Should you retire early, or are you just burnt out?
Diagnosing your back-to-work apathy
Dead Christmas trees litter the curb. Department store return lines stretch out the door. Sweaty, unfamiliar faces crowd the gym. The last of the cookies has gone stale.
Yes, the holidays are officially over and the new year has begun.
Welcome back to reality.
Is there a more dismal time of year than right now? Sorry, Capricorns and Aquarians, but January sucks. It’s cold. It’s dark. There’s nothing to do—everyone’s busy trying to lose weight, read more, or commit to another ill-fated self-improvement journey.
(I’m not alone in thinking this, by the way—many people consider January the most depressing month, capped by a day referred to as “Blue Monday.”)
Worst of all? The return to work. Right now there’s a good chance you’re experiencing burnout. Your job has you feeling cranky, stressed, unmotivated. Maybe you’re already planning your next vacation. Perhaps you’re even considering a new job or a career change.
Or maybe you’re feeling ready to leave it all behind. To drop out. To say “screw you” to the corporate machine. To achieve financial independence and retire early.
Slow down there, partner.
Early retirement is a good thing. As is financial independence. Everyone deserves to live life on their own terms.
But you can’t back your way into it. You can’t fuel your financial freedom on resentment alone. It’s not enough to know what you don’t want to do. You need to know what you do want.
As “Retirement Answer Man” Roger Whitney puts it, you need to be running towards something rather than simply running away from a crappy job.
Otherwise, you risk setting yourself up for needless struggle, sacrifice, boredom, and disappointment. Plus, there’s a fair chance that, before long, you’ll end up going back to the working world.
What happens you try to retire early without a good reason to stop working?
1. You make life difficult for yourself and your family, for no real payoff.
Saving for retirement isn’t easy. Saving for an early retirement—i.e. retirement in your 30s or 40s—is exponentially more challenging. You’ll need to work and hustle as hard as you can, putting in long hours on and off the clock. Many nights and weekends will be spent in front of spreadsheets.
At the same time, you’ll have to cut back significantly, plan out years’ (or decades’) worth of expenses, and scrutinize every. single. purchase—before and after retirement. You’ll need to be ready to deny yourself and your family luxuries most people take for granted—luxuries like a nice house or vacations overseas.
None of this makes any sense if you don’t have a goal in mind. Consider the impact on your own happiness, as well as your family’s well-being. Any sacrifice should be worth it.
If you have children, you’ll need to figure out how to balance saving for early retirement with saving for their education. “Your dad really hated his job” is not a good excuse for failing to provide a kid with money for college.
2. You take on unnecessary risks.
Retiring early means losing security, whether it’s a sense of security or the real deal. You need to plan ahead and ensure the money you have stowed away can cover practically anything. Even then, unexpected emergencies and medical costs can wipe you out.
What if you lose your home to fire, or flooding, or an earthquake? What if you or a loved one needs an organ transplant, or gets diagnosed with a chronic illness?
People who choose to retire early must be willing to take on calculated risks. And those risks should offer some kind of benefit in return.
Darrow Kirkpatrick, who retired at age 50, recently wrote in MarketWatch about the difficult decisions he and his wife have had to make:
“Most long-term-care policies are expensive and defray only a portion of your expenses, and only for a few years. In the end, we’ve chosen to forgo long-term care insurance, feeling the premiums are a bad value for the financial benefit. But we don’t have an extra million or two to throw at the problem. If one of us needs a decade of $80,000 care annually on top of other expenses, then frankly, we’ll just run out of money.
Yes that’s scary. But long ago I decided not to let the fear of low-probability scenarios dictate how I live my life. Yes, I’m aware of them. Yes, I prepare for them, as best I can. We care for our health assiduously, and continue to live as frugally as possible in early retirement. But I refused to sacrifice years of freedom to cover an eventuality that is statistically unlikely to happen.
If it does, we’ll make adjustments, muddle through as best we can, and, yes, it might be hard.”
That’s right: life after early retirement isn’t always smooth sailing. It’s frequently quite hard—perhaps harder than the day job you walked away from—so it needs to be worth it.
3. You get bored.
This is a big one. Many people feel sad, lonely, or directionless after retirement. They discover that, without a job, life lacks a certain something.
When you walk away from a job you’ve spent 40 or more hours a week at for the better part of your adult life, it’s only natural to experience some gloominess and ennui—if not a full-blown existential crisis. One study suggests the average retiree starts feeling bored just one year after making the leap.
With life expectancy rates rising, perhaps it’s no surprise that more and more people are “unretiring.”
How do you avoid an empty post-job life, or a begrudging return to the workforce? Friends, family, and hobbies can only fill so much of your time. You need purpose. Don’t wait until you’ve retired to figure out what you want to do with yourself. Some people become investors and serial entrepreneurs, others writers or photographers or world travelers.
If that sounds like work—well, that’s because it is. Your work and your job may not be the same thing. People who successfully retire early know this. They continue working, doing, creating, giving back.
They’re pursuing their life’s work—more deeply, consistently, and authentically than they could have in the confines of a typical 9–5 .
