There’s this period of transition between full time employment and being settled in your post-work existence known as detox.
An assertion lies embedded in the process’ name: The relentless nature of modern work shares aspects with poison. Not the work itself, mind you, but the structures and pace of it all. Your body and mind must cleanse themselves so that you can be free of these ill effects. Only then will you be restored to something resembling good health.
People seem to experience the detox process in very different ways. Some launch themselves into entrepreneurial side-hustles. Others travel the world. Many are also full-time parents, and the child-rearing immediately soaks up huge quantities of time. All of these activities have the effect of purging work from the system; the new busy replaces the old busy.
My own detox experience has been different, though. Instead of maintaining the same pace of life, I’m slowing down — living more by doing less.
A lot less.
This post is an attempt to capture what that’s felt like.
Caution: Content is long, rambly, repetitive and weird. Oh, and there’s zero mention of finance. I suggest you bail now if that doesn’t sound good to you. If I read this post say, 12 years ago, I probably would have bailed myself.
The Real Enemy
In previous posts I’ve voiced concern that I’d have a problem with ambition in retirement. Specifically, I worried that my internal drive would demand an outlet.
But it hasn’t quite worked out the way that I thought.
I’m no stranger to ambition. It’s urged me onward my entire life, a hungry voice whispering in my ear. Get into a good college. Pick a major that will lead to a high paying job. Buy a big fancy house and fill it with video games, caviar, and Benzedrine.
Eventually the ambition morphed into something else: A drive to retire early.
The whispered messages changed. Find the right investment strategy so you can make money passively. Sock away as much as you can. More every month. Get a raise so you can stash even more cash away. Tell other people about your plans: Shock the hell out of them, those stupid bastards. Watch the jaws drop. Feed on their precious jealousy. So tasty and warm. Mmmm.
That particular voice unexpectedly disappeared when I retired and found my ambition sated, leaving a sense of relief in its wake. Unfortunately, though, relief wasn’t the only thing that remained.
Because the habits I cultivated to appease my ambition wouldn’t easily depart. I’m specifically talking about a way of life I’ve dubbed “TooFuckingBusy,” or TFB, for short.
When you’re ambitious, time is precious. You must always be working toward your ultimate goal, whatever that may be. When you idle, minutes slip away, and your dreams feel as though they’re going up in smoke. To push back against this feeling, you strain harder.
In other words, ambition created an urgency underlying the texture of my days.
But this urgency — this feeling of continually pushing forward– is a behavior, not a goal. Though I’d reached the endgame, the TFB behavior remained, the orphaned baby on the doorstep as ambition fled town.
And of course this surprised me. I thought that the phrase detox would only apply to work. Once I had flushed work from my system, I’d be detoxed, right? I even wrote a post bragging about how I was all done with this phase.
I was wrong, though. I found that, secondarily, I also had to grapple with these powerful urges to maintain the same frenetic pace.
This is the core of part 2 of the detox story — an effort to understand and demolish TFB. Hopefully this is the last one.
Conversations with TFB
The first month after I quit was incredibly busy. This pleased TFB, who thinks that busyness is automatically awesome, an absolute Good. I packed, I met with lawyers, I toured new potential apartments, I filled out paperwork, I fixed up sections of the house my wife and I were selling, I exercised, I blogged, I continued to see family and friends, and I fell asleep utterly spent every night.
You did well, TFB would tell me. You filled up every waking minute of the day with productive, useful activity — just like you did during your working life. This is As It Should Be.
Thanks, dawg, I’d respond, falling asleep two femtoseconds later. And we were A-OK.
The second month after I quit I was still busy, but less so. I unpacked in our new apartment. I supported my wife in her morning commute because, at the time, she was still working. I’d wake up at the same time she did, putting coffee on, chatting about how we expected our respective days to unfold.
Her: TFB, because: working.
Me: Not so much.
I exercised for an hour every day and groomed for another half. I increased visits with my parents and nephews. I cooked dinner every night and did most of the cleaning. I did this, I did that, blah blah blah.
At night I’d get into bed and TFB would be there again, waiting to provide my daily performance review. And I wasn’t as tired as I was that previous month — I wasn’t falling asleep instantly in a haze of exhaustion.
You didn’t do enough useful stuff today, he’d say. What’s up with the guitar practicing, for example? What the fuck do you expect to do with THAT skill? You’re too old to join a band. And Jesus, all of the time spent walking around the neighborhood just staring at stuff… what exactly was the point there? Then you had the nerve to go and take a NAP?
I know, right? I probably should have done something more important.
Uhh, yeah! Also, what happened to your internet time? Why aren’t you posting on ER forums anymore? Also, you should be reading about world events the way you used to in your downtime at the office. You’re going to become dumber in retirement.
Fact. But I don’t like being on a computer anymore. Not right now anyway.
Computer time is productive time, and I expect you to stay busy — remember: You need to be Too Fucking Busy at all times.
Uh huh. Gotcha.
Then I’d wake up the next day, and immediately disobey TFB.
This was the conflict: TFB and his buddy Old Habits demanded I do their bidding. They screamed for familiarity and results and a feeling that I was perpetually getting something done and that I was plugged into shit. Without these inputs, it felt like something was off.
Because instead of doing the same tired things I’ve done for the past billion years of my life, I consciously dumped time into creating new habits and experiences. I’d find a hiking trail around me and do trail-running for an hour, returning home sticky and hot with a smile on my face to cook oatmeal and an egg over a gas stove. I’d eat while re-reading Storm of Swords, imagining new directions the evil George R.R. Martin could take the story-line if he so chose. (Current implausible favorite: Is The Onion Knight secretly Azor Ahai? Almost definitely not. But holy shit, maybe!)
Some days I’d kill hours laying on a folding chair outside with the summer’s sun above me, feeling the touch of the wind, drifting into a place where nothing existed, floating through space the color of red clay before suddenly realizing: That’s just the color of the inside of your eyelids, splashed by sunlight, dumbass.
Before long, TFB would insert itself into the picture to object to my new life.
When are you going to get busy? Don’t you have things to do? I have to ask: How is this productive or useful? You’re aware that you’re being a selfish prick, just sitting there like a lump. And didn’t we do this – this “NOTHING” – just yesterday? When will it be enough? Are you going to flop around purposelessly like a fish on land until you die? Get back in the goddamned water, pronto.
I recognized some of the phrases from other people in my life: My father, an uncle, certain teachers, even friends.
But, but… I deserve to chill out. I’ve put in my time. Taking it easy for a while doesn’t hurt anyone. (I didn’t wholeheartedly believe my own words. I felt as though I were cheating somehow; the absence of daily life struggles left me with a sense of confusion born from the unfamiliar.)
It went like this for a while. I’d do something and god forbid actually enjoy the experience and TFB would eventually emerge to tell me that I was a sizable heap of dragon dung, steaming and fresh from laziness.
Then around the beginning of August, he suddenly expanded his working hours: Instead of restricting our chats to the evening, TFB spoke up during the day.
So tell me again. What, exactly, are you doing with your life now? Sure, you’re “seeing your family” more often. You’re going to doctor’s appointments with your mother and encouraging her to do her physical therapy. You’re going swimming with your nephews. You’re staying physically active. But this isn’t all that productive when you get down to it. In fact, most of these things sound suspiciously like socialization and frittering time away to me. I expect you to be BUSY at all times!
Well, to be fair, I’m kinda busy. The time goes by and I’m doing stuff.
Stuff, sure. But not productive stuff. You’re mostly indulging yourself in whimsy. I can’t approve of this.
Leave me alone, TFB, I’m going to play Super Metroid now, okay?
Go ahead and do that, loser. A 38-year old man playing video games for fun. Pathetic.
Even though I know there’s absolutely no difference in the level of ‘usefulness’ between say, sitting in traffic trying to get to work and playing a twenty three year old Super Nintendo cartridge, TFB seems to think there is.
One of these things has a stamp reading Societally-Approved-Activity on it, and the other does not.
Researching The Enemy
As days continued to pass, I grew weary of TFB. I decided to figure out why this particular voice was so persistent.
I was able to eventually pinpoint two major things.
#1, Computer Addict
I’ve hinted at this in a previous post, but it bears repeating: I’d developed a dependence to digital communication and feedback.
There is something undeniably validating about continually getting emails and/or texts and/or IM chat invitations from people at work — Even people you don’t like! Even automated messages detailing project updates or system health! –– that made me feel important, somehow more substantial.
Doing the ‘stuff’ that these emails asked me to do — or even simply deleting the messages — was addictive and rewarding. Completing tasks, no matter how inane, made me feel productive — and, as I’d mentioned earlier on in the post, through the years I’d convinced myself that I needed to be productive at all times in order to achieve broader life goals. Never you mind the fact that most of those emails have no real importance and frequently represent phony work. Shit was getting done, bro.
In the absence of attention or measurable productivity part of me became confused, hungry for this sort of stimulation. The TFB voice was complaining, at least in part, because it suffered from withdrawal — I had just cut my intake of the busy-opiates by at least 50% per day, which left me feeling a bit hazy.
