At the core of financial independence is the desire to regain full control of our time so that we don't need to work for a living. You hear the terms "passive income", "financial freedom", "early retirement" being used regularly among many FI enthusiasts as a way to describe one's ability to do whatever they feel like, whenever they want.
Within reason of course.
However, for myself and I suspect many others, the ultimate goal of financial independence be it a specific net worth number or a particular lifestyle that can be maintained indefinitely without needing to actively earn money, is still going to be some number of years away. The journey requires both work and time in order to achieve.
But does that mean that we have zero capability or control over our time until we reach that goal?
Are we completely shackled to the system that requires us to slave away for most of our waking hours, leaving us with little to no personal time to enjoy life until "retirement"?
In the past I used to think "yes" - an unhealthy answer as I'm sure many people out there will agree.
I used to believe it was always a choice between continuing to squeeze as much out of myself as possible, or to simply "waste" my time and watch my prospects of financial independence steadily slip away.
I kept choosing to squeeze myself thinking that "one day it'll be over and worth it", but it meant sacrificing everything else such as happiness, relationships, personal health in the present day.
If you follow my blog you'll recall I previously wrote about my mini retirement that was designed to give me a little bit of insight into how early retirement might feel for me. The experiment revealed a lot to me and among the most important lessons was the ability to find a good balance between my productive time and my leisure time.
Since getting back to my job after that break I've continued to practice some of those new habits which have helped me maintain the balance and has led to me being a lot more content with life. Essentially I feel as though I've regained a huge amount of control over my own time, without sacrificing any of my progress towards the goal of financial independence.
You could even say I've found a way to make my job be "less work" yet still be fully productive when it comes to my responsibilities on the job, among other things.
In this post I wanted to dive into some of those habits and share my experiences - with the hopes that I can help you figure out some ways in which you can do the same for yourself.
Starting the day earlier
I discovered that I am way more productive early in the morning and will typically make a massive amount of progress on my work before lunch time. The tranquil feeling in the morning when it feels like nobody else in the world is awake is a great environment for me to get focused and in the zone.
I start my day at 6AM but I don't actually ""get out of bed" until 7AM. The reason for this is because I start the day with an hour of listening to an audiobook while stretching a little.
If I just lay there and close my eyes while listening to the audiobook I'm prone to drifting off back to sleep, so the stretching is quite important as it ensures I stay awake.
7AM to 7:30AM is when I start doing my morning routine such as brewing some coffee, brushing my teeth and making a light breakfast. I let myself enjoy the time to eat before getting stuck into some blog writing for the next hour.
That takes me up to 8:30AM which gives me another brief pause before starting my working day at my day job. I'll cover some of this working time in later sections but essentially I'm focused on "big ticket items" towards the start of my day where I'm most productive and focused, and start to taper off as the afternoon comes around.
What this really means is that by 3PM I'm basically done with work that really requires my engagement and I'll use the remaining time up until 5PM to do follow ups and smaller tasks.
By starting my day early and getting straight into productive time I will have felt that I managed to maximise my ability to get stuff done for the day. This means that when I switch off at 5PM I will not have any bad feelings about time being wasted - even if that means there is still work that is incomplete (I'll cover this later).
Compared to in the past where I would keep going until late in the evening, this is much better (obviously) as it means I can really switch off and allow myself to fully enjoy the rest of my day.
Personal development comes first
Notice how getting up early allowed me to get two things done before even "starting work" - reading and writing my blog. Our personal development and personal projects should always be the most important thing to us, so it makes sense to start the day with these.
If you're leaving things until the evening you will have already burned a lot of your energy in the day and might not be engaged enough to make meaningful progress. In fact, you might be tempted to give them a miss in favour of putting your feet up and relaxing.
Just think about how easy it is to skip the gym for a day or two. If you're like me, skipping a day or two kind of means the entire week is a loss so I might as well just pick things back up next Monday. But when Monday comes around you've developed a habit of skipping out and it feels like a chore to get back into things.
And if you skip out on your personal development next Monday... you get the drift.
While a job allows you to earn a salary - which is important if you're still working towards financial independence - it doesn't allow you to develop your freedom. This is something you have to earn for yourself by doing things for yourself.
