February 28, 2023
On our road to financial independence, we’re focused on achieving a major goal we’ve set for ourselves.
Goals are powerful in helping us stay focused and create concrete plans to reach our desired outcome.
We strive and plot and plan our way to success.
Being in ‘goal mode’ is what many of us are most comfortable with.
But after we reach a giant goal like FI, we have the ability to completely change our life. Our entire lives open up and everything becomes optional.
This gives us the ability to move from achievement to enjoyment.
As I’ve learned from writing this blog over the years, many people find it surprisingly difficult to move towards the enjoyment phase of life.
There’s a tug of war between feeling lazy, complacent and stagnant on one end, and the hardcore productivity of goal-chasing at the other.
How do we reconcile these two things in our minds? And more importantly, how do we actually enjoy our freedom once we’ve achieved it? That’s what we’ll explore in this article.
Humans are funny creatures.
Thanks to our evolutionary wiring, ingrained habits and societal norms, we seem to be far more comfortable chasing new things rather than enjoying what we have.
In fact, you could say we’re always chasing two things: more, and better.
Understand, I’m not talking about personal finance here What I’m discussing is achieving goals and our ability to then enjoy the fruits of our labour.
And while this has been incredibly useful as far as the progress of humanity goes, it doesn’t help when it comes to feeling happy and content. Which means when we achieve a big goal like FI, it’s harder than we realise to actually slow down and enjoy the rewards.
Here’s the issue: even though we can physically transition from full-time work to part-time or zero work, we haven’t undergone any mental transition.
Essentially, we’re still in goal-mode when we don’t have to be. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with new goals. But just reducing your work schedule won’t help you enjoy your financial independence if you still think exactly the same way.
You’ll be irritable, antsy, and develop arbitrary new net worth goals and all sorts of other goal-post-moving habits. And while life might be perfectly fine like that, you’re missing out on the full experience freedom has to offer.
Look, your early retirement might be less epic than you think. But I actually mean that in a good way.
Let’s step back for a minute so I can explain. As someone who aims to build enough wealth to retire extremely early, you would definitely be considered ambitious. After all, how many people can actually afford to leave work at age 50? Never mind 40 or 30!
You’ve been focused. Busy. Hustling. Goal-oriented. And you probably didn’t have a heap of time to relax along the way.
Then retirement hits. You experience a possibly awkward transition phase. Life slows down. And while this is great at first, something begins to nag at you (no, not your partner!).
After a while you become restless. It may build into a mild panic that you have ‘nothing to do’. Shit, where do I focus now? What do I do?
This is normal. After being busy and striving for so long your mind and body are recalibrating to a new way of living. Anything that’s different to what you’re used to will probably feel strange at first.
The truth is, we probably build up the idea of financial independence too much in our minds. We subconsciously expect life to shower is with daily confetti and a cheer squad reminding us of our achievement. If not that, then we think the feeling of glory and accomplishment will last forever.
Sadly, it doesn’t – at least not in that way. This feeling slowly reduces from a raging celebratory fire to a mild satisfying glow, like a comforting campfire on a cold night.
But where does that leave us?
Upon leaving work, you may feel this nagging urge to do something significant and world-changing.
Not because you think you’re brilliant, but because so few people have the opportunity you do. “Better make the most of it” we think.
But to our goal-oriented brain, ‘making the most of it’ simply means creating new milestones and goals to hit, with little regard for whether that will actually make our lives better or happier.
You’re mind is stuck on achievement mode. It’s scared to operate any other way, because that’s all it has known.
We want a ‘purpose’, whether it’s arbitrary or not, because then we feel useful.
I experienced this internal conflict for a short while after leaving work. But the truth is, you don’t have to change the world to make the most of your fortunate position.
You can find ways to add value to the world and help people in your own way, and that’ll provide you with a sense of meaning that we each desire. No need to put that much pressure on yourself. Save the world-changing stuff to the brainiacs like Elon and others 😁
Give yourself permission to shift from achievement towards enjoyment. And yes, permission is the right word. Because many of you will feel guilty about this step (more on this soon).
Now, let me clarify something. This doesn’t mean a 180-degree turn from one to the other. I’m not suggesting you switch from work to party, from fit to flabby, from considered to careless.
I said toward enjoyment. This means it’s a subtle shift. And one that exists, like most things, on a spectrum.
You’ve already established financial freedom. Now it’s time to establish mental, physical, and practical freedom…
Because if you’re financially independent and are still chasing more money due to fear of not having enough, you’re not mentally free.
If you’re financially independent but are still running your life on a jam-packed schedule with little free time, you’re not physically free.
And if you’re financially independent but are still focused solely on achievement, you’re not practically free.
Hell, let’s throw in another one…
If you’re financially independent but are still worried about what your colleagues, friends and family think of your decisions, you’re not emotionally free.
Money opens the gates to freedom, but that’s only the beginning. You have to actually walk through and experience that new world.
“Okay great Dave, but how do I actually make this mental transition?”
Firstly, recognise that you’ve achieved something most people never will.
You’re in a far better position than most people on the entire planet. Let alone those who’ve lived before us. When you really think about it, that’s an astonishingly small and fortunate group of humans you’re a part of.
Let this fact never stray too far from your mind. It will pick you up when you’re feeling down, and enhance the good times even further.
Second, recognise that you’ve earned the right to do whatever the hell you want. This includes working or relaxing as much as you want. Shed any guilt you have around your success versus others.
You know what’s funny?
