Endless Possibilities

“If you want something done, ask a busy man”. This used to be one of my favourite rejoinders to my boss in the office when he dumped another project on my desk. I liked using it because (a) it was clear that I meant that I was both the busy and productive man and (b) it inferred he was neither.

How I miss the old bugger. I reflected on this as the sleet beat against the windows on a dull winter Wednesday morning and I wondered how to fill my day? The possibilities, the things I could do, were endless. So how come I couldn’t seem to start on any of them?

Eventually, when the sleet subsided, I decided to give myself a kick up the backside, don my running gear and head out for a five mile run (okay, I admit, it’s more of a run/walk mix). Perhaps that would start my creative juices flowing? I plugged in my earphones and started a Tim Ferriss podcast to listen to as I ran, as I do find quite a lot of his stuff pretty motivational. He seems to be the archetypical busy man who gets things done.

I was quite surprised then, to hear Tim moaning on the podcast about his inability to fill his time productively. It’s not that he’s short of things to do, it’s that he has so many options he somehow fails to get traction on any of them. This has become a problem for him:

“What I thought I wanted – the freedom of infinite options – is not what I want at all. It’s very stressful. You burn calories in endless directions, you become fatigued and you end up getting no shit done.”

This hit home to me when I heard it, because retirement does deliver this exact situation – you do feel as if you have “infinite options” for your time. And often you have quite a long list of things you might want to achieve with it, from going to the gym, to tidying up the garden, cooking a nice fresh lunch and dinner, sitting down and finally starting on that ebook publishing (I will get ‘round to this Huw!) setting up my matched bets for the day (I will try to commit to this as much as Guy has!), writing up potential blog posts, tinkering with a website design I’m working on for a local group, making a few calls to see if I can land any consultancy projects…..and on and on my list goes. I’m sure you could write a long list of your own of “Things To Do” if only you had the time at your disposal that I do.

Yes, I have the time – but I increasingly find I’m failing to get things done and it’s really, really frustrating. Somehow the time drifts by and, before I know it, the sky is darkening and the day is beginning to draw to a close. And what have I achieved? Nothing!

The problem here is two fold: structure and self-discipline. (Or a lack of them.) Of the two, however, it’s self-discipline that’s the important one. Structure is quite easy. For example, I hate ironing and I hate washing my car. I could quite easily structure these tasks into my week – I could wash the car every Tuesday morning at nine and I could schedule an hour of ironing on a Wednesday evening at seven. But that seems rather silly, doesn’t it? I could do these tasks any time, so why bother writing them into some Time Management spreadsheet that Stephen Covey would be proud of? Well, one look at the pile of laundry lying in my wardrobe and the state of my car sitting in the drive answers that. What I’m currently doing isn’t working!

I’ve perhaps chosen two trite examples there, but it’s not the specific tasks that are important. It’s having a strategy and approach to achieving them that’s the key thing. Achieving tasks that you’ve set yourself improves your self-discipline. You’re making a commitment to yourself and it’s important that you see it through. I used to believe this wholeheartedly when I was working – if I wasn’t disciplined and proactively managing my time, then work could quite easily steal hours that I needed and wanted for myself.

An office working day is usually quite structured, with both a projected start time and an end time that you’d like to pack up by. In between, you might have meetings to attend, reports to write and projects to complete that are dotted through your day. In the slots of time that are unallocated, you might have an idea of what you need to do with them – nip out for lunch, pay some bills via internet banking, grab a coffee with a colleague. There will be some flexibility to the routine, but there will be things that are anchored in the day and which can’t be moved.

A typical retirement day is quite different. There is very little that is fixed in any given day that you can’t change. Yes, I could start with an hour in the gym kicking off at eight in the morning. Mind you, I could go mid-morning when it’s quieter. Or, even better, it’s deserted between half two and four in the afternoon, why not go then? But at night, some of my friends will be there early evening after they’ve finished work, so perhaps wait until then so that I can catch up with them? When I was working, this was a lot simpler. The gym was done either before 8am or after 7pm. End of story. With a more limited framework, I slotted it into a time and got it done.