A benefit to starting the day with personal development is that you eventually realise it's all about you - which can become a great motivator. If you're motivated to push yourself forward then you'll find it easier to get up earlier in the morning.
I used to really struggle to get out of bed and would snooze my alarm until 8:30AM. But ever since starting the day with working on myself, I've had no problem getting up - even though I'm going to sleep at the same time in the evenings.
It turns out I wasn't lacking sleep, I was simply lacking motivation. And the way to develop this is to make sure you're dedicating your best hours in the day towards developing yourself.
When the evening comes around and I've finished work for the day I have a real sense of freedom because I did everything in the morning. So if I put my feet up to watch some shows or play a video game, or even if I'm just browsing the internet randomly, I no longer have feelings of anxiety or "wastefulness" which used to be a real dampener on the quality of my "leisure time".
Focus on impactful work and read less e-mails
If you think of energy as a resource that depletes throughout the day you will realise that the time for you to tackle the most difficult tasks is earlier in the day. This means you want to be focused on the "biggest items" when you start working your job so that you're moving the ball forward as much as possible.
If you get good at picking just a handful of tasks that actually have the biggest impact on your objectives and doing those for the day, you'll find yourself making a tonne more progress than if you scurried about doing a countless number of "other things".
One will leave you feeling content and satisfied that you did what you could by the time you finish work (on time), while the other leaves you feeling like nothing has actually been done and that there's simply not enough hours in the day to get on top of it all.
You might even fool yourself into believing that you simply need to work a little bit later into the evening to "catch up" on the work load. The sacrifice will be "worth it" in the end right?
Trust me, it almost never is.
The problem isn't that you don't have enough time since you have the same amount as everyone else in a day, it's the way you spent it.
The key to focusing on impactful work is to not let yourself get distracted by other people's work. One of the easiest ways to fall into this trap is e-mail or other work collaboration tools. If you open these first thing in the morning then all it's going to do is suck away your precious energy.
To this day I've never received an urgent e-mail regardless of what the sender flagged it as. If it was actually urgent I'm fairly certain e-mail wouldn't have been the method of contact. So what difference would it actually make if I don't read any e-mails for another 4 hours or so?
I totally used to be suckered into e-mails and I'd spend a good hour in my morning "catching up" and responding. Basically doing other people's work instead of my own. The result was that I'd spend not most, but all of my days working late trying to catch up on my own work.
Leaving me with no time of my own.
I always took the easy way out by blaming it on the job or on other people, when actually the real culprit was myself and my lack of focus on what's really important.
Now I only read e-mails twice a day (in the afternoon) and only respond to the ones that are actually related to my work - usually with a delay based on my work priority.
Miraculously nothing has imploded and I now always finish on time.
Review your day
A great way to prevent yourself from getting dragged into reading e-mails or doing non-productive "work" at the start of each day is to actually know what you're going to be working on by the time you get in and also throughout the day.
Make a list.
Some people make their list as their first action of each day while others sort of have a running log that they're prioritising over time, and picking things out of that log to work on. I'm in the latter group but I think either way is fine; the most important thing is that you're working off some sort of list that's focused on your work.
Here's a game I play with myself - the earlier I get through the list the earlier I can finish work for the day. Doesn't matter how "early" in the day it is.
If you think of it like that do you feel like you would easily allow someone else to distract you from getting that list done?
Probably not right?
Sure, sometimes it's going to happen - that's just how life is - but you're not going to let it become the norm. There'll be a focus on getting through the day's work so that you can switch off and actually enjoy your time - the thing you say you'll do when you have financial independence.
Now obviously you could put just one item on that list and call it "done" by 9:30AM but be a bit honest with yourself when doing this.
Personally I keep my list quite short but I always ensure there's at least 2 big things on there followed by a handful of smaller items. The entire list is usually less than 8 items long for each day. The big things always move the needle the most so they're the things I focus on first when I have the most energy and brainpower, while the smaller items usually come in the afternoon.
Despite the game I play with myself I don't always finish everything on the list, but I do make sure I leave work on time. In the past, thinking of doing this would give me some feeling of anxiety (hence why I kept staying late) because ultimately I'd be reminding myself that there was still work left undone.
How do you enjoy your time away from work, when work is suffocating you like that?
