For the final weeks of December last year I decided to use up my remaining annual leave from work and give myself a two (and a bit) week stretch where I could shut down my work laptop and completely forget about it.
This sort of break isn't abnormal and I suspect many people out there might have done something similar. After all, the end of year holiday is usually a time for binge eating, watching television, relaxing, drinking mulled wine, and waking up late.
I usually do the same by letting myself sort of just exist and do a whole lot of nothing, with the reasoning that I need the downtime to "recharge" in preparation for the coming new year.
But it has never worked.
So this time I took things in a different direction as a bit of an experiment. Since I am working on financial independence which hopefully leads to "early retirement" I decided to try and get a glimpse of how I would eventually spend my time after I had taken the leap.
I was going to take a mini retirement - for two weeks.
I made a plan that helped me fill my time with the various things that mattered to me - writing, reading, learning, thinking - and it really helped me understand a little bit better what it meant for me to be in retirement.
Obviously everyone's plan and what they fill their time with will be different, but I wanted to share my experience and a few of my thoughts on the underlying causes in the hopes that it can maybe help others get a little glimpse for themselves.
So here's what I discovered:
I was better rested
It was immediately noticeable to me that the quality of my sleep was much, much better than before. Often when we're at work we let things build up so that it affects our ability to unwind, which usually leads to a lot of stress and not a lot of rest.
Even on weekends where we might allow ourselves to have a "lay in" we still feel as though our resting time isn't enough - Monday always comes back around too soon.
Some of this better quality sleep will no doubt be attributed to "being on holiday" but it cannot be ignored that I was feeling much better rested despite still "working" and being productive on the various things I had set in my plan.
Initially I assumed that my sleep pattern might potentially go a bit haywire due to not having any "external commitments" which required me to be up early. I was free to stay up late doing whatever I wanted without any care in the world.
I could always just sleep until the afternoon the next day.
But that's not what actually happened - I typically got myself to sleep around midnight and despite having an alarm set for 8AM - I didn't want to let myself wake up too late - I would naturally wake quite a bit earlier.
As soon as I woke up I would be up and out of bed, instead of lazing about for another 15 or 20 minutes as was usual, and I would feel energized as though I had slept for 12 hours or more.
This meant I had no trouble getting started on the work I wanted to do for the day and the difference was remarkable.
A key element to this is that the work was something that I wanted to do, which clearly has a heavy influence on if a person can easily get started. Think about people who love watching football, or people who enjoy working out at the gym, or video gaming, cooking, drawing, playing an instrument.
These are all things that aren't difficult to get started if it's the thing that the individual wants to do. And the very same will apply to any type of "work" no matter how difficult or complex it might be.
This, in combination with my other discoveries which I'll cover in the article, resulted in me being rested and more energized in a way that sleeping for long hours could never achieve.
I was more strategic
By making a plan at the start of my holidays I knew there was a set list of tasks that I wanted to get done before my break was finished. This sort of turned into a mini-project for myself as I knew that as long as I focused on the list I wouldn't need to feel bad about not getting other things done.
I consider this "being strategic" because normal life usually has so many distractions. Unexpected errands often pop up, we get side tracked by other things, we lose momentum or any number of other reasons can knock us off course.
Before we know it, we're spending our time doing things that we never intended to do in the first place, and the real important stuff to us is being left unattended.
Here's the list that I made for myself:
As you can see, the list isn't actually that packed considering I had two weeks of time to do everything but this was also part of the strategy. By not letting my list get too long it meant I had to keep it restricted to the things that were truly important to me.
Clearly that meant working on this blog, but also there was time to do some reading and exercise. Things that are usually abandoned when work gets busy.
You might also notice that there is a set of easy tasks in the list. I allowed myself to actually rest on the first weekend of the holiday so that I would have a chance to wind down from work, but the danger of this was going into "full lazy mode" lasting the entire holiday.
To combat this I decided that Monday 21st (effectively day 1) would be dedicated to easy tasks only. For me, this means cleaning but everyone will have their own preferences. These tasks don't feel overwhelming and helps to get you ramped up so that you have momentum on getting through your list; nothing like a quick motivation boost when you can cross a few items off on the first day.
The second day was all about organisation and administration. When normal life is busy it's easy to let these things get away from you - personal accounting, reviewing your goals, generally sorting things such as files and documents. By getting a large chunk of it sorted early on I knew I would feel much more at ease, which meant I'd have better focus for the bigger tasks in the coming days.
Not only that, I'd actually be able to relax better during my downtime also. Strategy.
With the two ramp up days giving me motivation I knew I'd be ready to take on a bigger task on day three (23rd Dec). So I committed to writing one article for my blog from start to finish. I knew that if I managed to get that one thing done for the day I would be in good shape, and it wouldn't matter if I didn't do anything else "productive" that day.
The 24th was a particularly important day to "get right" because I knew that it would be difficult to do any work for the next few days. Realistically I wouldn't be effective until the following Monday (28th) and in all honesty I actually wanted to enjoy my time with family, and didn't want my work to be hanging over me.
So I decided that instead of trying to "squeeze" one more thing in I would use the day to lay the foundations for when I got "back in office". If you refer to my list you'll know that I've already gone through the easier and administrative items, and I'm now getting stuck into my blog writing.
I figured that if I framed out the four remaining articles I'd give myself a better starting point when getting around to writing each of them. I already knew the titles since I have a long backlog of these, so all I really needed to do was get the key thoughts written down and then have some structured bullet points that could simply be expanded on later.
To my surprise it didn't actually take that long to do this - I guess I typically already have an idea in my head of what I want to write - so I was also able to spend some time on the other blogging tasks in my list.