It seems quite perverse that I’m beginning to think I need to structure retirement days to be a bit more like working days in order to the get the most from them. I thought that the whole point of retirement was to have a choice of “infinite possibilities” for my time that Tim Ferriss also thought he wanted. But, when you stand before your retirement day in the same way that you stand before a Starbucks menu, stumped by the endless list of options and unable to easily decide on which coffee you want, the “Paradox of Choice” applies to your time in retirement as well as your tasks. In order to tackle it, you need a strategy and a commitment to make your days productive for you in the same way that your working life once did.


Senior Moments

Is my brain going to rot? That’s one of the worries I have about Early Retirement. Or is it going to rot more quickly? I think I’m already heading to Senior Moment territory in my fifties as it is. These are just small annoyances, things like intending to say “I’m going to Tesco’s” and hearing your mouth say “I’m going FOR Tesco’s”, and feeling a little electrical disconnect spluttering between the mental control centre and the gob.

How can you prevent or slow down this deterioration? These days, many of us are aware of the importance of exercise both for the body and for the mind. The body is an easy thing to gauge in terms of progress (or lack of it) on the fitness front, but the mind is a bit more slippery. My Suduko solving skills may be improving as I have the time to practice daily, whereas other problem solving skills, such as remembering where my mobile ‘phone is. I find increasingly beyond me. Or registering what my wife just said while I was focusing on trying to find the Kilmarnock footie result on the internet.

There are other small annoyances, similar to failing to find the right word. One of my latest tricks that I’ve noticed is sticking my credit card into the card machines the wrong way ’round, with my thumb covering the chip. I never did that once when I was working! Still, that’s not quite as traumatic as managing to do a full shop at Lidl, putting it all through the checkout and only then discovering you’ve left your wallet at home. I managed this for the first time ever last Thursday, and just couldn’t believe it. The girl at the checkout smiled sympathetically and told me not to worry, it happens all the time. I managed to mentally thank her for not adding “to old blokes like yourself”.

Well, fair enough, I accept I’m heading toward doddery. I embrace it as an inevitable facet of being gifted a few more years on the planet. But, I ask myself, is retirement accelerating it without the stimulation that work used to bring?

For almost twenty years I held quite a senior level positions in Big Corporate companies. I was in commercial roles which, I’d have to admit, weren’t too intellectually tasking. But there was enough to keep you going. More exhausting, I found, was the social interaction my job required between colleagues and customers. If you weren’t on the mobile ‘phone to someone it was because someone was in your office badgering you about getting them a new mobile ‘phone. Or worse, you were in a meeting for five hours discussing mobile ‘phone policy.

The day I finished in the office, my own mobile phone almost literally stopped ringing . I can’t tell you how utterly fantastic this was. At first.

The incoming calls quickly became intermittent, then occasional, then faded away to almost zero. No loss. I could always call out. But wouldn’t people be busy at work? And, what could I contribute to their working day? I’d just be calling to chat about nothing.

More and more these days I find I’ve left home without the mobile. This was unthinkable when I was working. And I mean unthinkable. Twice during my career I left my mobile on a train, and it was like having my lungs ripped out. I felt I was drowning without it. I now look back on that situation as being utterly ludicrous but, in a way, I kind of miss it.

At work, I liked to have an “open door” on my office, allowing people to wander in and out at will. Most people do these days, and it helps to keep us busy. I have now adopted this policy at home. Except nobody comes through my door nine to five because they’re all at work.

Again, the novelty of this initially was inspiring. Time to myself! The greatest of all the small luxuries, previously available only behind the locked door of the toilet. These days, I find myself thinking about inviting the cat into the toilet with me just for some company in the empty house.