Lottery winners are somehow allowed to enjoy the hell out of their winnings without feeling guilty about their good fortune or how they spend their time. Yet when someone has actually EARNED their financial success, they’re more likely to feel guilty about it.
How insane is that!
Anyway, in this area the FIRE community can definitely learn something from traditional age retirees. Older folks have learned to slow down and focus more on each day, rather than a constant quest for some imaginary future.
What have they realised? For one, not everything is equally important. And what we’re doing now, where we are, and who we’re with, is arguably far more important than anything else.
Those ‘future scenarios’ we’re playing out in our minds? Most of those will never happen. And all the ‘past scenarios’ we replay have already happened, so there’s little use revisiting them.
The present moment is the only place we’ll ever be.
One way to ease into this is simply becoming more mindful of your everyday activities. When you do something – whatever it is – focus ONLY on that one thing.
This helps you enjoy each activity more, and it prompts you to appreciate the finer details of life that you’d otherwise miss.
The beautiful shade of blue in the sky. The sweet sounds of birds chirping. Your child’s face (or your dog/cat’s face for the pet lovers out there). How nice it is to sit with your friend and have a great conversation. Stopping for a moment to ponder an idea you just read.
These little pauses are the magic of life. And we only notice them when we slow down and become more present in what we’re doing.
Unfortunately, modern life encourages us to do 13 things at once, where our mind and body are disconnected and pulled in different directions amid an army of background distractions. That’s a horrible habit we need to unlearn.
Multi-tasking is a myth. It kills your attention span and destroys the quality and enjoyment of what you’re doing.
Related to this enhanced awareness and slowing down, is the practice of gratitude.
Once we’ve reached a big goal like FI, we have ample time and space (and reason!) to be more grateful.
Of course, we can practice gratitude for countless things while we’re still in the rat race. Yet, the reality is, many of us struggle to do so to any great degree.
I was just the same. While I did remind myself how lucky I was on a regular basis, the busyness of life and always being focused in pursuit of a goal did make that harder.
These moments of gratitude are transient, partly because we’re reluctant to dwell in one spot for too long. That’s our mind still being set to ‘achievement mode’.
But after reaching FI, we can ramp up the gratitude we know we should have. There’s more space in our days, and our minds.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is still something I’m working on (can we ever be too grateful?). But I want you to be aware of it, because it’s an important part of this transition.
The fact is, we can have an amazing lifestyle and feel nothing because we aren’t grateful for any of it. Our enjoyment of something is directly related to how much we appreciate it.
Alright, we might be too high in the clouds for some of you. Let’s bring it back to everyday life.
If we’ve earned financial freedom and are transitioning to mental freedom, what does that actually look like in practice?
It means you begin to approach life with a different framework. Such as:
You add things to your life from a position of curiosity and desire, not fear of being bored.
You take on new work and projects out of genuine interest, not so you have a job to fit in and be normal.
You fill your time with activities that are worthwhile by themselves, not for the purpose of filling a schedule or killing time.
Importantly, this doesn’t mean you avoid new goals or earning more money. You can absolutely build a new life with a healthy dose of both.
Now let’s talk about how we can balance achievement and enjoyment.
At first, these two seem like opposites. Like wanting to improve your life while being content about the way it is.
Is it possible to be in enjoyment-mode and still achieve things?
Instead of focusing on one or the other, your new life will be a much healthier balance of each. The difference is you control every aspect of it and can ramp up either side whenever you feel like it.
And remember, any new goals and things you pursue will be from a position of freedom, not fear. This, naturally, will mean you’ll enjoy the whole process more.
Many people worry about not being a valuable and useful human after quitting their full-time job. Their lives are built around this hamster-wheel of productivity and it’s hard to imagine life any other way.
But once you build an enjoyable life with more time for the things that matter, you can THEN add new projects, work, or goals to give you a greater sense of purpose.
Side note: I recommend a detox period of at least 3 months after you leave the rat race. This period is for self-reflection, to gain mental clarity, and to allow your body time to transition to a different way of life. This space will give you many realisations and ideas as your internal battery becomes fully recharged, likely for the first time in your adult life!
This period of non-work is the ideal time to build healthy habits. Ones you’ve been putting off for years, or never managed to stick with. After this detox period, you can then decide which direction you’d like to go in and what new productive pursuits seem most appealing.
Maybe you go on to build a business in a field you’re truly passionate about. Or perhaps you do game-changing work which benefits thousands of people or a close group of clients.
But maybe you focus on serving your family as best you can and helping your local community through various kinds of important volunteering work instead. Or you simply live a better version of the life you have now, with more free time, greater health, and more happy experiences.
All are equally valuable options.
Find a couple of things that you might find interesting (one to start with), try them out, experiment, see what you do and don’t like, and go from there. The only way we find our favourite foods is by sampling different types. Hobbies and productive pursuits are the same.
Too often we get stuck in one type of thinking. Achievement or enjoyment. Work or retired. Productive or lazy. Health-conscious or who-gives-a-shit.
Both achievement and enjoyment are wonderful in their own way. At various times in our life we’ll be focused more on one than the other. But it’s a spectrum we can slide up and down as desired, not a switch that’s either on or off.
Ultimately, a satisfying life is where you can experience a balance of each.
The reality is, even after becoming financially independent, you’ll still yearn to be a useful and helpful human being. Which ultimately means one thing…
Even as you transition towards the enjoyment-phase of your life and live with greater mental, physical and practical freedom, further achievements are almost inevitable.