But apart from that, there was still something else going on —
#2, Busier Than Thou
Which brings me to the second critical piece: Identifying an insidious bit of rogue programming that came installed with TFB called fake status. Thing is, TFB enjoyed what it was — it took pleasure in being too fucking busy. Most of us wear busyness as a badge of honor or mark of pride. Being busy doing anything and everything has the side effect of making us feel like we’re really living — that we’re somehow important simply because of the pace at which we live our lives.
Example: A year ago, my cousin Eric innocently asked if i wanted to have dinner that particular week. Can’t, the TFB used to say, back when I was working. Got to work Tuesday night, then Weds is Date Night, and Thurs I have online games scheduled with some friends and we’re going to crush n00bs in Starcraft. Weekend is, of course, booked with in-laws, so we’re talking next week Holmes.
I admit it: Telling Eric exactly why I couldn’t see him made me feel better than him.
He needed me, but I was TFB — I didn’t need anything at all (except maybe something to make my personality a bit less horrible).
I felt like I was in power — I was in control — and part of me wanted to make sure he knew it.
Yep — trust me. I know how that sounds. Fucking yuck. I don’t like admitting these things, but there it is.
Luckily, Eric had his own TFB and told me that next week was out for him — he had a similar number of commitments booked.
We still haven’t had that dinner, but it’s safe to say that we both got something out of the exchange — some kind of synthetic ego boost and validation.
I recently reached out to him via email and asked if he wanted to again try to get together. His response: Things are pretty busy right now. Let’s try for something in November.
In my response, I found myself typing something that made me feel unexpectedly vulnerable. Schedule pretty open actually. Just let me know a date that works for you.
A couple of exchanges later, and we’re set to meet up. He’s got a little bit of time, and I’ve got a lot of flexibility. The patterns of my old life have been broken — I can do what I want to do. And what I want to do is see where he lives, share a meal, and meet his 2-year old daughter for the first time.
Screw fake-busy-status. It’s not as rewarding as cultivating real relationships.
I’m Not Alone
Along with the internal searching, I did a fair amount of googling to see if anyone else was going through the same type of experiences.
Lo and behold, the whole TFB phenomenon has already been studied and remarked upon. For example, my observations are roughly in line with the contents of this recent nytimes article.
Here’s the thing. As I mentioned closer to the opening of this blog post, many people run off to be just as crazy-busy in retirement as they were during their working years. They become entrepreneurs, or full-time parents, what-have-you, which is all well and good for those people, but…
I have very little to do; I what-haven’t-ed myself. There is no longer any externally measurable progress in my life; to a certain type of outside observer, it almost certainly appears that I’ve become useless now that I’ve lost my busy status.
On a rational level, this doesn’t bother me at all (what’s the goddamned difference in how I spend my time?), but apparently there’s a part of my brain that’s been soaking up cultural norms all of these years, and it’s pretty peeved that I’ve stepped several thousand miles outside of the circle of what it feels is acceptable adult behavior.
Since I quit work, I’ve got what amounts to perhaps five or six hours of more-or-less scheduled and productive activity — cooking, cleaning, some kind of exercise, some time spent outdoors, a bit of guitar practicing, writing, whatever — and then a lot of unscheduled, loose time.
And while you can pencil in lots of activities during that loose time, eventually you’ll catch a glimpse of the truth of it: Our so-called busyness is a massive tool of distraction, something we rely on to avoid paying attention to the sense of emptiness that most of us feel when left alone with ourselves.
Being idle, if you’re not accustomed to it, has the potential to feel awful to our internal selves for some reason. Kids, most of whom have a powerful FOMO, know this very well — most of them start screaming about how bored they are if you leave them alone for more than two seconds. They can’t stand it. They have no internal world, no defense against the loneliness package that comes pre-installed with the standard Human Operating System.
Adults don’t have the same problem as kids, though. Anytime you feel anything resembling boredom or a lack of stimulation creeping up on you, viola! Out comes your phone and in an instant youtube suggests that you watch an absurd video about an animated Rastafarian shark. Problem solved: You are now irritated by the producer of that stupid film clip.
Tangent Alert: This terror — the fear of being alone with yourself — makes people scared to do what they perceive as nothing.
Incidentally, it is, I suspect, on the short list of reasons why some people over-save and never quit their jobs, i.e. never putting the RE in FI/RE. There’s this very real fear that without the constant noise and distractions — the gossip, the political stuff, the endless tasks that TFB assigns — that they’ll have to take a much more careful look at whether or not they’re happy with the remainder of their lives. I’ve concluded that for many people, it’s easier to insert a new reason to continue working (I want to leave a tremendous inheritance to my kids so they’ll have a better life!) than it is to pull the plug on employment once you’ve hit your number.
Someone asked me in the comment section of a recent post if there are any downsides to being on the FI-life-path, and honestly, this particular theme represents the biggest one, the seedy underbelly of the beast.
You will be faced with questions that nobody who is trapped on the consumer treadmill has to worry about. When you need each month’s paycheck to get by, you know exactly why you’re working. It’s for your family, of course — for your very survival. You will never agonize over your “purpose” in life — your purpose is to earn money because if you don’t, you are dead. Your family is dead. Your financial house will burned to the ground, reduced to ashes, unless you continue to work.
If you’re one of those people, everything is crystal clear. You might as well be one of the competitors in the Hunger Games — you must keep your job in order to simply persist. There is no other choice — and no reason to question your current patterns of behavior.
Even if you’re a bit farther removed from that desperate situation, you can easily convince yourself you need a paycheck to fund your retirement. Again, problem solved. You must continue to work until your nest egg reaches Value X. You have a good reason to continue to report to work, and work takes up the majority of your thoughts and time on the planet. Done.
When you feel obligated to continue slogging through your job for the majority of your week, every week, when you finally have bits of free time, you will feel absolutely justified in blowing hours on facebook and carefully researching your selection of bath-towels before getting drunk at a fancy dinner party and losing half of your precious weekend gripping porcelain, praying to the Lord of Regret.
Because: All-Consuming Job is Exhausting, Need Break.
Because: Need the distraction of entertainment NOW.
But when all of your time is suddenly free, I guarantee that your little micro-hobbies and hour-wasters will fail to round your life out. If you eat candy all day, you’ll eventually die of malnutrition. Scurvy or rickets if you’re lucky, pellagra if you are not.
When you’re finally not working, eventually your lay of the land will shifts, and instead you’ll see over the horizon to these broader questions. Who are you, really? What are your life goals outside of work? What else will fill you up now that you no longer have 50+ hours of built-in “approved” obligation every week?
Again, if you’re retiring to pursue some specific ambition, that’s great. All of this stuff I’ve been trying to describe may seem bizarre, not making much sense at all. In this case you’ll have a set of goals and an accompanying personality that allows you to be content without any major adjustments. Good on ya.
But that doesn’t describe my own situation. I found that changes were necessary to adapt.
Time for TFB to Die
My own TFB subsisted on constant stimulation. Once I reduced the flow, eventually the beast starved.
But this action increased my awareness of self and surroundings, i.e. the underlying features of real life, and this was a little uncomfortable as I adjusted.
As someone who has been heavily plugged into technology for the entirety of my existence, this particular change felt strange for a while. It’s what I’ve wanted all along this FI journey, of course — the ability to slow down, to stop staring at a computer screen all of the goddamned time.
I didn’t really know what that would mean, though, until I did it.
For a while it was enough to simply watch people go about their business. Listening to people at a cafe talk about sales quotas and how to go about achieving them. Seeing an endless parade of commuting vehicles backed up, each driver intent on getting to work while simultaneously texting three other people on their smartphones.
It was cathartic. These experiences provided punctuation to the fact that I’d finished my career, that I’d never have to engage in those sorts of activities. My body and mind were free.
But this particular aspect of the glow — the relief of not having to do that shit anymore — eventually wore off, leaving just me, and my wife, our families, and TFB.
See, I’m not talking about making a lifestyle change for a week, or a month. When I wrote my 3-month Early Retirement update, I thought I was getting into a terrific groove. I thought: I can do this forever.
But another month in, and I was starting to feel weird. And initially, I couldn’t figure out why. I *certainly* didn’t want to go back to work or do anything rash like that. TFB discomfort aside, my life had become immeasurably better since I stopped reporting for duty in an office. No comparison.
So I wanted to solve the problem in a healthier way — by addressing the root cause instead of ignoring it or just trying to ‘manage’ it by signing up for more fake busyness.
Note: I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m literally doing nothing. In fact, I’ve been more social than at any point in my life, seeing friends and family much more often, and the pursuit of my hobbies has been awesome, everything I’d hoped. I’ve also gone on a few lengthy out of state trips. What I’m really talking about here is getting used to the feeling of having an abundance of time — and allowing myself to leave large chunks of it unscheduled. To become accustomed to sprawl, and in addition, to not fill that unscheduled time with internet usage the way I used to.
Anyway, I decided to do what I have done my entire life when I needed to make changes: Research. I leveraged the experience and knowledge of like-minded people who have already made similar adjustments. In geek terms, I re-used code and stuffed it into my head. (Never reinvent an existing widget!)
These two books helped me quite a bit:
Slowing Down to the Speed of Life (Carlson)
World Enough: On Creativity and Slowing Down (McEwen)
Much like my own blog entries, these books are on the ‘soft’ side. There are long paragraphs of description which seem to have little to do with the original subject. These books were not crafted with efficiency in mind.