Thus, when my wife closes the door behind her on her way to her office, I feel my mind slipping into an easy neutral. It’s very pleasant, and I settle down with a coffee to read the paper and tackle the Suduko. But, bloody hell, it’s quiet! And my brain is ticking….do something, speak to someone, contribute to the world out there!

And don’t let your brain rot.


The Audi Debt Park

As I chained my bike up outside the Bannatynes Gym yesterday, visiting for my 20 minutes of swimming and 40 minutes of coffee, cake and read of the papers, I noticed that a new, white, Audi A3 was parked in the staff spaces. I noticed because it was parked next to another white Audi A3 (age indeterminate, private registration) which itself sat next to a white Audi A4. And next to that, was the manager’s white Audi A5 Coupe. Four white Audis, all immaculate, gleaming and sparkling in the sun.

“Old Duncan Bannatyne must be paying his staff decent wages!”, I said to myself, chuckling as I remembered reading his autobiography and thinking that Duncan certainly knew the value of a pound. Especially if someone else was spending some of his. One of his staff stated Duncan used to count the paper clips in the office, and one of the most memorable scenes in his book is when he loses it with a consultant who’s travelled to see him and billed him for First Class travel on the train. So had Duncan suddenly decided to pay his staff top-end wages so that most of them could afford an Audi? Or, alternatively, maybe his staff were champions of frugality? What are the chances of that? Exactly. Most of his staff are young, fit, healthy and endlessly positive, the type of people who are absolute prime candidates for saddling themselves with boatloads of debt.

Let’s be honest, I did it myself. When I started earning a real wage back in Thatcher’s Eighties, one of the first things I remember was applying for a Mastercard (or rather an Access Card as it was called then.) I had a big list of stuff that I wanted and I had no problem with going into debt to get it. After all, I was saving money too, a cash fund that I was building to help purchase the item at the top of my wish list – a place of my own.

To buy a flat, I needed a deposit. There were no 100% mortgages in those days, a quite sensible situation I believe we have returned to now. I think I needed to find 5%, so it wasn’t a massive amount of money but it still required some serious saving. Once I had amassed the appropriate amount, I applied for a mortgage knowing that the maximum I’d be allowed to borrow with my 5% deposit would be 3.5 times my salary. The rules were pretty clear and no exceptions were made to them. In addition, I was well aware that my Access balance would need to be zero when I made my application because any other debt you had would be set against and deducted from the potential loan.

With a mortgage to pay and a deposit that cleared out the savings I had, I was very thankful for my Access card. It provided a good bit of additional purchasing power. It seemed clear to me that debt was both necessary and good. Debt worked. It got me stuff that I could otherwise not have immediately afforded and, as one of Thatcher’s children, I wanted stuff now. Yes, I wanted that hi-fi system for my flat, I wanted those new clothes for the weekend and I wanted that holiday in Spain with my mates. And I would have them, and Access would help.

I would have wanted the equivalent of a white Audi A3 too, no doubt, but frankly that would have been out of my league. Audi’s were around then, for sure, but it was BMW that ruled the roost. A BMW Series 3, preferably black, was what every young man about town craved, but there was no way I could have borrowed that amount of cash on my wage. And I’m not even sure I would have, even if I could have. While amassing a pool of debt looked quite tempting, there was quite a few official restrictions still attached to it but, more than that, there were social restrictions too – my parents, for example, frowned quite heavily upon it. “Never a borrower or a lender be” was one of my dad’s favourite sayings. Suitably warned, I never went daft with the plastic.

Today many young people don’t tiptoe into the debt pool. They dive, head first, from the highest board they can find, encouraged to do so by their peers, the banks, the retailers, the internet, you name it.  If they’re a student, in England, then the Government builds them a massive board to start with, just to get them into the swing of things. Debt is now not just a way of life, it is THE way of life. Once you have a forty grand debt burden from your education – and what has that got you? – then thirty grand more for an Audi seems not only manageable, it actually seems like a relatively good deal. At least you will have something tangible to show for it.

