I’m going to share the gist of a conversation I had with a reader a couple of weeks ago. This reader, who I’ll call Tonya, agreed to let me share the gist of the conversation but not exact quotes, so much of this is going to be paraphrased, and I’m attempting as best as I can to be evenhanded with what was said.
Tonya wrote in initially to discuss how she was struggling to feel motivated to save for retirement. She wanted to know how I was personally motivated to retire early. Why did I want to put money aside so badly when I could be spending it now on a better life?
I responded: “For me, retirement just means that I am able to spend more time doing the things I already find meaningful in life. I won’t have to devote X hours a day to doing tasks that earn money. Rather, I can pick and choose among things I want to do and not have to worry at all about income. I view work as simply a certain number of hours per day that I have to spend doing what other people want rather than what I want. I would like that number to be zero or as close to it as possible, not so that I can spend my time in purely selfish ways, but so that the time choice is entirely up to me. I have a long list of things that I want to be doing with my time but there simply isn’t enough time in a given week/month/year to do those things if I’m devoting X hours each day to work.”
Tonya wrote back stating that, in essence, she didn’t really have that many long term things that she wanted to do and that she tended to live more on the spur of the moment.
I wrote back: “So, imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t have to devote X hours a day to working or work-related activities. What would you vill all of that time with? What kind of things have you always wanted to do? Try to make a list of ten things you’ve always wanted to do, preferably things that aren’t expensive. Do you want to volunteer? Take up a hobby? Write a book? Fill up your trunk and go on a six month road trip? Walk the Appalachian trail? What’s your list of things undone? Tell me about them.”
Tonya didn’t respond for a couple of days but then actually came back with a pretty cool list. Obviously, it’s not the same as my list – no list would be – but it was still a pretty cool list. Almost all of them really didn’t cost anything (beyond normal living costs) other than time.
I wrote back: “That’s a great list! Why not devote your spare time right now doing those things?” I pointed out how she could essentially be doing six or seven of them on the weekends and weeknights right now. “What are you doing with your non-working hours that prevents you from doing that?”
And that’s when Tonya started giving me reasons why she couldn’t possibly do so.
First, she started talking about things like household chores. I pointed out that she could always live in a smaller place and also that if she were doing these things, she wouldn’t be home very much to make a mess of things.
Then she started talking about how she was tired a lot and her job wore her out. I suggested that she try getting better sleep and maybe a little more exercise and outdoor time (at least two of the things she wanted to do would have definitely increased her exercise and her outdoor time) and maybe eat a little better, and if that didn’t work, check in with her doctor.
Eventually, we reached a point where it was clear that on work days, Tonya was mostly just coming home, fixing dinner for herself, watching Netflix for three or four hours, and going to bed, in which she’d play with her tablet for two or three hours before falling asleep. She did household chores on the weekends and maybe did something social every other week. My response? Put the tablet in a drawer and cancel Netflix and fill all of that time with a little more sleep and maybe household chores during the week so that she could have her weekends free to do some of those things she dreamed about.
She wrote back and simply told me it’s not that simple, without explaining why it wasn’t. I said that her life is made up of her choices and wished her well.
This conversation has troubled me for more than a week. There are several things going on in this conversation that I think bear talking about.
Retirement as Free Time
First of all, I want to swing back to my statement that, for me, retirement just means that I am able to spend more time doing the things I already find meaningful in life.
Right now, I have far more things that I enjoy doing and want to do than I possibly have time for in my life.
I love curling up in a chair and getting utterly lost in a book for a few hours.
I love going to a beautiful big state or national park with amazing views and hiking all day long and going home with some sore muscles but a deep sense of physical wear and inner peace and the memories of beautiful sights.
I love chopping away at a couple of different novels I’ve had in progress for a long time.
I love playing board games, especially long ones that really tell some kind of story and are loaded with meaningful decisions.
I love preparing complex foods and meals, like home brewing and big fermenting projects and crazy dinners that take six hours to prepare.
I love doing charitable work and spending days doing things that will benefit my community and the wider world.
I love politics, even the volunteer work where you’re really exposed to how the sausage gets made – knocking on doors and making phone calls and so on. I would love to run for a local office some day.
I love taekwondo and I would literally go to a class every day of the week if possible.
I love meditation and prayer and the varieties of religious experience. I’d love to go to a meditation retreat sometime.
I love devoted, meaningful time with my family and friends where I’m not distracted.
I could go on and on with this, but I think you get the idea.
Right now, my life does not afford me the time to explore those things as much as I would like. Many of those things are left to wither, and my heart aches to spend more time on them than I have available.
To me, retirement means a lot more time to engage in those things. I can spend Tuesday afternoon restocking the shelves at the food pantry instead of working for an income. I can spend Friday morning going on a hike instead of reading resources at the library. I can spend August throwing a bunch of gear in the trunk of the car, driving to Yosemite, and hiking for three weeks instead of worrying about how on earth I’d be able to juggle writing and parenting and so on.
The thought of having lots of time to do these things really excites me. The idea of having days and weeks and months to just delve deep into those things makes me really look forward to the opportunity to retire as early as possible and, for me, it’s enough to give up a lot of creature comforts today in an effort to get there rapidly.