But then, that’s practically the whole point of it. The desire to be efficient 24/7 is in direct conflict with your ability to slow down and appreciate your life as it’s happening. And this is a difficult trick to pull off, I believe, particularly for someone in the ER crowd, because we are almost as a rule wired to be productive, solve problems, and promote efficiency — elegant and speedy solutions to life situations. Or maybe it’s just me.
And yes, I’d recommend both of them for anyone who is even thinking about retiring — particularly if you, like me, plan to retire to a life of leisure instead of running your own business or <other_super_time_consuming_activity.> They’re thoughtful, sensitive and well-written.
As an added bonus — and perhaps even most importantly — you’ll feel like you have more company on your journey. They’re written by people who are not TFB in the slightest, who are interested in living happier, more sustainable lives with increased awareness of the world, better ties to family and community. Pretty sure the authors don’t compulsively text.
There are chapters on appreciating nature, on meditation, on being present, on listening to your body, on fully engaging your children and being a better parent, on how to feel like a kid again, to rekindle the awe and wonder you used to feel when you were eight years old.
I found the most important part was just the consistent, repeated message to open up your senses. To let the contents of the world spill into yourself, instead of the opposite: continually forcing yourself upon it. Stop waking up and saying “I’m going to make my mark on the world today.” Instead say, “I’m going to see what mark the world makes on me.“
And so I’ve become better at collecting sensory data, taking in the scene, wherever I am.
years decades I’d become so accustomed to looking at a screen for entertainment that peering at the real world instead felt unnatural. How’s that for flipping reality on its head?
But where screens give us flashy images and text, and the speakers reproduce audio, the world gives us much, much more. Perfect resolution and 3D instead of wimpy 4K screens with imperfect color balances. Flawless analog audio with no compression or loss whatsoever. And touch, taste, smell. The world allows you to behave like a native human being, to use your instincts, to feel things in your gut, to take a non-virtual action.
It sounds strange, particularly because I’ve been living in the Matrix virtually my whole life. (I’m part of the first generation of kids that has grown up on screens, playing NES games and typing papers on WordPerfect and logging onto CompuServ and BBSing before transitioning to the Web and all of that…)
So what I’m saying is that slowing down and appreciating my life — seeking beauty and sustainable happiness rather than quick-fix entertainment or a continual stream of novelty — has really been the key to consistently feeling terrific. And this experience of transformation has validated the inkling I’ve had in the back of my head that living life in cubes and online is unnatural — many aspects are fundamentally at-odds with our basic human preferences and needs.
In the end, I worked to phase out TFB the way that I’ve corrected other shitty habits in my past: By replacing it with something else — the input of the world around me. Over the months, the lack of routinized internet-and-phone-related distractions weakened and eventually destroyed TFB. In its place, something different has risen.
I walk around now and I involuntarily describe the world. I absorb things I’ve been TFB to notice for the past decade and a half, no matter how mundane and trivial they would seem to my old self.
The bounce of my shoes. The hard firmness of the desk under my forearms. The slight dampness of my scalp, not yet fully dry from the morning’s shower. The facial features of a bag-boy at the supermarket — what is it in there that reminds me of my brother? The long forehead? The hooked nose? Or the quick, deliberate movements of his arms as he pushes items across the scanner?
The senses and the details feel different each and every time I slow down and pay attention — a continual injection of novelty. My senses have become a drug. Instead of listening to chatter in my brain — my internal problems and anxieties — I am perpetually looking outward, absorbing, rather than moving from one thing to the next without recording any memories, a waterbug darting across a tumultuous lake.
And I’ve internalized this truth: This thing I’ve been too TFB become properly immersed in — this world, this life — is amazingly, ridiculously, absurdly amazing.
The more I did this (be present, take in what’s around me, chill, chilllllllll), the softer the voice of TFB became.
So in the end, there was no spectacular confrontation with my nemesis. TFB simply faded out over time as I continued to focus on being present and content.
Eventually I woke up one day in early October to discover that it was completely inaudible. I no longer cared at all what I was going to do that day and I was no longer bummed out in the slightest at the end of the day if I didn’t do anything. No more nightly performance reviews in my head. No more shame or embarrassment from not doing something measurably productive.
A Note on Caffeine
For the past twenty five years of my life or so, I’ve been a coffee-drinking beast.
Two cups a day, minimum. Sometimes as many as four.
I was the stereotypical spindly geek hopped up at all times, bug eyed and ready for some hype 80 wpm typing. Enough caffeine and I felt like the world slowed down and I was speeding through it. (coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee…)
I told myself that it was a non-optional part of existence, a requirement that allowed me to crush work — including but not limited to the uninteresting stuff. Without caffeine, I usually didn’t feel motivated enough to, say, compile lists of auditing and compliance tasks for the new Oracle application server versions along with proposed remediation steps. (I’m weird, I know — that’s obviously super exciting stuff for your average Joe, but not so much for me.)
I continued to drink a lot of coffee for the first several months before realizing at some point in August that this was part of the whole TFB problem. I’d drink a bunch of black and get all hopped up with no place to go.
The link between coffee and anxiety is pretty well understood at this point. A little anxiety can be good — it can energize and motivate us to attack what we perceive as the source of the tension. When I was working, I would usually identify the Shit that Needed to be Done as the problem, so said shit would therefore get wrecked.
But in the absence of having a crap-ton of obligation, the excess caffeine I was slugging was no longer providing a useful service in my life.
So I finally cut back — for the first time in basically three decades. I drink one cup a day now, and sometimes none. And there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this simple change in routine turned the volume down on TFB at least a couple of notches on its journey to the grave.
It’s also resulted in more consistent, stable moods and an easier time relaxing.
I’ll probably never ditch coffee entirely. Caffeine is a known productivity booster and it can also enhance your mood. So when I find myself wanting to work on a project or crunch some numbers for tax-time, believe me, I’ll return to guzzling the stuff straight from the carafe.
But for now, the decreased consumption has been great.
The Curse of the Analytical Mind
There’s another angle to the transition-related challenges that I want to take a moment to talk about.
And it applies mostly to people who have jobs that require them to live in their heads.
I’m talking about white-collar workers. These folks typically perform brain functions including but not limited to rote detail memorization, data crunching, report generation, creative and abstract thinking, problem solving and otherwise outputting solutions to complex problems.
Included in this way of thought is the act of categorization. You notice something, and put it in a bucket designated for items of that type based on statistical likelihood.
When you’ve been locked into this way of thinking for too long, it can be difficult to let yourself go — to feel yourself again, the way that you did when you were a child. To enjoy play for the sake of play or ask questions and wonder about people and the universe. In other words, it’s tough to experience things as you did for the first time.
It’s my assertion that if you are one of these people, it may be more difficult to navigate the ER transition.
And look, it’s not just me making a crazy assumption. John Stuart Mill made a similar observation back in like 1437 or whenever the hell he lived. Quote: “The habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings, as indeed it has when no other mental habit is cultivated..”
The habit of analysis, huh? Like, maybe the habit of analysis that one cultivates when you’re a programmer, or an accountant, or a cardiologist for life? Could that be what you’re talking about here, Mr. Mill, you brilliant, elitist scumbag, you?
In all seriousness, I’ve found he’s correct.
Let’s say it’s an overcast outside. You’ll make a note of the type of weather outside and move on. No big deal. It’s just like every other gray turd of a day, isn’t it? Categorization complete.
But it’s not, though, is it? If you stop insta-typing things and let yourself slow down and take in the experience, there is the potential to see things differently. Are the clouds really just gray? Or are they the color of your grandmother’s hair, silver and shimmering, shades layered over one another as they cover the sky? Could be it’s actually closer to the gray of the crappy old Pontiac your crazy old Uncle Roger used to drive.
What do you think an alien from a planet with no clouds whatsoever would think of the atmosphere that you take for granted? Maybe it’d resemble a protective blanket, shielding them from the only thing they’d ever known: a relentless, angry sun.
So cultivate non-analytical skills. I’m cultivating sponginess, allowing myself to soak in the world, to wonder, to experience without constantly reducing life to problems and solutions and efficiency and goals. I’m going against the nurture of two decades of business and mainstream society, neither of which have taught me all that much about how to live with consistent satisfaction and happiness on a personal level.
I’m sure this isn’t the only solution, but I have to say, this change in my mental approach — to focus on living in the moment — has done the trick nicely for me.
Looking For Fulfillment in Different Places
The weekend before Halloween, I drove down to Fiskill, New York to visit an old high school friend that I somehow managed to stay in touch with over the years. Warning: He is not a tech geek. In fact, he’s kind of bro-ish. Try not to judge.
Anyway, out of the blue, he’d sent me an invitation to “get physically destroyed together” but failed to provide any details as to how we might achieve this goal.
Intrigued, I signed up.
We did the greeting thing, ridiculous man hugs and back-slaps and whatever, and then without any further delay, he orders me to don my running gear.
Next thing I know, we’re jogging up slightly inclined suburban streets that are clearly leading to a mountainside: Beacon Mountain.
I look up the side of it and take note: It is approximately a billion feet tall.
I ask my buddy if we’re headed to the top. He won’t answer me directly. It’s like being with the fucking Ghost of Christmas Future. Instead he just points, an index finger angled mostly upward. I take that as a yes.
