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The Importance of “Chapter Overlap” // Boredom in Early Retirement, Part 2

Today’s post is part 2 of a two-part series on boredom in early retirement. Last week we talked about the most important indicator of whether you’re ready for early retirement – go read that first if you haven’t already – and today we’re talking about what you can do to prevent that boredom in the first place.

One of the most common questions I get that I struggle to answer is, How do I find my purpose and discover things I enjoy doing if I’m already in early retirement? I struggle because I’ve always had the opposite problem: I enjoy doing way too many things, I’m always adding to that list and I see a million ways I’d like to make an impact in the world. My problem isn’t finding ways to fill my time, it’s narrowing things down. And in many ways my biggest lesson in the first year of early retirement has been that, even with all this newfound time, I’m still never going to check everything off my list. Not even close. (But I will add other things to the list which will be just as wonderful or even more so, so this is not bummer news. It’s just an expectation adjustment.)

We’re all different. Some of us have way too many things we want to do, some of us are completely consumed by one all-encompassing passion, some of us struggle to fill the time and I imagine there are some folks out there with varied interests who find exactly the right number of interests (but I have yet to hear from such a rare and special unicorn – please chime in if that’s you!). And a huge part of planning for and living a happy early retirement is knowing yourself — not just what your leanings are, but what that means for how you need to plan and structure your life in advance of pulling the ripcord.

We’ll talk all about that and more today, but first…

FinCon18

Revenge is mine, Carl.

Fairer-Cents-FinCon

Recording The Fairer Cents with Felicity from Fetching Financial Freedom, Bethany from HisAndHerFI, Jamila Souffrant from Journey to Launch and Julien and Kiersten from Rich and Regular

I’m not doing a full FinCon recap post this year, but I’m just back from Orlando where I had my favorite FinCon yet. The personal finance blogging and podcasting community is so inspiring, and I loved every second of chatting with people I’ve known for a while as well as people I met for the first time. It’s especially incredible to see the community diversifying and welcoming in people who don’t all look like white tech bros. I’ll save the bigger rundown for the e-newsletter.

And then there was the part where this happened.

Tanja Hester of Our Next Life wins the Plutus Award for Blog of the Year for 2018

I’m honestly still in shock. That is THE BIG AWARD at the Plutus Awards, the equivalent of winning Best Picture at the Oscars, and I’m so incredibly honored to win it, particularly given how many wonderful and dedicated bloggers were also finalists.

Plutus-Finalists

I wasn’t happy to do it, but I knew I had to scale back on writing while I was writing the book back in the spring and summer, and I also had to neglect comment responses during that period (though I’m back at it 100% now!), so in some ways it hasn’t felt like my best blogging year. But there are some posts I’m super proud of, the book deal that grew directly out of the blog and the big media reveal last year, all of which add up to something that feels massive, or at least massive for me. So a huge thank you to everyone who nominated Our Next Life, and an even bigger one to my peer bloggers who cast that vote, especially out of such a long list of heavy-hitters. What an incredible way to cap a life-changing year! I’ll just be over here walking around on a cloud…

The Importance of Chapter Overlap to Prevent Boredom in Early Retirement // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, FI, happiness, adventure

In last week’s post on the most important (nonfinancial) indicator of whether you’re ready to retire early, we talked about using this question as a guide for yourself: What are you going to do with all your new free time?

If you have a clear picture of all the things you will or at least could do, great. If you draw a blank, then you especially need this post. But even those who have a big vision for early retirement need it, too.

Remember That Early Retirement Is Subtraction

I wrote this last week, but I will repeat it forever because it’s that important: 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. Even if you have the worst job in the history of employment, it’s still true that removing work from your life will subtract something huge. And as I’ve written about before the last thing any of us want is a smaller life.

The Importance of Chapter Overlap to Prevent Boredom in Early Retirement // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, FI, happiness, adventure

We do this to live a bigger life! And living a bigger life means not just subtracting work but adding something BIG, something that lets you use your brain and continue contributing to society in some way, even if that way looks nothing like the work you’re eager to leave behind.