Ultimately what this meant was that I could head into Christmas without any concerns and once Monday 28th came back around I knew I'd be well positioned to continue my work. When I got back it only took me three days to finish all the articles, leaving me with plenty of time spare to tick off the remaining items on my list.
Perhaps it wasn't some grand strategy but by approaching things in this manner I was able to keep my focus on the important things that I wanted to get done - and not get side tracked by things randomly popping up.
Life has many ways in which it tries to distract you but it is impossible to service them all - so stop trying. Keep working on the bigger picture instead.
I was more balanced
Initially this section was titled "I was more focused" but I think the word balanced is more appropriate. This is because I think it's what many people may want when they are in retirement.
The previous section sounds like I was just doing work, work, work - almost like a normal job. And some of you might be thinking "this doesn't sound like a mini retirement...". But if you recall the first section I was usually awake before 8AM.
The hours from 8AM to 11AM were often my most productive and the vast majority of my work would have been done within these hours. This was especially the case with my blog posts where the entire article would've probably been written by this point - at most maybe with just one or two more sections to go.
From 11AM to about 1PM I wouldn't be doing any work. Lunch would be nested in there somewhere but mostly I'd be spending time with loved ones, relaxing and being present.
1PM to 3PM I'd have another work sprint. I wouldn't start anything new and would only be focused on getting certain tasks to completion. If I had a few more sections in a blog post to write I would do that; if the article was fully written then I'd do the proof reading and corrections; if it already looked good then I would schedule it for publishing and perhaps do some social media to try and increase my reach.
3PM was the hard stop but if I got to a point earlier where I felt my tasks were done, then I was done. I never forced myself to try and squeeze another thing in.
The rest of the day would be free time to do whatever I wanted. Spend time with family, watch a TV show, play a video game, do a bit of reading, do some exercise, meditate, take a nap.
Anything I wanted.
You'll even notice that reading and exercise are mentioned as things I'd do after my hard stop despite being on my task list - but that's completely ok as I consider these to be "leisure tasks". There are no hard rules when you already feel you've been productive, just a balance that we all find for ourselves.
When our jobs are in the way we're usually busy from the early hours until late in the evening. The working hours might be 9AM - 5PM but we all know that there's time either side of this that's also spent for the job. Travelling, overtime, being asked to start something late in the day so you can't disengage from work.
It really means that there's not a whole lot of time left in the day for the other things in life. Going to the gym feels like a chore because you feel like it takes too much time, as does cooking, or reading, or anything else. You might want to do these things but you'll find it hard to shake the feeling that it's "taking time away" from something else.
Stopping at 3PM and being structured about my working time meant I could relax a lot more and actually enjoy my free time. I'd have a good number of hours in the day where I was absolutely focused and productive, and I'd have plenty of remaining time to spend on the other things that are equally important to me.
As a result I felt I was living a much more balanced life.
I was more fulfilled
Living a balanced life ultimately leads to happiness, and more importantly fulfilment.
It truly felt as though I was living life the way I really wanted, where I would be doing work I found meaningful to my cause (helping others understand their money) while also having the time and energy to do the other things I enjoy.
Every day felt productive and purposeful, and thanks to this I was able to completely disengage in the evenings which helped me relax and recharge. I even found myself switching off all electronics each evening and simply using the quiet time to reflect on the day and remind myself that I was making steady progress forward.
This helped me appreciate my time much more and led to a better mindset.
Now of course I could have done this before I went on holidays but we're often so exhausted from our jobs that the time outside of it feels scarce and precious. We fool ourselves into thinking that we absolutely cannot slow down for a little bit to appreciate our day, and the only result from that is a lack of fulfilment in our lives.
It's a bit of a bad cycle that we lock ourselves into without realising.
Just think of the times where we would be in bed but still browsing our phones or tablets - we simply don't give ourselves a chance to disengage because we feel we can't afford the time to do so.
I was very much the same, but I've since made sure to continue my new habit each evening as I know it will help me improve my overall health - both mentally and physically.
Feeling happier and more fulfilled in life means I can continue to do my best work, knowing that I am slowly but surely moving towards my goals. With that mindset, the years ahead of me where I still need to save and invest no longer feel as daunting.
At the end of the day a mini retirement isn't truly early retirement because I still eventually need to go back to my job and keep working on the journey. I'm certain that many people reading may argue that this wasn't actually a mini retirement, it was just a few weeks off work.
They're probably right.
But how many people take time off and actually go back to work feeling they had really got the most out of their time?
Usually you hear "I could have done with another week" - but what does that actually mean? What would they have done with that extra week?
There's nothing wrong with doing "nothing" because it really comes down to the individual person, but I often think about the people who retire early only to end up going back to work, even if money isn't an issue. To me, it indicates that there's such a thing as too much free time and they're actually trying to fill a gap.
By doing this little mini retirement experiment I got a glimpse of what could work for me - it makes me a little bit more prepared. I also get to think about it over time, make adjustments and try new ideas the next time around.
It was an opportunity of self-discovery and it helped me understand my true nature, my passions, and my purpose for early retirement so much better.
One day, when the time finally comes for me to take that leap I believe I'll be more prepared than many others to do so. There'll be no need for hesitation due to the "unknown life beyond this point".
And if someone asks me "What will you do after you've retired early?" I no longer need to answer "Whatever I want!" which is like a get-out-of-jail card for the person who hasn't thought about it properly.
Because I will already know my true answer - I know what gives me fulfilment.
Hey - just one final word before wrapping up - I recently read a nice blog post by The Frugal Cottage titled My Word Of The Year For 2021. I thought this was a nice change from the typical goal setting post and it has an important reminder about looking after your own health. It's just a short post so well worth taking a look!