We hit a rocky trail and begin the climb in earnest. It’s tough going, and he’s in better shape than me, so I’m looking at his back mostly as I slog away at roughly three miles an hour through the cool autumn air, panting and weaving over dirt roads and deep trenches and trees waving orange and red pom-poms in the breeze.
It’s an hour before we reach our destination, a flat gray rock with a radio tower that rises an additional forty feet straight into the sky.
And then two things happen in fairly rapid succession.
First, I realize that the only radio tower I’ve seen prior to today is in a video game called Far Cry and I suddenly wonder just how many things I’ve seen in video games or online that I’ve never actually come into contact with in real life.
Second, I notice three kids lounging at the base of the tower, two guys and a girl. They’re looking out at the view, rolling hills covered by trees on one side, the Hudson river flowing steadily south on the other. Way off in the distance, the skyline of New York is visible, fifty miles away.
“This view is fucking amazing,” the girl says.
“Whatever. It looks just like the backgrounds you see on desktop computers. Can’t believe you guys dragged me all the way up here for this. I can see a million of these types of pictures on flickr in super-high-res,” one of the guys responds.
As I listen to him — the jaded, i-don’t-give-a-fuck tone, the total lack of energy — I hear myself at a younger age. I realize: I used to be that guy. And in fact, I’m still not that far removed from him. I’ve had this sense, for a long time, that practically everything you need to know or experience was already cataloged online somewhere. No need to acquire firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to go fly fishing – just read an account and search google images for a picture. No need to climb a radio tower. Just play Far Cry 3 and run up the rickety metal stairs at full speed. All of the fun with none of the cost or danger.
And for an instant I took in the view the way that I might have done so ten years ago, when I was that younger dude.
First, I analyzed: I get so few of these days away from work, and I’m doing this? I better fucking enjoy it. Am I enjoying it enough?? There was this weird pressure to suck every drop of pleasure out of the day and I wasn’t sure if I was getting maximum value out of my time.
Mr. Analysis continued: What’s the point of coming all the way up here to see this, especially when I’ve already done this in the virtual world? What’s the use of it all? Does it make me think anything new? Does it enrich my understanding of the world? Does it help anyone?
No, it doesn’t, I found myself admitting. I see that that tower, at the barges floating down the Hudson, whatever, all of it — and I can’t think of a single thing to think about. My mind’s completely empty. There’s no use to this.
Then I looked over at my friend who had begun climbing the tower. He yelled at me to join him and I ran over, grabbing at thin metal rails, slowly taking the steps leading upward. They felt infirm somehow, lattices of steel welded together diagonally, open air visible through a pattern of diamonds as I looked down at my feet. As we ascended, the wind kicked up.
Hey man, can you feel this thing swaying or something? Is it safe? I shouted.
Yeah you’re fine, stop worrying and start hurrying the fuck up. I’m already at the top.
I gripped the sides harder and felt my heart pound, noticing that the exterior rails weren’t even close to being tall enough to stop me from barreling over if I lost my balance. I had an image of myself spilling out after a misstep, head over heels, my body exploding like a water balloon against concrete as soon as I hit the rock foundation. I sure as hell didn’t feel like this when I sprinted up the virtual tower on my computer at the pace of full-on W.
I kept going, one foot in front of the other, and before I knew it my friend’s fist was right in my face. And as I gave it a good bumping, I realized I’d made it all the way to the soaring, unstable nest at the top of the tower.
And we looked out again, out at that damned scenery, that desktop background downloaded from google images, those hills, that river, that enormous city with its eight million lives looming in the distance. There was a light smell of smoke in the air from a wood fire, probably from another group of hikers grilling somewhere below on the trails.
I know what you’re thinking, he says, kind of bobbing his shoulders with satisfaction. You’re thinking: This is a pretty spectacular view. You’re thinking: This was totally worth destroying your body for.
Nope, I thought to myself, my consciousness oddly flat. I’ve got nothing in my brain. Not a single thought.
For an moment, I felt deflated and confused, but then I realized with a start that I was analyzing again — looking, as usual, in the wrong place for understanding things of this nature: My head.
Because my heart was full to bursting.
As always, I’d love to hear stories from readers who have retired and how the transition went, particularly over the first year or so.
Also, to be clear, everyone knows I don’t actually hear voices in my head, right? 😀 I structure the posts this way in order to hopefully show some of the internals of what it feels like when you’re intentionally adjusting personal habits and patterns. The voice construct is just a convenient mechanism to illustrate the challenges and conflict.
Dear Dr. Doom,
YOU ARE NOT TOO OLD TO JOIN A BAND.
ok? Plus music is good for the soul. 😉
p.s. Love your blog and writing. 🙂
-The Pigeon <– 54-years-old; in 3 bands
It’s a major goal of mine to join one. Hey, I’m at least as good as the guitarist in Nickelback. Thanks for the encouragement.
You are not too old for “x”, wherein “x” = anything!
Good point by Pigeon.
Now you’re coming around! I didn’t call it TFB but yeah, that took me about 6 months to get rid of. I felt like I needed to be busy and productive, even in retirement.
Now I’m very mellow in contrast. If I want to spend an hour or two doing something completely frivolous just because it interests me I tend to do it. Running an errand and happen to be near the art museum? Why not pop in for an hour or two in the middle of the day when there are zero other patrons there. Happen to be on the edge of town near a state park? Why not hike a new trail for a couple hours. Serendipitous discoveries await.
But not if you follow the TFB mantra. I’m now in the mode of prioritizing leisure over work, effort, and exertion in general. Sure, chores still have to get done and some DIY tasks call me, but if I’m not focused on the fun stuff it tends to get neglected in favor of busy work (or sometimes screwing around on the computer).
Congrats, RoG. At this point I’m very close to the state you describe, able to genuinely enjoy large blocks of leisure and find that balance between busy and chilling — without judging or criticizing myself for pursuing happiness over productivity. Amazing stuff.
Awesome. It’s a process for sure. I’ve started thinking of time use through the lens of a professional dilettante. Do what interests you without worrying about long term commitment to it. If you stop enjoying it, drop it. I try to never say “I’m too busy” unless it’s just an excuse to get out of doing something I don’t want to do.
If someone proposes something fun or interesting, I’m all about it even if it means dropping something else that’s less interesting or exciting.
If you haven’t already you should go read the chapter from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography that quote is taken from (or the whole thing, he’s an interesting guy):
Thanks for the link. As it turns out, I am not too busy to read the full autobiography.
Reminds me of this article: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/03/brigid_schulte_s_overwhelmed_and_our_epidemic_of_busyness.html
“Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time. It’s like being told that you’re obsolete.”
That about sums it up. Thanks for the link.
Another appropriate quote: “My God, people are competing about being busy,” Burnett realized. “It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life.”
Still working, and I’ve never understood what these people are doing that makes them so busy. I always have time for side projects and others at work seem to be barely making it. Thanks so much for this blog, it will help me focus on the non-financial aspects of FI/RE
They are either a) inefficient at their jobs, b) overwhelmed (which can contribute to a) because they’re sort of thrashing and unable to actually complete tasks), or c) stretching the truth to make it seem that they are busier than they actually are for status and reputation-based reasons.
Could be all three, too…. 🙂
TFB sounds like the Mammoth’s cousin. What a bunch of dicks, those two 😉
There are definite similarities to the Mammoth as described by WBY, nice association, GC. Although we are all programmed to pick up on social norms, the question seems to be how readily we accept and adhere to them — or, on the flip side, reject them. Some people do so easily, and others find it impossible. I seem to be closer to the middle than I thought.
It’s fascinating — and somewhat alarming — that being uber-busy has become a sign of status, given how stressed and distraught that state can make us.
Amazing post; so little is written about the transition, and you’re adding valuable insights.
I’m going to check out those slowing down books you mention. I find myself at a similar life stage, but for a slightly different reason: I’ve been an at-home parent for 15 years, but the kids are aging out of needing me to be on-tap. So yeah, I guess I’m retiring from my usual day job.
I don’t know what to do now. Working seems fairly pointless – employers wouldn’t be lining up to offer anything too interesting or well-paid to a mid-40s woman with an education and work history that all took place in another country, and none of which took place this millennium. An entry level job would just add enormous family stress – uncertain hours, lack of annual vacation, increased costs for clothing/ transport/ meals, etc – for a near-minimum wage taxed at my husband’s high marginal rate.
He earns very well, and the net difference I could make might shift his retirement date from, say, 7 years to 6.5 years. He agrees that 7 years of ‘corporate warrior only’ versus 6.5 years of ‘dual working couple who are splitting childcare, cleaning, cooking, laundry, errands, etc and have no leisurely weekends’ would be a poor trade. (He’d of course suck it up if I had a burning desire to work, but is in no way dropping heavy hints about how much the kids are out of the house now, and…)
So I fall mentally back on the usual ‘what shall I do’ staples of the time-rich and ambition-poor – volunteering, studying, hobbies, more interesting cooking, exercising – and sigh, because I don’t know what I want to do, but whatever it is, shouldn’t it be something bigger, better, more important, more meaningful? What’s my Life’s Great Purpose?
