It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving and many of us are probably still nursing a holiday food coma and wondering how soon the December holidays will arrive. That makes it a timely opportunity to talk about the elephant in the room: your job.
While we often talk about fancy techniques to boost our nest eggs, one of the cornerstones of a good retirement plan is well…just showing up to work every day.
And just showing up can be painful, miserable, or even depressing for some. On the forums I visit, there are dozens of people asking what they can do now that they’ve set up their financial system and just need to show up to work each day for the next X years. They’re bored, checked out, and antsy about what other things they can “do” now. Or maybe things are so bad as that, but they do find themselves daydreaming about their future life more than they find themselves working on the task at hand.
I get it.
While I got to work with amazing people on interesting questions, I nonetheless found myself slowly descending into this mentality, too. In short, I had disengaged and was moving into “coasting” territory, and I wanted to work on other things more “related to my retirement dream”.
That was the hardest time in my career. Because the answer to that question is that the best thing I and those posters could “do” now for our retirement dream is to get re-engaged with our jobs.
Eventually I woke up to this fact and built myself a system of habits to keep me engaged and happy at work.
Let me lay them out below.
The Problem With Being Disengaged
You’re a driven, self-starter kind of person, or you wouldn’t be using your free time to browse a personal finance blog. Driven people take pride in meeting challenges and besting them. So how can you possible be happy in an environment where for 40 hours you watch others engaging with their work and then tell yourself not to stretch yourself, not to find a challenge, not to extend yourself beyond the effort it takes to get to the coffee machine?
I’m not talking about work-life balance. The people who are both engaged at work and engaged at home are doing something right. But the guy who does his work in 10 hours and spends the next 30 watching cat videos on youtube while trying to look busy? Sounds amazing, but it’s actually soul-deadening after a few weeks.
I had my own unfortunate brush with this in my last few years. The more I tried to combat it by saying I was a genius because coasting was getting something for nothing, the deeper my unhappiness got. I started to really hate waking up in the mornings to go to work.
Don’t believe how miserable this is? Go find someone you know who brags about how they’re coasting at their job. Take them out for a drink or two. Then ask them again how they really feel. Ask them if they’d be happy doing what they’re doing for another 10 years or if they’d rather have a job that utilized all their abilities and praised them for it.
Here’s what I eventually told myself.
Coasting actually sucks. Coasting should be nipped in the bud at all costs. Catch early. Avoid ever telling yourself that coasting is you getting something for nothing. It’s a motivation killer, and you won’t be happy without your motivation.
Stack The Day In Your Favor
Say you’re now on board.
Where do you actually start?
One of the best ways to reverse the trend is to make sure you start your day at the office with something productive and easy.
If you start the day reading the news or checking out blogs, you are setting the day on hard mode when it comes to motivation. I have given this advice to half a dozen reports and without exception they have all reported back that it made a huge difference in how productive they were during the day.
So if you’ve got a presentation to edit or a spreadsheet to edit, carve out the first hour for something concrete.
Emails don’t count. It’s fine if you want to do emails and then a concrete project, but I’ve found that emails alone don’t create the same boost in productivity.
Either the day before or the morning of, come up with three substantive things you want to accomplish that day. Then make sure you cover them.
I used to write them into a Google Calendar so I could look back on a week and see how much I accomplished. Then, if you do get sidetracked with a little Reddit time during your lunch break, you can remind yourself of all the work you’ve produced for the company which matters.
Play “What Have I Bought”
Another way to derive accomplishment out of each working day was to find a concrete way of representing what I had contributed to the stash. I took my total salary and divided it by the number of working days. So for someone who makes $60k after tax, that’s about 70,000 ÷ 260 days = $270 a day.
When you get home, you can talk about what you ‘purchased’ for your new life, even if it’s something you may not actually purchase. $270 buys two goats to start an artisanal goat cheese farm. Or a 3-year supply of ramen. Or a bread machine for your own bread line.
Tying the daily check to something physical gives you a sense of scale for what you accomplished. Damn, I can work just one day and then have these two rad dairy goats for life? It was fun to think about. And don’t use boring things. Buying 30 days worth of diapers or two months of car insurance is not interesting at all. Try a scooter. Or a used Vespa.
Ditch the Countdown Calendar In The Last Two Years
A lot of folks in the FIRE talk about creating a countdown calendar to their target retirement date. I think this can be fun in the beginning. But in the last two years as I neared my goal, my countdown calendar wreaked havoc on my happiness and I’ve seen it do the same to others.
The problem with a countdown calendar is that it’s a constant force pushing you to disengage.
Say you’ve got a year left…are you going to speak up in the next meeting? Are you going to hang out at a company bonding even knowing you’ll be leaving soon? It discourages you from investing anything of yourself. But being a driven person, sitting in limbo with nothing to invest yourself in can be torture. So ditch the calendar when you get close.
I tried to fool myself by tacking on an extra year to my timeline. I would tell friends and family I was expecting to retire in X+1 years. It actually helped.
Your motivation is a critical part of who you are and how you achieve happiness. There is absolutely a way for you to stay engaged with work and it’s built upon a dozen little habits rather than one big change. You will notice your happiness increasing with each strategy you implement. And that means you’ll be happy, rich, and one step closer to freedom. Start now.