It’s About More Than Boredom

It’s worth remembering, too, that subtracting work isn’t just about having new time we need to fill. It’s about all kinds of holes the absence of work or a career might create:

  • A missing sense of contributing something to the world, even if you don’t especially love your work or like what you’re contributing.
  • A missing sense of feeling useful.
  • A missing sense of feeling good at something.
  • A missing sense of workplace camaraderie.
  • A missing way to define yourself or derive self-worth.

Even if you have lots of big visions of all the things you’ll do after you retire early, it’s easy to ignore all the holes you might suddenly find in your life, and you need something else to fill those, not just the empty time.

Enter Chapter Overlap, the Best Early Retirement Transition Strategy

If early retirement is, as I believe, more about transitioning from one chapter of life into another, then the best thing you can do for yourself is to find something that can serve as your primary bridge between one chapter – your working or career chapter – and the next. If you ignore this step, you’re more likely to find yourself bored or aimless or struggling with feelings of not being useful to anyone in early retirement.

That bridge is what I have inelegantly termed chapter overlap, the concept of making sure you don’t close one chapter of your life and then pivot to a new chapter without bringing anything major with you. Because it’s great to wake up in early retirement and ask yourself, “What do I want to do today?” But it’s not so great if you have to ask yourself, “What can I find to do today?”

chapters

And full disclosure: I did not anticipate this deliberately enough in my own early retirement planning, exhaustive and overthinky as it was. Instead, I lucked into it, because my chapter overlap is this blog and everything that has grown out of it. I wrote this blog while working, and I still write it now. And while I have zero plans to stop writing it, in many ways it has already served its purpose to me: It has given me a way to define myself without a career, a way to feel useful in society and a passion project that’s always here to fill my time. I suspect I would have struggled a lot more with all of those questions this year had I not had this blog to fill those holes for me.

my-chapter-overlap

How to Implement Chapter Overlap

Mark’s chapter overlap provides a great model for how you might think about shaping your own. The things he’s spent the most time on this year outside of just relaxing are his outdoors passions (mostly backcountry skiing, mountain biking and playing beach volleyball) and his volunteer do-gooder work. He has been involved with the local avalanche center for years, and last year took over the presidency, a volunteer position that comes with a lot of work. And so most of the time when he’s “working,” he’s really doing his volunteer nonprofit gig. But it’s work that makes him feel useful and needed, and work that’s good for the community because he’s helping spread messages about backcountry safety. The two things together – the sporty stuff and the thinky, do-gooder stuff – provide a great balance to one another, and give him a well-rounded life outside of hanging out and wondering when the real grown-ups are going to show up and shut this whole operation down.

In thinking about your own chapter overlap, all you’re really doing is seeing if there are things you’d like to do in early retirement that you can begin now, as a measure to head off aimlessness and boredom later. If you currently struggle to think of what those things are, don’t wait until retirement to ponder this question – do it now!

Some ways you might explore activities to try:

  • Ask people who know you well what they see you doing.
  • Sign up for community college classes in subjects that interest you and see where that takes you.
  • Ask your friends what activities they’re a part of and ask if you can tag along.
  • Click around on Volunteer Match or Create the Good and see if any of the volunteer opportunities listed there speak to you.
  • Check out the local meetups in your area and attend some that look interesting.
  • Check for free events in your local community calendar that might introduce you to a new hobby or passion, especially things like maker space open houses and volunteer fairs.
  • Take a career inventory test and pay special attention to the results that seem like they could be hobbies instead of jobs.
  • Read more! The more you learn, the more curious you become, and the more curious you become, the more ideas you’ll find yourself having.

Related post: Fostering a Spirit of Lifelong Curiosity // Staying Young in Retirement

The cure for boredom is curiosity. I believe that deeply. The people I know who are happiest in early retirement are curious, and they’re also the busiest. And while I don’t think that means you need to be busy to be happy, I think it reflects that those who are curious and stoked to try new things tend to dive into those new things and fill up their time with them.

If you know there are things you want to do in early retirement, don’t wait. Start a year or two before you retire, or even earlier. Not only will that make your life better today, because you aren’t deferring doing things you enjoy until some future that none of us are guaranteed, but you’ll also give yourself a solid bridge to your next chapter of life.