And it’s in this mood that I come across your great line about switching from making an impact on the world, to letting the world make an impact on me. I think I’ll read the books, and give that a try. It’s gotta be more productive than waiting for my Life Purpose to magically appear in my head.
>>…shouldn’t it be something bigger, better, more important, more meaningful? What’s my Life’s Great Purpose?
No, it doesn’t have to be. Humans have been wrestling with the big ‘ol Why question since we developed the ability to think rationally and creatively. What’s the bigger picture? What’s my true vocation? I submit that for the majority of us, there really is nothing.
And I don’t see this as a depressing answer but rather freeing. It may allow you to wholeheartedly spilt time between a) pursuing personal interests and pleasures and b) continuing to contribute to family and community — without the burden of discovering The Real Answer for yourself. And the interesting thing is that by simply living life — by continuing to pursue a and b — the answer may unexpectedly present itself to you.
Some things are best not forced.
Some people have to climb a mountain to receive that kind of wisdom. Hey, are you the sage on the mountain? I read the article so I know you were up there. Thanks for helping early retirees sort out these issues that are on the top of our minds. The voice in your head is often the voice in our heads too. (No response is necessary–stay off the computer!)
Thank you. I continue to look forward to your in depth updates. I’m behind you (about a year) so no insights or words of wisdom to offer. And myself am in the anxious what will my Purpose Be without work phase. And while the tasks of my white collar job are not inherently meaningful, the results of what I’m doing result in stuff that overall is Important and Meaningful.
As a white collar worker, I worry whether there would be friends to connect with during the day during the week. I anticipate the need for detox. I also anticipate plenty of TFB. I remember realizing even at 20 that living in the head was a sure recipe for depression. Thanks again
>>And myself am in the anxious what will my Purpose Be without work phase.
No need to be anxious about it. My experiences are not the same as many other early retirees. There’s this guy Jon Snow (link to his journal) on the MMM forums, for example, who had a very different transition — one seemingly without any conflict. His description of his own post-work life is uplifting and shows there’s a lot of variation here.
You’re gonna be fine!
Great read. I am so glad you have kept blogging post-FI. I enjoy the hell out of your writing.
“If you want something done, give it to a busy person!”
Damn, that’s a thought-provoking post.
The longer I’ve been in the working world, the more I’ve felt myself becoming susceptible to the BS rewards of busyness. I absolutely enjoy the feeling of telling a friend, “Sorry, can’t meet up this week, or next, or next. Meeting in SF, then flying to a wedding in Denver, then I’m in Detroit for work, blah, blah, blah.” I like my friends a whole lot more than work, yet I still get off on this. That’s messed up.
I feel it during the work week, especially. I largely work from home and tend to have pretty substantial variance between days when I’m slammed and days when I have almost nothing on the calendar. If I end up with more than a couple low-work days in a row, I start feeling guilt creep in. “You’ve only sent one e-mail all day.” “What are they even paying you for?” Never mind that a “busy” day might be completely unproductive on things that actually matter — but there’s a reward to the chime of the inbox, turning around a rapid reply, and feeling “useful.” It’s like I can feel the dopamine course through me. Hell, I even did it halfway through writing this comment.
With FIRE on the horizon, chilling out will be one of my major goals. We’re planning to travel right away, which I could see lending itself to jam-packing every day with activities and sights. All the more reason to be cognizant of taking things slowly.
Thanks for the great insight into your transition process, as always.
Yep, I relate to pretty much everything you wrote.
>>yet I still get off on this. That’s messed up.
Thanks for letting me know I wasn’t the only one.
The good news is that being aware that you’re doing this can allow you to behave differently in the future if you want to. I’m personally very glad that I’ve been able to identify this crappy human trait so I can alter my behavior. Just wish I’d been strong enough to be honest with myself and make changes earlier on. I didn’t have to wait to quit work to address this.
Thanks for the comment.
Yep, it feels good to feel like you are needed, like you are an important cog in the machine. I hate slow weeks, been trying to work through those feelings this year.
This is a wonderful post! Even though I am a good 15 years away from retirement (from this point at today’s savings rates…always hope for the future!) and when I do my kids will be in the latter years of needing active parenting, posts like these motivate me to bring meaning into my life NOW and enjoy my moments NOW. So when the day comes that I can permanently relocate my work pants to the costume section of my closet, I will transition to more time to do the things I love rather than starting fresh. I think it’ll take me longer to get there, but I’ll have developed an appreciation for life and true joy along the way.
Also smell is super underrated! Smells tell stories and call back memories too.
Thanks for writing.
>> bring meaning into my life NOW and enjoy my moments NOW…. I’ll have developed an appreciation for life and true joy along the way.
Absolutely, this is a great approach. I say this a lot on my blog but your working life must be one that provides joy and satisfaction — becoming FI is a milestone in life, rather than the ultimate destination. Having a well-rounded life will, I suspect, make the transition easier for you.
We value busyness, productivity, and achievement so much that if you choose life priorities or a direction that doesn’t worship these things, the amount of internal, perceived external, and actual external judgment, condemnation, and pressure is incredible. There’s fear when you deviate from accepted social scripts because if you just choose what everyone else does, even if it’s the wrong choice, at least you won’t be alone in your failure and no one will laugh at you for doing exactly what they did. There’s no cognitive dissonance if you just continue to work and pursue productivity and goals. There’s insecurity and nagging doubt if you give up the status, structure, and social approval by not doing that. The internal voice (which also perceives the external judgment) is by far the loudest, most persistent, and most stinging.
A week or two ago something small snapped and I decided, fuck it. I’m doing something my DH and I decided was worth doing, and even if it’s an uncommon choice I am going to do it whole-heartedly and unapologetically. Anyone who doesn’t like it can just lump it because it’s not their life and I’m not asking for anything from them. If it turns out to be a mistake I’ll live with it, learn from it, and then move on.
Reminding myself of my “unapologetic” decision has been really helpful since, especially when my inner voice demands, “what have you done today to be hardworking, progress your career, and make tons of money?” Or when people ask me what I’ve been doing and what my plans are and the real response is Undisclosed Personal Thing. And that I don’t have a clearly-defined, linear plan.
Enjoyed reading your experiences, Dr. Doom, and hearing you’ve cultivated a content and present mindset.
You’re so nice on the forums and in your blog comments and correspondence that it’s super fun hearing your asshole-y inner thoughts. A lot of us feed a bit off the jealousy of others, especially those who have rightfully earned our resentment and ill-will (often called “co-workers” or even “family members”.) Warm, tasty, and satisfying!
>> I’m doing something my DH and I decided was worth doing, and even if it’s an uncommon choice I am going to do it whole-heartedly and unapologetically.
Good for you, this is a great attitude.
>>super fun hearing your asshole-y inner thoughts.
Haha. We all have thoughts we’re ashamed of. That doesn’t make them any less real though. I don’t think that way most of the time — I generally try to help people and be supportive rather than vindictive.
But sometimes I slip into what I think of as mean-teenage-brain mode and those sorts of small thoughts pop in. Pretty sure this happens to most people. We’re all capable of a wide range of motivations and responses.
I’m still years away from catching the ER train, but significant parts of this really resonated with me. FANTASTIC work here!
Thanks for the warm comment, Alex.
Great perspective and a lot of it felt very similar to myself as I’m an accountant and constantly analyzing (in professional world and personal). Looking forward to the new posts! Take care.
Thanks for stopping by FF!
What a great read!!! I just discovered your site a couple of days ago – what a find! I am about 3 months away from retiring (and really looking forward to it). I will go back and read all your older posts to see how it crept up on you and what impact it had (and the wild thoughts that must have run through your head at the time). Really looking forward to the reads (and looking forward to future posts as well). Soon to be un-busy and counting down the days! 🙂
Big time congratulations on being so close. Hopefully some of the older content will be useful. You’re going to love the next phase.
Whoa, That was long and weird and rambly! I loved it and all the great details about the transition.
I can’t wait to get there and experience it for myself. Soon though, soon.
Glad you’re still posting about FI and post-career fun.
BTW, I’m also 38 and just joined a facebook group in our neighborhood of people who want to play music together, all ages/skill levels and am hoping to get the first session in this week. It’s never too late, and playing with other people is WAY better than just solo practice, even if it’s terrifying.
>>That was long and weird and rambly!
What can I say? I deliver on promises.
>> It’s never too late, and playing with other people is WAY better than just solo practice, even if it’s terrifying.
Absolutely. I play pretty regularly with a super-high-skill jazz-guitarist friend who puts me to shame. (Super-fun!)
But I want to expand this hobby into something more real – it’s time. Thanks for the encouragement and it’s great to hear you’re heading up these sorts of events in your area, very cool SSC!
You’ve done it again Doom. I didn’t have a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) for TFB but I somehow had it anyway. Six months: everyone told me detox took about that long; they were right. I’m a little past 3 years FIRE now and I can tell you that somewhere around 18 months in your “give-a-fuck-o-meter” hits dead empty. People don’t understand what you’ve done and why? Your problem dude.