Current Spare Time as a Retirement Warm-Up
My solution to this conundrum in the present is to wall off as much time in my current life as possible to delve into all of those things as much as I can. In other words, I use my current spare time, to the best of my ability, to stick my toes into what retirement will be like.
I literally block off time for some of these activities in my calendar. I will sometimes block off a Friday and drive to Ledges and go on a hike. I will block off an afternoon every once in a while to play a game of 1830 with some of my friends. I will block off part of a Sunday to make a big batch of homemade sauerkraut (I make it by the gallon when I do it so that I have a lot for my own use and some to give to friends).
Those blocks of time are, to me, a preview of what retirement is going to be like – and it makes me want to retire as early as possible.
Those blocks are not only enjoyable right now, but they’re huge motivation on Monday morning. When I’m facing tasks I don’t want to be doing, I think about the recent enjoyment that I had, the block of time I spent doing something really fulfilling, and I remember that if I work hard and then don’t waste the money I generate from that work, I can fill my whole life with those endeavors.
That is a heady thought for me. Thinking about a life like that invigorates me and motivates me to work efficiently. It also encourages me to not spend my money on unnecessary things in the here and now.
It creates a problem, though.
What You Fill Your Time With
The issue is that blocking off time to dip my toes in that way means that I don’t have time for some other things in my life.
I’m in the “sandwich generation” period of my life. I have children that need my love and attention as they grow. At the same time, I have parents that are growing old and I know they need a little help here and there and I also know they won’t be around forever.
Time is at a premium in my life. If I’m also wanting to block off time to explore hobbies and personal passions… how does it all work?
I’ve always liked Stephen Covey’s rocks and sand metaphor for life.
In it, Covey describes your life as being like a big jar. The most important things that you do in life – the truly important things, like sleeping, basic self care, handling your core responsibilities (like parenting), and your career – as being rocks. You put those in the jar of your life first. Those are things that you block off on your calendar. Those are things that rise to the top of your priority list.
Other things in your life, the less essential things, are like pebbles. They fill in the space around the rocks. Those are things like cleaning the house or maintaining a friendship.
Even less important things are like sand. You put them in the jar of life and they fill up the space unfilled by rocks and pebbles. Those are things like watching television or browsing websites or playing a game on your phone or checking social media.
I am conscious of this, and I try as hard as possible to have as little “sand” and as many “pebbles” and “rocks” in my life as I can. In other words, if something isn’t lasting and meaningful and fulfilling for me, I try not to have it in my life, if at all possible.
Not watching television means I can sometimes block off two hours to just sit and read. Minimizing purposeless web browsing and social media reading means I fill evenings with household chores, which means that Sunday afternoon can be blocked off to make a homemade batch of beer or to do something amazing with my kids. Organizing my work time and working ahead on things in a systematic way means that I can sometimes take a Friday and go on a hike. If I plan things well, I can sometimes even take off multiple days and do something like go to a tabletop gaming convention. If I feel tired, I don’t vegetate or try to squeeze out mediocre performance on a task – I go to bed.
It’s those uninterrupted windows of doing something that I really deeply enjoy that really fuel me, and so I try as hard as I can to clear my life of time wasters (anything that isn’t really meaningful or lasting) so that I have those blocks of time. Those blocks of times themselves motivate me strongly to retire early, because that’s how I would love to fill all of my time. On a busy Monday, when I’m reflecting on how I was able to block off a Sunday to do something that was really meaningful to me, I’m really inspired to get to retirement as fast as possible, and wasting time and wasting money stands in the way of that.
The Excuse Train
There are lots and lots and lots of excuses and little reasons not to do things this way, so let’s address a few of them.
“I don’t have time!” If you don’t have time, at least one of two things is true: you’re overcommitted or you’re spending far more time on the unimportant “sand” in your life than you realize. So, let’s address those.
If you are overcommitted in your life, in the sense that you are pretty much always booked to the gills with things you’re responsible for and committed to, you are actually doing a disservice to those commitments. For starters, if you’re extremely booked, you’re often having to say “no” or postpone things related to your various commitments and are likely worn to a frazzle and not able to give everything you can to those commitments even when you’re engaged with them. Even worse: what if an emergency happens? If you’re overcommitted, it doesn’t take much of a life crisis to send lots of different things into disarray.
If you’re finding that you’re exhausted just thinking about all of the things you’re committed to in the near future, you need to dial back on some of those commitments. If you’re not getting joy or personal fulfillment out of at least a significant number of things on your calendar, then you’re not only doing a disservice to most of those things, you’re probably headed for a crash that is disastrous for you and not good for the things you’re committed to. You are far better off committing to less things that you’re able to give 100% to than so many things that you don’t have a moment to breathe. Step back and figure out what you can dial down from. In the last few years, I had to decommit from a few things myself, and I did it by simply telling people that I needed to dial down because I didn’t have enough “juice” left to really give all I could to all of my commitments, and I helped the things I was committed to transition to new people.