Give Yourself Time to Figure It Out

Whether you’re overflowing with ideas for what you’d like to do in your next phase of life or scraping the bottom of the barrel, don’t put this chapter overlap thinking off until you’ve nearly hit your magic number. Start now! Or at least start soon. Because you may not get it right on the first try. And you don’t have to get it right on the first try!

The more time you can give yourself to establish a hobby, a passion or a volunteer project that gives you purpose and a way to feel useful, relevant and connected to others, the more likely it will be that you find something that sticks, and that you enjoy enough to want to make it the thing that bridges the transition for you.

Mark often likes to tell me now that I don’t need to blog on a particular day. Like if it’s Sunday night and I say, “I have to blog,” he’ll always reply, “You don’t.” Which is true. But it’s also not true, because as soon as blogging feels optional to me, I know I’ll quit, or at least I’ll do it a whole lot less. And I don’t want that. So I don’t let it feel optional. I tell myself that I must do it, that it’s not a choice. And then I do it, and I’m always glad I did. When anyone starts blogging, no one is reading, aside from maybe a friend or two or an especially supportive parent (everyone wave hi to my dad!), and if I was just starting now, with no one reading and no one holding me to a schedule, there’s no chance I’d actually stick with it. I stick with it (mostly on schedule) now because it’s already an established habit, and there’s a reason outside of myself to stay at it. My chapter overlap has been the most important force in my life during this transition year, and I’m so grateful for the habit and for the community that keeps me going! (High five to past me who accidentally stumbled on this great idea!)

And that’s why it’s so important to start something well before you actually pull the plug on your working career. So that you get into whatever that something is deeply enough before you retire that there are people outside of you who care whether you stay at it, and keep you going.

The transition into early retirement is already complex and multifaceted, and the last thing you want to have to do while you’re already wrestling with how to define yourself and how to reshape your relationships is feel like you have nothing meaningful to fill your time.

What’s Your Take?

We’ve reached the end of the boredom series, so tell us: what do you think about all of this? Are you concerned about boredom in early retirement? Are you putting a chapter overlap plan into place? What other strategies do you have for heading off boredom? Any other thoughts? Spill ’em. :-)

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23 replies »

  1. Some of us have way too many things we want to do, some of us are completely consumed by one all-encompassing passion

    I’m definitely the former, but hoping to cull things down to be more of the latter. As you said towards the end, curious people tend to have lots they want to do and pursue, and I’m definitely curious. But when I look at my podcast queue (endless) and my unread book shelf (huge), it sometimes stresses me out a little. All this knowledge – Untapped!

    I probably just need to take a bit of a chill pill and just relax more. A work in progress.

    Great post, wish I had more time to chat with you at FINCON and congrats on the award!

    • Same way here. I met my therapist this week to ask her permission to allow myself relax more. I think getting her ‘permission’ actually worked for me, amazingly :-)

  2. Great post, Tanja. I love reading things like this, that give a name and mental model to feelings that were familiar but undefined.

    Also, that curiosity post is a blast from the past! 😜

  3. Thanks for the post Tanja. This is especially relevant because I’m 4 years away from early retirement. I hope I can find my chapter overlap soon. I’m trying new things but haven’t yet found one that brings enough joy that I want to stick with it.

  4. Excellent article Tanya! Speaks volumes to conversations my partner and I have had over the last 6 months. With my partner’s career choice we’ve moved around over the last 5 years which has created gaps of time when I haven’t worked and had a little slice of what it may be like in early retirement. I’m one that always has projects or ideas on the go but I’ve found it can be mentally exhausting trying to fill time and feel a purpose doing it….as opposed to heading to a regular job every day.
    2 things that really stand out for me in your article
    1) Chapter Overlap-totally agree-and right now am finding this super hard! I’m a nurse with a day/evening/weekend schedule that never stays the same. I’d love to join ski clubs, volunteer with our local youth bike clubs and community gardening clubs, and get in to some serious writing courses…but can’t commit due to my schedule. Because of this we’ve recently drastically changed our idea of future FI. Our plan now is to work hard over the next 2-3 years and then for me to scale back my hours (perhaps even working casually) and then have the ability to jump into more courses/lessons/volunteering in hopes that the transition to FI will be more smooth.
    2) Treating the Chapter Overlap like a job-“…as soon as blogging feels optional to me I know I’ll quit”. I couldn’t agree more. I know I want to write more but knowing that it’s optional it is so easy to push it aside when other activities/commitments come up. I’m going to take your advice and run with it-treat writing like a job and see if it helps me produce more.