I’ve gotten to take some trips to see old friends (and drink!) and eat delicious authentic Mexican food when it fit their tight schedule because my schedule was wide open. I got to go to Hawaii with my Dad. I get to rush out to the public Arboretum around the corner when I sense it is going to rain so I can take a nap under the Japanese pagoda while listening to raindrops hit the pond. I get to grief n00bs on WoW on a Tuesday afternoon during quarter end while my old cow-orkers are all desperately trying to whip a stinking pile of shit into something the SEC will accept as a 10-Q report. I get to spend two hours researching the history of toilet paper because why the hell not…
Life is good. And I don’t have to give a damn if I don’t wanna.
>>when it fit their tight schedule because my schedule was wide open.
Yes, this is one of the best parts about having an abundance of time, completely agree.
>>I get to grief n00bs on WoW on a Tuesday afternoon during quarter end while my old cow-orkers are all desperately trying to whip a stinking pile of shit into something the SEC will accept as a 10-Q report.
Hahahahahahahaha… I loved this. Hysterical. So awesome.
This post gives me hope, and makes me nervous, all at once. I’ve had TFB in my head for decades. I use TFB to get out of things I don’t want to do. What will I do when I’m no longer working and people ask me to do things I’d rather not do? “Swamped at work” won’t be available as my standard excuse. Then again, I do an awful lot of opting out of life simply because work has me wiped out. When I’m not working, I’m at home, with the cats, hunkering down like it’s my foxhole away from the war outside. Yes, I expect I’ll be detoxing from the poison of my law practice for a good long time. I’ve been at it for twenty years. I have no idea who I am without the constant hum of stress in the background (and foreground) of my life.
I probably would have cried at the top of the tower. Beautiful things do that to me. They’re in such stark contrast to my internal life (the constant analyzing), when they arrive, and blot out my head-looping; well, you described it perfectly: “my heart is full to bursting.” Therein lies the hope. I must be still in here, somewhere.
I watched the rasta shark video. I liked it. That must be a comment on my current state of mind.
>>I watched the rasta shark video. I liked it.
It’s well produced. 12 million views! You’re not the only one. 🙂 I might have been unnecessarily harsh on that video..
>>What will I do when I’m no longer working and people ask me to do things I’d rather not do?
Hopefully you’ll do the things you want to do, and say no to the ones that you don’t!
>>Then again, I do an awful lot of opting out of life simply because work has me wiped out.
Relate. I find that my capacity for things like family visits has gone way up since leaving work. I have a lot more energy to, say, spend a full day with my Dad even though he drives me bonkers at times, you know? When I was working it’d be much more of a struggle — I’d weigh spending my “scarce” free time on my Dad versus recuperating and frequently Dad would lose. (Sorry, Dad.)
He doesn’t lose anymore.
>>I have no idea who I am without the constant hum of stress in the background (and foreground) of my life.
You’ll still be you, but probably somewhat brighter, optimistic and energetic. I absolutely guarantee that you’ll figure it out when the time comes, through simply living life and exploring the world.
I’m so excited about exploring the world. Soon! You sound like a kid. I love it.
Great post. I’m really happy that you’ve managed to deal with your TFB issue. I’m the opposite, I think, although no-one ever believes me when I say I would have absolutely no problem not doing anything particularly productive for a very long time. I usually don’t bother arguing with them but really, I think staring at the wall/ceiling/sky/trees/sea and letting your mind wander for long periods of time is highly underrated. I mean, really, how else are you supposed to get to the stage where you start seeing faces in the wallpaper?
The Tom Hodkginson books (How to be Idle, etc.) are good reads as well, I think it helped me to have read them a few years ago and realise I might not be crazy to want to not have to do anything after all.
>>although no-one ever believes me when I say I would have absolutely no problem not doing anything particularly productive for a very long time.
I believe you. I say this approximately seven billion times in multiple posts but I’ll say it again here: There’s a lot of variation in human personalities.
>>I mean, really, how else are you supposed to get to the stage where you start seeing faces in the wallpaper?
Thanks for the laugh, terrific. I read the Hodgkinson book a few years ago and it was a great source of inspiration. Leisure is all it’s cracked up to be.
Aside: I wish we could go back to Leisure-Status instead of Busy-Status. But citizens being busy all of the time is better for the economy, so it’s unlikely.
I am glad I asked the question (unabashedly assuming you’re talking about me) and I think TFB dogs almost everyone I know, including myself. Especially when you mix in the fact that most of us still wants to feel “socially-approved”, the cocktail can be crippling.
When I took a 7 month sabbatical a year ago, there were a couple of months when I went into meltdown and got stuck in this vicious loop. I would be stuck on PS 3 the entire day, question myself at night, feel guilty and the day would then repeat again. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint the problem but you nailed it in this post.
And kudos for admitting to “wanting to make your friend feel lousy cos you’re TFB”. The “one-up on you” temptation is really strong and it takes alot of courage to admit it in a post.
I will definitely be bookmarking this post as I most of the things you wrote resonated with me and I probably can’t describe it better than you. Useful reflections from you for me as I transition to becoming a part-time freelancer/entrepreneur.
>>The “one-up on you” temptation is really strong and it takes alot of courage to admit it in a post.
Thanks. I had a great deal of difficulty constructing this post, and on that section in particular I waffled. In the end I decided to honestly illustrate the point about what busy-status does to us, how it makes us feel, how it can potentially weaken relationships if you allow it to — and how you can overcome it through awareness and personal choice.
People who think that they’re nice 100% of the time are oblivious to their internals IMO. I do think that the detox/transition period is allowing me to make some positive changes and close the gap a bit, though. Not that I couldn’t have made changes while I was working — these things are not mutually exclusive — but the extra time to reflect has been personally helpful.
Appreciate the comment.
I just love your writing. I found myself reading this post slowly just to make it last longer. I also saw the list of upcoming blog posts and it made me smile. I am going through a similar transition and really appreciate all the food for thought. Thank you so much.
Back at you – thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you’re getting something out of the blog!
That was a thoroughly interesting update! Thanks for writing all of this down–this is a one-of-a-kind first-hand repository of retirement psychology. You’ve got a knack for drilling into complex feelings and clarifying them for the rest of us.
Side question: on a scale of 1 to 10, how different has this retirement been from what you were expecting? I get the impression the number you’d answer has been climbing… 🙂
As for The Real World: learning to do some basic gardening has opened my eyes to this hidden world that’s been all around me my entire life. E.g. I’ve been buying produce from the store and cooking my own food for years, but it wasn’t until I started gardening that I realized I had no idea where most of my daily, essential food items came from. Pumpkins are edible and not just for carving!? Peanuts are legumes that grow underground!? (Even the name “peanut” makes total sense in retrospect!). Despite what I consider to be a naturally curious disposition (I spend incredible amounts of time trying to understand computers), I never gave even a single thought to what sorts of plants existed (somewhere…) in order to bring me the raw materials for every meal I eat, every single day. Maybe an office-to-farm extended pilgrimage is in my future…
P.S. Thanks for pointing out that Super Metroid (the first game we ever pre-ordered) is now old enough to buy alcohol
>>Side question: on a scale of 1 to 10, how different has this retirement been from what you were expecting? I get the impression the number you’d answer has been climbing…
TFB and, directly related, Loss of Status were the two things I didn’t expect and, as you can see from the lengthy post, took time to process and ultimately overcome.
Having an abundance of time is *ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE* and is everything I thought it would be. I didn’t emphasize this in the post but it remains true.
If a 10 is exactly what I’d expect, I’d give it a 7.5 at this point. But there’s a lot of potential for this number to rise.
Reading your post, I felt like I might have learned a couple things about myself. I’m not FI yet, though I’m pursuing it. I currently have the fortune/misfortune of having a remote work situation. On one hand, it’s fantastic. The lack of needing to commute or participating in hallway conversations at work when I’d prefer to be working frees up much of my day for me to live as I please. I can get more accomplished typically in 4 hours at home then I would be able to in 8 hours in an office. However, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. When work slows, or I’ve accomplished enough for the day, TFB haunts me as well. TFB is mostly cool with me getting lots of exercise (though he occasionally remarks “what is all this training for? you’re not even competing in anything…”). But exercise doesn’t fill up the 4-5 hours a day which is freed up by working from home, and sometimes I feel what might be a tad bit of depression around the lack of busyness (and/or the lack of regular social interaction that happens at the workplace). It’s in these moments that I think I should give up my remote gig, and do something locally in an office, which would boost my income substantially and shave off some years until I’m FI. But having that time is why I’m pursuing FI in the first place, so it seems backwards to give it up so that I can get it back sooner. I think killing TFB might be a part of the solution in me seeking contentment in life, and I appreciate you bringing that to my attention.
I used to think Living a FI was the best FI blog out there. You’re becoming dangerously close to me thinking that I was wrong about that, and that really you might be writing more about Living.
I left a job at least partly due to the reason you’ve outlined — feeling disconnected from real people in the office. (link is to a bit of description in a previous post.) I value face-time with peers because it feels more substantial and also I find I see my co-workers as real people more easily when we have some physical contact. In the end, working from home exclusively didn’t work for me and I found a different (mostly) better place to work in academia, where I was fairly content.
I do think it’s completely possible to ditch TFB while you’re still working and would likely result in the improvement you’re seeking. No harm in trying! You can also seek to fill those hours doing things you enjoy, which would keep you busy but pursuing personal goals that provide real return, i.e. the good kind of busy. Who cares if you’re on the clock, as long as you’ve taken care of the essentials of your job?