The difference between temporary burnout and something deeper
Therein lies the crux of what we’re talking about. Purpose.
Burnout at work tends to happen due to external, changing circumstances. A busy sales season brings more stress than usual. A new boss meddles and micromanages. A demanding client creates tension and frustration. A new office layout disrupts feng shui and makes everyone feel off their game.
The decision to retire early, on the other hand, typically arises from a profound internal lack of balance—about the nature of the job or about employment in general. No one should be stuck in a life that contradicts their values. A born nomad doesn’t belong in an office in their local finance district. A watercolor artist shouldn’t be spending his life selling insurance plans. An entrepreneur deserves the opportunity to build things and improve the world on her terms.
We all have times when we’re unenthusiastic about where we’re at. We’ve all dreamed of leading a different life. But again, it’s crucial to run towards that new life rather than running away from your current one.
Retire because you want to—not just because it’s January and going to work bums you out. Know the difference between temporary burnout and the signals it’s time for a bigger change, or else you’ll end up stuck in a different situation.
Symptoms of temporary burnout—and how to treat them
You’re stressed out or tired all the time.
You’re exhausted—mentally and physically. You’re feeling foggy and lethargic. Maybe you’ve been getting sick often. You may be experiencing headaches, digestive issues, or other ailments. Perhaps you’ve gained or lost weight over the past several weeks or months. However your stress manifests, it’s certainly manifesting right now.
How to fix it: Take a break. I know the holidays just ended—it doesn’t matter. Your body is crying out for relief. Take some sick days, or a vacation. If your job doesn’t let you, look for a new job.
You feel unmotivated.
Your work doesn’t have the same spark it used to. You don’t feel like giving 100%. You’ve started coming in later, or leaving earlier, maybe both. You’re spending your time at work avoiding work—delaying projects, letting things slide, not returning emails on time.
How to fix it: Address the root cause. If it’s a seasonal slump, that’s okay—give yourself permission to lean into the slump. If it’s because of another factor, figure out what it is and if you can control it. A change as simple as taking morning walks or cutting down on caffeine can help you bounce back. Otherwise, it could be a sign it’s the right moment to make a job, career, or life change. (Here are a few tips for overcoming a lack of motivation.)
You hate your co-workers.
The people around you are terrible. You’re feeling agitated, alienated, or disgusted by them. Or fearful or distrustful of them. Or some other combination of negative emotions. The point is you’re fed up with their BS. This can range from seemingly small annoyances like someone chewing too loudly to toxic workplace cultures of bullying and harassment. Whatever the case, you’re definitely not feeling like part of the team.
How to fix it: Discuss the problem confidentially with someone you trust. If venting to a friend or partner doesn’t resolve your feelings, or if it’s a serious problem, talk to HR. When all else fails, quit and find a more positive working environment.
You’re not doing your job as well as you used to.
Your work’s been suffering lately. You feel like you’re stuck in a rut. Maybe you feel like you’re lacking creativity, or that you can’t turn things around with the quality or speed others expect. You may have recently experienced a bad performance review or received negative feedback from a supervisor or customer.
How to fix it: Take a deep breath and forgive yourself. People screw up—it’s rarely a big deal. If it’s been going on for longer than a few days, there’s a good chance it’s due to something outside of yourself. Perhaps it’s a matter of unreasonable expectations—you’ve been given too much work and not enough time to complete it. Maybe you’re not receiving the right support, or you’re not clear about what your role entails. Raise your concerns with your boss (or your boss’s boss) and see if you can figure out a solution. If you can’t, consider looking for a better job.
Signs that it’s time for a bigger life change
Did you notice any patterns in the burnout symptoms and fixes above? Each problem related to burnout is circumstantial. It’s a feeling related to a situation—a situation that can pretty easily change. Put yourself in a different situation—e.g. a new job—and the problem evaporates.
Other problems, however, go deeper. They don’t concern the job, but the nature of the work in general, and they indicate it’s time to consider early retirement, or another major life change. Here are a few of the clearest signs:
You’ve put important life goals on hold due to work. If you can’t do what you love and get paid for it, you need to find a way to sustain yourself outside of the system.
You see no meaning in your job. If your work means absolutely nothing to you, don’t do it for any longer than you need to. Life’s too short to waste.
You don’t recognize the person in the mirror. Sometimes, disillusionment with one’s work can lead to depersonalization. Don’t wait until a David Byrne-style epiphany happens (“This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!”). Lead the life you can be proud of.
You’re terrified of the future. Imagine yourself in 10 years, doing what you’re doing now. How does that make you feel? If you just started screaming internally (or, hell, out loud), start planning for something better.
New year, new you?
Most resolutions fail because people are afraid to change. It’s the same reason so many of us are afraid to leave crappy jobs. We start to find those jobs predictable.
Don’t forget that happiness is more important than comfort. Don’t let fear hold you back.
The cold, harsh light of January is as good an opportunity as any to reflect on what brought you here and to take charge of your future. If returning to reality means returning to a job that makes you unhappy, it’s time to change your reality.
Are you planning on making a job—or life—change in 2021?
What are your goals for this year, financial or otherwise?