    Big congrats on the award-very much deserved!

  5. Also, if you get really into your Chapter Overlap while you’re still working, you could transition into that as your main gig before you technically reach FI. I think I’d still like to work once I’m FI, but only on stuff I really like and at a slower pace. So if I’m able to figure out what that looks like while I’m still working my regular job, I could make the transition earlier because I’ll have money coming in from my Chapter Overlap work that would replace some of my draw-down needs in retirement. Of course, this only works if your Chapter Overlap work makes you money, but I think that would probably be the case for many of us.

    I really like the way you present early retirement as a move toward things you want to do, rather than just a move away from stuff you don’t want to do. It makes the numbers more fluid and introduces more options into the process.

  6. I’m on a pretty indeterminate path to FI, but this post also speaks to work-life balance more generally. I’ve observed that many job skills can be very applicable to other settings. People who write, speak, negotiate, plan, build, etc. for their W2 jobs can easily use those skills in other settings that mean more personally to them, and that doesn’t have to start in retirement, as you point out. Thanks for another thoughtful post and congratulations on your award!

  7. After reading this and a few other blogs since spring of this year, my wife and I figured out that our non-profit jobs we have now are actually what we’d want to do when we’re financially independent. We may cut the hours back but ultimately we like what we do most days.

    FI can be useful if work is no longer fun due to a whole myriad of reasons which is why we are still working towards FI. Plus, health reasons could make work difficult in my case so being prepared in a big deal to us.

    I should mention; this really is my favorite blog. We’re totally on the two phase plan as we are fairly conservative ourselves. And I too really want to leave a bunch of money to various charities in oversized novelty checks.

    • I have reached a similar conclusion. I’ve been addicted to FI my whole adult life and have always wanted options: the option to be a SAHM, the option to retire super early, the option to travel the world. But now that I’m in my mid-30s with the ability to FIRE within sight, I’ve realized that I actually don’t want to quit my career. I have an ideal job; why abandon it (and my great income) just so I can struggle to recreate another whole life in extreme early retirement?

      Part of this conclusion has come from watching my parents and some former colleagues in retirement. My FI dad struggles with boredom and a lack of purpose (my words, not his); my FI 85 yr old grandpa still obsesses about his spreadsheets and computers and estate and anything else he can, even though he retired like 30 years ago now with an 8 figures of investments. My 60 year old FI mom works part time teaching math for fun and stimulation – making less than $1000 a month. If she hadn’t retired from being a full time teacher she could be making many times that doing what she does now and barely working more hours. They would all claim to be happy, but arguably all might be better off and more fulfilled – certainly more stimulated and much wealthier – without retiring so early.

      I’m 35; I might live another 6 DECADES. I have a great job where I’m valued and finally really good at what I do after 15 years building a career in my industry. I just don’t think aiming for super early retirement is the highest and best use of my resources/energy. I do a lot better personally with structured expectations, routine and forced human interaction anyway.

  8. No boredom here, I had too many hobbies and also started up some new paid and non-paid volunteer side gigs so life is in a good balance. One thing I have noticed is that the people I’d like to play tennis with or off road with or go fishing with are never available during the week because they still work. Most of the ones that don’t are too old to keep up with me. Fortunately my wife shares my hobbies but you can’t spend 100% of your time just with your spouse or you will end up killing each other. Plus the times my friends can do stuff are often limited to weekends when everything is so crowded it is less fun to do. I know, those are severely first world problems but they do cause some inconvenience. We live rural so there are only a few people around and only a handful have figured out you don’t have to work until you are 66.

  9. Fantastic post! Congrats on the well-deserved recognition! Over the past 2-3 years I’ve been doing a lot of the kinds of exploration you talk about here (and ramped it up over the past year and a half when I discovered the alluer of and that I have MS – stupid health issues!). I have a good number of things I’d like to do, or at least seriously “audition” (from a narrowed list after all that exploration!) and have seriously committed to a couple of them over the past 2 1/2 months. I wish I’d started earlier, but no time like the present!