That's right - you can't.
But now I simply take about 10 minutes at the end of each day to review what I got done. In general, if I got the 2 big items completed then I probably made at least 80% of the progress I wanted that day.
So while I might not have ticked everything off I at least know I was impactful - probably more than most other people in the company - and that allows me to switch off work without any ill feelings about things being left undone.
That lets me properly enjoy my evening and it stops work consuming my personal life - which is what freedom is all about at the end of the day, right?
What isn't done, isn't done
Really this follows on closely from the previous habit but since I suffered from this so much I feel like I can't overstress it. Also, I wanted to make the point with the section title:
What isn't done, isn't done!
It's become commonplace these days where everyone wants results almost immediately. Social media and the growing pace of technological advancement doesn't help, but it's also the way the workplace has developed over the decades - things have gotten quite toxic and unhealthy for the individual.
I've worked in all sorts of roles in my career so far, despite still being quite young (early 30s - hanging in there!). Croupier, Proprietary Trader, Business Consultant, Technical Consultant, Product Manager - It's a bit of a spectrum.
Not on this list are roles like Bomb Disposal Technician, Firefighter, or Doctor who saves children's lives (or anyone else's for that matter). You know... roles that are actually really critical if you don't do something on time.
If the piece of code I'm working on can't be finished until tomorrow, or the new product feature analysis and design, or the big investment idea then guess what - nothing is going to happen!
Sure, there might be some angry executives, or customers, or line managers but... "whatever". Nobody is going to die from the delay and neither will the business.
In fact if a business collapses, or a deal falls through, or a client is lost then let's be honest - it wasn't all down to the one deadline that was missed. It would be through a culmination of other things not working well together - probably because everybody isn't focusing on the important work and just bouncing e-mails back and forth.
Working everyday until midnight to catch up on the work is not only unsustainable, it isn't even effective. You'll be so exhausted that the work you push out probably won't even be up to standard, meaning all those extra hours achieved nothing - not for yourself or the business.
The time after you've stopped working is incredibly important for you to recharge your energy and have the motivation the next day to actually be productive. If you're not finishing work at a reasonable time then you're only robbing yourself of that opportunity, and it's a vicious cycle to fall into.
Nobody benefits from that, least of all you.
So don't take it all on your own shoulders like I used to do, and realise that sometimes things just become a bit delayed. Yes, you have to be responsible for it, but you shouldn't sacrifice your health and wellbeing over it.
There are plenty of jobs out there - but you only have one life - make sure you know which one can be sacrificed.
I personally find it incredibly satisfying to be working hard on something productive and making progress over time. I'm not the sort of person who'd be able to just sit around all day for the rest of his life drinking beer, eating pizza, and playing video games - maybe only for part of it.
So while I am encouraging you to fight for your own freedom I am certainly not telling you to give "zero f**ks" about your job - or whatever it is you do for a living.
The purpose of me writing this article is because of the terrible place I was in not that long ago, something that had been building over a number of years and reaching an unhealthy peak towards the middle of last year.
It had a toll on my wellbeing and my personal relationships, and had I let it continue on I feel as though I would've truly lost something important eventually. Money can always be recovered, but certain things in life can't.
The source of the problem was my false belief in thinking that I could only have "freedom" if I had already achieved financial independence.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
True freedom doesn't only come from money - it comes from the choices we make in our day regardless of the money we have in our bank accounts. While you might argue that money might afford you more of that time, there is no amount of it that could help you if you haven't got the right mindset when it comes to finding and developing a good balance for yourself.
We all want financial independence. But we don't all need it to get the things we truly want in life.
Don't lose your way like I did!
Hey - just one final word before wrapping up - My mum worked incredibly hard when I was younger to try and give me and my sister the best chances in life as possible. Being an immigrant from Hong Kong it was really tough for her to move to the UK and make a living. No support network, no money, yet no complaints - just the strength of a woman giving it her all for her kids. This might be why I found it incredibly touching when I read DINKing round Finance's article about their mother's financial journey and becoming a millionaire.
If you think life is hard, spare a moment for people like my mum or DINK's. Everybody goes through rough patches - some worse than others - but as long as you keep moving forward you can and will eventually find yourself in a better place.