On the other hand, you may also be dealing with an overabundance of sand filling your life. The average American fills ten hours a day with screen time for personal use, not counting professional use. That means time spent looking at a television, a computer, a phone, a tablet, or some other such device. The vast majority of that time is “sand” – watching programs you really don’t care much about, browsing websites and social media that don’t have any real impact on you, and so on. There may be other elements of your life that are gobbling down time as well.
The key is to find ways to eliminate that time wasting. For us, simply having only one television (and keeping it relatively out of the way in our house) and consciously leaving our smart phones and other devices in other rooms while we’re engaged in things has helped a ton. (Truth: I’m better at ignoring the television; Sarah’s better at ignoring the phone.) The television will sometimes not turn on for days at a time and there are large swaths of the day where my phone is in another room or in “do not disturb” mode or turned off entirely. Do those things and see how much of your time that you recover.
“I have such a list of things that I need to do!” Try this: throw that entire list in the trash can and start from scratch. I’m not kidding in the least. Throw the whole list in the trash can.
The truth is that a really long undone to-do list feels overwhelming and often demotivates you to even get started, while in reality you’ll end up never doing most of those things anyway. Why keep the list around?
Instead, just come up with a few things left undone each day, do them, and feel proud of that actual accomplishment. Today, I’m going to clean up a bathroom in our house. I’m not going to do all of the abundance of things I could theoretically be doing. I’m just going to clean that one room, do a bit of tidying up elsewhere, and feel really good about it.
Don’t worry about it if your house isn’t perfect. If it feels overwhelming to do so, make one corner perfect and revel in it. Do another corner tomorrow. If you fret about the whole house, it’ll never, ever happen, but it’ll certainly weigh you down for the days and months to come for no real benefit.
“I’m utterly exhausted at the end of the day or week!” If this is the case, start going to bed earlier without an electronic device in your hand. Leave your phone and your tablet and your laptop in another room. If you have a television in your bedroom, unplug it and remove it from the bedroom. Make your room as dark as you can when you decide to go to sleep. Start going to sleep really early – weirdly early. It’s okay if you find yourself naturally rising before your alarm would go off – that’s actually a good thing. You can always adjust later.
Often, the only thing you’re losing by doing this is “sand time” or screen time – truly unimportant stuff. Sleep, on the other hand, is important – an adequate night of sleep makes everything else in your day much easier to tackle.
On top of that, make sure you’re getting some time for exercise – even just consistently moving around for an hour. If you want to watch a television show, exercise in the living room for an hour while watching it. Do planks and pushups and yoga poses while watching the show. Spend some time outside, too, and eat a little better. All of those things will help you feel a lot less exhausted.
“It’s not so simple!” While I realize I’m not addressing the life situation of everyone, many people simply fall back on the “It’s not as easy as you make it sound!” argument. Often, what this comes down to is the “path of least resistance” argument.
In simplest terms, the path of least resistance is the easiest way for a person to take care of the responsibilities in their life. That’s not to say that people don’t work hard, but that when there are choices to be made, the easiest path to a desirable outcome is usually the one chosen. This is why many people default to spending their evenings vegging out in front of the television or browsing social media on their phone, for example – it’s the easiest reasonably pleasant way of spending the evening that’s available to them.
Stepping away from the path of least resistance is hard, even if there are much greater things to be enjoyed by doing so. It’s very easy, when you’re tired after a long day of work, to postpone a task to the weekend so that you can have a few minutes to relax. The catch, of course, is that you then find your weekend filled up with things left undone on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
The challenge that many people face is simply tackling those tasks – making themselves get up and do things that could be postponed a day or two days or until the weekend. It can be hard to consistently make that choice, but it has a domino effect. If you spend an hour each evening doing tasks you don’t want to do that would have to be done on the weekend, suddenly you have a five hour block on Saturday to do whatever you like. That five hour block can be used to dip your toes into something deeply meaningful to you, and that experience can be drawn upon to inspire yourself to make better life choices all the way along.
Connecting Time Management and Retirement Planning
I believe that money management and time management are deeply connected. People often use money as a substitute because they “don’t have time,” but often they don’t have time because they don’t have good principles of time and energy management in their lives. They fill their lives up with sand (unimportant things like screen time) and with too many commitments and then wonder why their jar is overflowing and feel miserable while trying to throw money at the problem through things like takeout meals.
I’m guilty of this, too, don’t get me wrong. The key, I think, is recognition and a consistent effort to do something better.
For me, a big key has been simply blocking off time on my calendar for big things I want to do. If I know that Saturday afternoon is blocked off for something I’ve really been wanting to do, I know on Tuesday evening, even though I’m tired, that I need to get some things done because I can’t just push it off to Saturday.
Then, as I explained earlier, simply doing that meaningful thing that I blocked off time for and reflecting on it later inspires me to want a life full of those experiences as fast as possible, which strongly incentivizes me to be careful with my money so that I can get there as quickly as possible.
Good time and energy management throughout the week sets the stage for truly meaningful things in my life, and those regular meaningful experiences and the knowledge that I can fill my entire life with them inspires me to be prudent with my money. It’s all connected.