>>But having that time is why I’m pursuing FI in the first place, so it seems backwards to give it up so that I can get it back sooner.
This is very insightful. Although I will add that there are things you simply can’t do when you’re working — even if you have “most” of the day free. Like leaving your town to go to a museum an hour away or just ditching for a week here or there. Having all of every weekday makes you truly able to do whatever you like without checking your email or worrying how you can quickly log in to do some work if there is some kind of emergency that requires your immediate attention.
>>that really you might be writing more about Living.
I think you’re right – it appears that’s what it’s morphed into recently, at any rate. When I started this blog I saw it as a platform to share thoughts about the intersection of work and finance, but it has evolved into discussion of society, rules, ego, human satisfaction and happiness, plus, of course, bucking norms. I didn’t mean for this to happen, but these are themes that naturally surface when you opt-out of 50%+ of your former life (the office part).
Great update– I think you’re gonna make this transition just fine.
If you spent more time at the beach then you’d be surfing and the TFB question would never even have occurred to you.
Perhaps not so much “Doom” and more “dude”?
I’ve been all over the place.. Well, not outside of the country, but I’ve had a couple of fantastic trips, and I’ve been spending a lot of time out of doors. It’s pretty terrific, and I still feel like I’m just getting started.
But surfing? Come on! I can’t pretend to be nearly as cool as that Doug Nordman guy.
A particularly thought-provoking and brutally honest post. Well done. I particularly relate to your tangent. Answering/justifying one’s life purpose is a task not undertaken by many people whose time is consumed by children and work (TFB).
As a childless 43 year-old who just hit six months in FIRE, questions of self-doubt, what is my purpose, am I productive and how should I spend my time are ones I find myself pondering a lot.
I’ve spend my first six month in ER mainly on the road, satisfying a wanderlust to see new places that work commitments prevented. Recently in India I, for the first time in my memory, realized I had no idea what day of the week it was. It could have equally likely been a Tuesday or a Saturday. The day made no difference to me.
Travel quieted my internal monologue, for a time at least. So many new sights and experiences crowd out the meta questions of one’s purpose in life. In India I found myself one day on the ghat in Varanasi, the holy city of the Ganges river. I spent hours alone observing life as it occurred around me. I tried to absorb everything I found around me and figure out what was going on with the people I saw. Were they rich or poor? Local, pilgrim or tourist? What brought them to Varanasi (birth of child, death of loved one…) and what purpose did the items being sold along the water serve?
Great comment, thank you for sharing your experiences, Carlos. I love that you’re losing the sense of scheduling and time, and also that you’re really opening up to the new environments you’re visiting. It sounds fantastic.
My previous employer ( I LOVE saying that!) definitely confused busyness with productivity. Where did this confusion begin? It seems so endemic.
So we all gleefully jump on the busyness hamster wheel and run as fast as our little stumpy legs will let us, only to actually stay in the same place. But we shout “Hey, look how busy I am!”.
I am now happily in my 5th month of retirement, and channeling my lazy inner bastard quite well. I, too, contemplated how I could still be a productive person, or fulfill my purpose, but had an inkling that it was all a big lie.
I am lucky that my timeline has roughly paralleled yours as you seem to produce these nuggets when I’ve either been thinking about the topic also, or I get a great ‘a-ha’ moment.
Glad to see you’re continuing to enjoy the post-work life, G. It is incredible 🙂
Thanks for stopping by.
Your post has been very insightful. For me, there was never a need to be TFB, even while I was working and trying to get to FI. My job was relatively relaxing, and I was cruising along fine until my FI when I was finally retrenched and decided to retire anyway.
Funny thing is, the TFB feeling never crept up on me until I was actually retired. When I was working, I had loads of free time, and basically after retirement, my schedule of chunks of free time never changed with retirement never changed.
The main thing that changed, was that I no longer had the excuse to say “But I have a job”.
Now that I was retired, my time was available to me and open for exploration of new possibilities. Try out a business? Get into new hobbies? Hell, I could have done that when I was in my old job, and yet never got it going, so what else is there?
And that question has never left my mind since – “What else is there?”
The answer I got so far, is that there is nothing else out there except for what I want to do. It might take a few years, and I might never settle on “the one thing” but I guess that is for the better.
I have read Tim Ferris’ 4 hour work week earlier on just before my FI, and he also mentioned the busyness for busyness sake syndrome that is plaguing our society today. His suggestion is basically to balance your life with periods of – what I believe he means – financially rewarding “work” with periods of “mini retirements”, although I never found a need for such “work” Lol.
Your post has reenforced what I think, as long as I am financially stable, I could just continue doing whatever the hell I want, and appreciate slowing life down to be able to actually live it.
Thanks for the great post!
Replying just so I could bold this part.
The main thing that changed, was that I no longer had the excuse to say “But I have a job”.
It’s a great way to put how the change feels.
>>I could just continue doing whatever the hell I want, and appreciate slowing life down to be able to actually live it.
Thanks for the insightful comment!
Damm, you seem like my virtual older brother! Loved your story and could perfectly relate to it. I’m also a software engineer, also approach everything rationally, almost exactly as you describe it here. Living the weekends just as packed as you describe, must consume to maximum extend to “get the most out of the free time”. Totally insane of course.
I’ve been not working for a couple of months now and it feels like a breath of fresh air, getting up every morning, deciding what’s the best thing to do and then just do that.
Question: in Holland the general “good and accepted” way to live your life is workworkwork (wc3 peon style) and to not work is frowned upon, people find it strange and think you must be totally mad. You describe that people react jealous when you mention you are RE-ing, I was wondering if you ever get the above reactions.
Greetings from Holland
Loved this comment – “workworkwork (wc3 peon style)”
Warcraft 2 was the first RTS game I became utterly obsessed with. I’d click on all of the units repeatedly to shake all of their secret sayings out.
>>I was wondering if you ever get the above reactions.
The closer people are to me, the more likely it is that they’re just genuinely happy. They know I’ve worked hard my entire life, they understand that I’ve been working toward this goal for a long time, and it’s all good.
But casual acquaintances are more likely to be shocked and jealous — they don’t have any background on my life or understanding of how I’ve achieved the no-work-state-of-being. Example: I met a guy last week in a cafe who was also an engineer, in his 50s. We had a good 15 minute chat about the industry — he works for Oracle — and finally the subject turned to what I did for work. I said: I don’t. He said: Oh you’re out of work? I responded, “No, I’ve recently retired from my own technology job” He did a double take and effectively ended our conversation — it made him that uncomfortable. I think jealousy was definitely part of the discomfort, given that he’d just been complaining about workload.
Disappointing – I am still trying to figure out how to handle this better. If I’d just said I’m freelancing or something it would have gone better, I’m sure. But it would have also been a lie.
You can keep talking about the bad sides of Early Retirement, I’m still climbing that ladder and joining you guys, sometime soon.
The way to the top is tough and sometimes depressing, I can’t wait until I finally get to enjoy the view, and look back at the path I took to get there.
Even if I get used to the view after 3 seconds staring at it.
The bad stuff is ridiculously outgunned by the good. Stay determined and consistent and you’ll make it.
You are my favorite writer on the Internet, Dr. Doom. I am right there with you, having retired this past summer as well. You have given name (TFB) to my current affliction and have given me hope as well! I am going to the library to check out those two books tomorrow. Hopefully I can start going to bed feeling a little more worthy of my early retirement, and a little less guilty for not having done “enough.”
If you’ve put in the time to plan and execute your ER, there’s really no reason to feel guilty – you’ve accomplished a great deal and should be proud of enabling a different sort of life for yourself.
Although that being said, the obvious problem with guilt is that you can’t really argue against it — it doesn’t respond to logic because that emotion doesn’t originate in your rational mind. It sits somewhere in your limbic system, judging.
But that doesn’t make what it has to say valid! I think having an awareness of what’s going on internally can help you to give the finger to the guilt and sleep better. I do hope that over time it’ll get quieter for you.
Beautiful writing. “At the pace of full-on W”, lolz.
I was one grade behind you, ran one of those BBSes to which you refer (couldn’t afford C$erve, alas), and we pretty much might be tech culture doppelgangers.
I also retired 8 months ago and immediately embarked on a massive adventure that’s just finishing up now, thus sating TFB’s thirst and deferring any reconciliation I suspect I need to start grappling with now.
Your perspective and the books you suggested are super-timely and -meaningful for me. Thank you.
Maybe we are fated to find each other irl one day. (I live in MMM’s old house, strangely enough.)
>> (I live in MMM’s old house, strangely enough.)
I had never considered the possibility that MMM would rent or sell to another FI-er — Interesting!
>>I also retired 8 months ago
One of the things I enjoy about posting about the phase of life after working is all of the people coming out of the woodwork to say that they’ve made it too. Big-time congrats!
Great insights once again Dr. Doom. Your post helped me frame some of my own issues currently, feelings of being “not essential” at work or for family finances. I am similar to Lou above, except my kids are younger and would probably like to have me around the house. But the idea of not working! I seem to need the external validation of my self worth.