    • I here ya on the MS. That’s probably why this blog relates to me since Tanya has some health stuff that seemed to fast-forward her thinking. No time like the present is well said.

  10. Part of the reason I don’t want to do my business full-time is the lack of camaraderie in daily life. I adore my tiny little office, but most of the time I am in there by myself and not with clients. This extrovert needs some human interaction. Figuring out how to acquire that in the doses helpful for my social-well-being is a big part of figuring out how I need to organize my life.

    Once I do the part where the money is set up properly, and my business is just for me to be doing good in my community with the skills I have already acquired, then I need to work the rest of my day/week so that I still enjoy the world. My current vision is dancing with the queer partnered-dance community once a week, class once a week, and an organized soccer match once a week. That should leave enough room for cooking and sleeping and being a good friend.

    This plan is wildly subject to change and will continue to be tweaked based on what future ZJ needs in her iteration of this life.

  11. Congratulations on your award! I only started reading this about six months ago, and I love how honest/blunt/transparent you are in your postings.

  12. My retirement date isn’t for another 3 or 4 years, but I’ve been starting to wonder what I’ll do all day.
    I’ve just had 2 week’s school holidays. After these sweet 2 weeks, I’m not wondering any more. There’s always something (or nothing) to do.
    Roll on retirement!

  13. I love the idea of chapter overlap. It really does dovetail nicely into some of your earlier topics about identifying those things that are going to fill your time once you’re retired, starting them now so they become a habit, etc.

    We’re still about 7 years from retirement and have definitely identified our passion projects. We are makers at heart. Right now most of the products of the “making” go to ourselves, family, and friends. At this point I can envision that in a few years, the projects for the house will be completed and our chapter overlap will start to become starting to engage with the community at large through the things that we create, such as donating to Project Linus and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. I expect that we’ll volunteer with a few different organizations over those last few years prior to retirement before we find a good fit.

    Great blog. Great thought topic.

  14. I’ve struggled with this concept for quite some time. How do I find those “bridge” activities between one life format and the next? Many of the things I’m interested in doing take place during the hours when I’m at work or commuting and those that aren’t daytime items collide with the precious little time I get to spend with my family. Finding ways to explore the many many things I’d love to do once we FIRE requires me to have time. So while I understand and can acknowledge the advice to have something in the hopper before you jump, part of what is pushing me toward FIRE is having time to explore all the things. The list is long and I’m not concerned about boredom but I do worry about finding those things that I enjoy when I have 50+ hours of the week freed up if I can’t start doing them now. Unfortunately, other than the occasional Saturday here or there, engagement with other activities I might want to do requires that I not have a job/commute.

    Congrats on the award. You definitely deserve it! You and the Frugalwoods are my go-tos even when nothing else gets read.

  15. “When anyone starts blogging, no one is reading”
    Truth! I have recently fallen victim to tracking my Google Analytics waaaaay too much. It is super easy to get glum when there are many big fat goose eggs there.
    Thank you, Tanja, for being consistent and blogging for us even when you do not have to! It is inspiration for me to keep at it, even when life is getting in the way!

    I also really like the concept of having something to bridge the gap between work and ER. I do not know what mine will be yet, but I will have to start thinking about it!

  16. These two posts address one of my biggest concerns that might drive when I actually retire. Last year when my job looked like it would change into something really boring I was ready to retire sooner rather than later. With another shift and a rather large amount of interesting work this year, I am back to thinking I’ll probably move to a 32 hour work week in a year or two. After a few years of that I would conceivably be able to move to fewer hours and do that for a few more years. Hard to say, but I hope that having just a little more free time will help me get a better handle on chapter overlap. Really enjoy your blog – thanks!

  17. Hahaha I just forced myself to grind out a post for the first time in three weeks, so I absolutely understand where you’re coming from with not letting the blog ever feel optional at risk of never writing a post again. Because really, who would willingly do this if they didn’t have to (aside from, yeah, the awesome community)??

    I’m more and more convinced that my FIRE route is going to end up with some version of me moving away from traditional employment to other paying work long before I ever become financially independent, and I can see that helping me with chapter overlap. It’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about.

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