhaps willful ignorance about what makes oneself happy. Fortunately, both of these things are easily overcome if you make the effort to do so, and don’t get stuck just focusing on the math and spreadsheets.
There is no right answer about what is going to make your early retired life feel “worth it.” For some, volunteering is incredibly fulfilling, while for others, it feels like a chore. Some enjoy constant travel, while others find that they’re much happier staying home. And some people like constant activity and busyness while others are truly happy sitting around.
The key is to know not what makes someone else happy in early retirement, but what makes you happy. If you thrive on feeling busy and important while working, you’re unlikely to enjoy constant solitude and silence in early retirement. If the social aspect of work is the thing you enjoy most, friends on the internet are unlikely to give you as much social interaction as you’ll crave when you’re no longer going into the office.
It’s worth doing the introspection to examine what actually makes you happy, and what you need to feel like your days are worthwhile. Not just on a random Saturday when you’re recharging after a long week of work, but big picture.
Be Honest About Your Life Now
It’s normal to fall into some magical thinking from time to time. We all do it. We for sure had moments of it along the way to early retirement. We thought we’d instantly be the best versions of ourselves, we’d be super motivated to eat perfectly and exercise constantly, we’d read 10 books a week and still have time to volunteer for every nonprofit in town while traveling to 10 countries a year. (Obviously none of that happened. Because this is real life.)
But if your magical thinking involves this refrain, it should give you pause: “My life now is boring. I can’t wait for my life to be exciting in early retirement.”
If your life is boring now with work in it, don’t trick yourself into thinking that it will become less boring when you have less to do.
Your personal feelings about your pre-early retirement life may not involve boredom at all. But if you are currently bored, the best thing you can do for yourself well before you retire is to reshape your life now so you’re no longer bored with it. Because retiring is only going to magnify the problem, not minimize it.
The Early Retirement Preparedness Indicator That Matters Most
We can talk all day about the numbers side of early retirement readiness and debate the 4 percent rule until we’re all blue in the face. We can talk about contingencies and multiples of X and all the rest, but those things only don’t tell if you if you’re ready to retire early. They only tell you if you’re financially ready. But retirement is a life event, not only a financial event.
The most important indicator of whether you’re truly ready, assuming you’ve hit your magic number is how you answer this question: “What are you going to do with all your new free time?”
If you have a long list of things you can’t wait to get into — or, better yet, a few things you already do and want to do more — then you’re most likely ready.
But if your answer is “I don’t quite have that part figured out yet,” then you have some more thinking to do.
So What Do You Do If You Don’t See a Clear Path?
Don’t panic! That is the topic of next week’s post, Boredom in Early Retirement Part 2. There is plenty you can do, and one thing in particular that I’ve come to believe is your best strategy for making a successful transition into a meaningful early retirement. Stay tuned!
Which group do you tend to fall into, the group that is overflowing with all the things you can’t wait to have more time for, or the group that hasn’t quite answered the question yet of how you’ll spend your newfound time? For those who’ve already retired, which camp were you in before you pulled the plug, and how do you think that impacted your transition? What do you think of the premise, that you shouldn’t just plan to figure it out when you get to early retirement? This is a meaty topic, so please share your opinion and let’s discuss in the comments.
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