For me, this issue is clearly traceable back to my mother, who was a stay at home mom and seemed/seems to be a pretty miserable person. My mantra for years has been “I will not be like her!” Probably need to spend a little more time working on my own demons. Thanks for putting me on the path. 🙂
>>I seem to need the external validation of my self worth.
You’re certainly not the only one. I think this is why so many people pursue semi-retirement, i.e. doing something part-time for a bit of money. It’s less about the hours than it is about the validation.
>>My mantra for years has been “I will not be like her!”
You can have a life without work and still have a very different sort of existence from your mother — a happier and healthier one.
But yes, I completely relate to concerns of becoming like the ‘rents. The good news is that the fact that you’re even aware of such things puts you in a great position to steer yourself away from that outcome.
Great post and you’ve put into words something that I’m experiencing on a daily basis with retirement and am struggling with myself. I left a high stress role (which I really enjoyed much of the time) and realised I didn’t have to work again, aged 51. I didn’t choose to leave, but the pressure drop was unbelievable. I spent the first three months in a state of near euphoria before TFB began to kick me up the butt. The days were – and are – just drifting by with me achieving nothing. Nothing, I tell you! I started my own blog to try and come to terms with my uneasiness over “early” retirement. At least I could then say “Look, I’ve achieved that!” I’m still finding it really difficult to relax and just enjoy the days for what they are. When I manage to do this, they are blissful. But it’s not long before the internal voice, the silent mobile, the silent house and the lack of e-mails start to poke me. “What are you doing with your time? You”re achieving NOTHING.” So thanks for your post, very reassuring and useful. By the way, I was a coffee fiend at work too, drinking so much it actually gave me palpitations (of which I was almost proud). The doctor ordered me to cut it down. Didn’t she know how important I was? But I will need to try and reduce it as per your advice. Looking forward to it……
>>But I will need to try and reduce it as per your advice.
I really think this will help. I found I can sort of feel myself better when I’m not caffeinated — my emotional centers open up and my rational brain slows down, i.e. reducing internal ‘chatter.’ It increases my ability to just enjoy life for what it is.
>>Didn’t she know how important I was?
Keep blogging – I’ve found that writing things out has also been helpful when sorting through personal challenges.
This was an incredible post. Thank you so much for writing it. I often get into the internal debate of how am i going to satisfy my mind when i retire. I question if i’ll be bored or feel guilty for being “unproductive.” People have asked me what i will do with myself if i retire early and i have a list of stuff i’d like to do but it’s nice to know that i can kick the habit of having to prove myself to myself and others. I can choose to do or choose not to do and eventually my mind will forgive me of my ingrained productivity guilt.
Check out Moonwaves’ comment – there is a suggestion to read the Tom Hodkginson books on how to be idle and enjoy leisure. He’s a good writer — funny, smart — and they’ll help you feel good about choosing a life that isn’t full of work. Think of it as an alternate viewpoint to the Word of Mainstream Culture that insists that all of your time must be filled with measurably productive activity. it doesn’t.
Hooray! You’re back!!! 🙂
Still in detox mode (work PTSD lingers), but I’m definitely getting better about being TFB and can say I have spend days doing nothing at all without (hardly) any guilt. I am hopeful that the stupid judgy voice in my head will pack up and move out soon due to lack of response. 😉
I worry still that my creativity might not recover and I won’t be able to find meaning artistically and creatively in my life, but through Halloween I had some glimmers, and I think in another year or so I might just be back to normal. I can’t believe how knotted up and beaten down I’d allowed myself to get.
>> I can spend days doing nothing at all without (hardly) any guilt.
That’s terrific news, I’m really glad to hear this. It takes time. And yes, to your point, it was helpful for me to be aware of what exactly TFB was, so when I had those self-critical thoughts I was more easily able to shut them up and go do something interesting or fun instead of listening to it. Being actively engaged in an activity is one of the best ways to silence the critic. I suspect that when your own creativity does come back it’ll perform the killing blow on your TFB. And it will — I’m fairly convinced that after a long enough period away from work that most of that programming shakes out, leaving you with your original, creative self.
Some great ideas in this post. I pulled the trigger on my FI a bit earlier this year and have also been struggling with the transition period. I love the term “Detox”. I can’t say that I am completely FI yet but I did buy myself enough time to carefully consider the next move carefully.
The pressure to go back and do some sort of mainstream job with the associated busyness and prestige is strong, but I am trying hard to ignore its call. I hope I can find some way of augmenting my income that can scale, but that will not take over my life.
Being able to value idleness is also a skill that needs to be acquired. I often feel disappointed in myself for a day spent reading and not much else.
>>I often feel disappointed in myself for a day spent reading and not much else.
For what it’s worth, I feel the opposite of disappointment in you when I hear that you spend full days reading… delighted.
I try to remind myself that ‘staying productive’ rarely changes my view of the world or improves me as a person, whereas reading frequently grants me knowledge and the wisdom of someone else’s perspective. That’s real value.
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Another interesting post. I know TFB quite well but didn’t have a name for him until now. I wonder if TFB is a necessary evil to succeed and reach FIRE quicker? If so I’m wondering if it’s possible to use him as a tool but start learning how to live without him at the same time?
>>I wonder if TFB is a necessary evil to succeed and reach FIRE quicker?
Interesting comment. The thing about TFB is that sometimes it asks you to do things that are actually helpful for FIRE (e.g. research how to fix your own bike on a weeknight, even though you’re already tired from the day) and sometimes it doesn’t (e.g. posting an endless stream of transient observations and thoughts to your twitter feed). Used properly, sure, it could help you on your journey. But I don’t think it’s required in the least.
>>start learning how to live without him at the same time?
Yes, it might be. If I knew how deeply ingrained this trait was, and that it would cause me grief after I stopped working, I might have begun the investigation documented in this post earlier.
Just found your blog. Really nice ideas…
Wonderful read. Gives me something to look forward to. I imagine I’ll have a fair bit of TFB to deal with when I get there.
Dr. Doom – Thanks for the insightful post on the emotions of RE. This certainly helps wanna-be FIRErs get a picture of what waits (for many of us analytical types) on the other side.
We know it’s scary making the leap and having someone shine an unvarnished light on their experiences makes it a whole lot easier to consider pulling the trigger.
Damn, Doom, one of your best posts to date. Seriously insightful and worth cataloging away for when I get to that stage (though I’m kind of a slacker, so I doubt the TFB voice will be very loud in my case!).
This one is bookmark-worthy. I have some research to do about the link between happiness and busyness – I lack ambition to climb the ladder at work, but keep thinking I’d go CRAZY without any work to go to. Hmm – I may need to rethink myself.
Thanks for this. I FIRE’d in June this year @ 47 I’m hitting a forced period of not being TFB due to a foot being injured. I started to get twinges about returning to work. You may have saved my life 🙂
Just found your sight from a link someone posted in MMM forums. Really enjoying it! I needed this post!
I FIREd in Jan. of this year…..still work about 3 days a month (occasionally…lol). My wife went to PT but still works 20hrs/week. I’ve been struggling with the guilt of NOT being TFB and productive all the time…especially since the wife is still working PT (she plans on quitting in May 2016 give or take so that may assuage my guilt a bit). I am also seeing that I have started to get in a little bit of a rut so I liked the “tree” exercise as well. Just wanted to say thx & what u r doing (this blog) is valuable…….at least to me. 🙂 Press on!
I can’t identify with the TFB stuff. I witness it in others all the time, but It’s the complete opposite for me. When I meet others with TFB syndrome, I’m proud to let them know how much free time I have. On more than one occasion, I’ve turned friends/coworkers down for a lunch date if they can’t set aside at least an hour, because I can’t be bothered with TFB folks who can’t sit down and relax.
Nice post. After nearly 13 years at my employer, I left work to become FI on October 31 of 2015 (42 years old). My mental arc was pretty similar to what you describe in this Post–though I have not been consistently irked by Mr. TFB; it comes and goes. After I quit I was in ecstasy the first five weeks, then a lot of really strange emotions and feelings started to surface. I also moved countries upon quitting my job–so that added an additional dimension of change.
I have a slightly different take on what is happening. I think there is a physiological (including mental) adjustment going on. When you have certain physical and mental patterns that you follow for over a decade, simply ceasing them in one fell swoop is quite wrenching on your body. Your subconscious becomes really confused as you are no longer following the same patterns you did for years and years and years. I believe making these drastic changes are fairly easy throughout one’s 20s, but we become less adaptable (sadly) as we get a bit older. (I’m early 40s.)
The good thing is that this physical and psychological tension from the big change naturally fades with a few more months and you feel less disoriented. This doesn’t address the “purpose” and “what will I do with my time” questions, which are real. But I do think the most egregious aspects of such a change are almost inevitable to some degree but fade over time.
hey! you made my day yesterday and today. I plan to retire in Oct 2017 at 52 and i REALLY am ready for this. I see life like you, with no special project to spend all my new free time on, but rather to just learn to be me. Your posts, i’ve read 4, are so real and so similar to what i think that it makes me feel good. I’ll join you soon and will feedback on my experience because your taking the time to share yours deserve a feedback Cheers Serge from Quebec Canada
Serge, gogogogogogogogo! Glad to have you joining the FIRE cohort soon!
I’m from Newburgh, just across the river there (town, not city of Newburgh). 🙂