As for a mortgage, I have no idea what the lending rules are these days. Given that the average wage in the UK is around £25,000 today, if you apply that old lending criteria of 3.5 times your salary then you’d have £87,000 to add to your deposit. With the average UK house price sitting at £272,000 today, then you’d “only” need to find a deposit of £185,000 to buy it.

Perhaps the best idea then is to go and buy that new Audi – but choose a bigger model, because you might end up having to live in it.

My Retirement Week (11)

We’re all back to the routine this week – even us retired folk – so I thought I should continue with my weekly updates with what I’ve been doing with my time. Even if that’s just to remind me where the days have gone. It’s actually quite scary how often I wake up in the morning wondering if it’s Wednesday or Thursday although interestingly the weekends are still quite defined as the weekends. I always know when it’s Saturday or Sunday and, on the latter, I still get a buzz out of the fact on a Sunday evening that I’m not packing my bag for the early train to London Monday morning.

I listened to a Tim Ferriss Podcast featuring Alain de Botton which was interesting and pointed me towards seeking out more of the latter’s work. I’ve often seen his books on the shelves at the local library, so I borrowed A Week at the Airport to read as it’s quite short and relatively lightweight. I read it in about two days and found it quite amusing, which I wasn’t really expecting. It was really well written too and led me to reserve his How Proust Can Change Your Life which he recommended on the podcast as his best work. You can also find a couple of his talks on TED which are worth watching even if only to wonder at how much he looks like an Oxbridge egghead.

On the Living a FI blog, I came across a reference to an article about the Hell of working for Amazon as featured in the NYT. I’ve been reading a few things on dystopian futures recently, but this is a real life example that is happening now in the world of work. If this is the future of corporate life, I’m very, very glad I’m out of it. I finished reading and found myself hoping that Amazon fails spectacularly due to employee relations problems.

Christmas telly – it was rubbish, wasn’t it? Fortunately I had Fargo 2 to watch, which I thought was even better than both the original movie and the first tv series. Excellent, quirky entertainment, with great characters brought to life by the cast, and a streak of black humour that rivalled anything seen in Breaking Bad.

I also started watching a new series, Narcos, about the Mexican drug cartels which is proving quite compelling too. Not much humour in it, but then it seems to stick closely to true events that have been documented, as opposed to the tongue in cheek introductions for Fargo that pretend there’s a truth to their stories too.

cowboys jpeg

At the end of the week, an invitation came through for me to attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering which, believe it or not, I’d actually love to attend. Unfortunately it’s in Elko, Nevada, which is a bit out of the way. But forget your Burning Man festival in the desert. The thought of cowboys and cowgirls, riding the range with Keats and Yeats upon their side, is what my dreams are made of. Well, some of them, maybe. I’ll put it on my bucket list.



You Are What You Post

I’ve been reading some books lately on the perils of the Internet* and particularly the “sharing” culture of social media where everything has to be publicly posted on Facebook or Twitter. I’m not quite as against social media (or baby pictures!) as perhaps Ermine is, as posted on his latest blog, but I know I’m not as up for sharing information as some of my fellow FIRE bloggers seem to be. No way would I post my net worth, the value of my investments, my current income streams or much of the other personal financial details that other people seem to be comfortable doing.

I’m not sure if this reluctance is generational or cultural or something else again. I know that I never really knew what my parents earned when I was growing up. They never told and I never asked (I really wasn’t all that interested). In everywhere I’ve worked in my career, discussing your salary or income was totally taboo and, I believe, in some places it’s officially taboo. (I’ve come to believe that the latter is probably not healthy, especially when it comes to pay gaps between men and women.)  In the same way, I’ve no idea about the financial circumstances of any of my oldest and closest friends and, I think, I’d be somewhat embarrassed if one of them posted all their financial details on the web. I don’t think I’d want to read them and I’d rather not know. I do wonder about it, of course, and I’m as happy to gossip down the pub in general terms about how much we think our old mucker’s new business is earning him (or not). But, honestly, I don’t actually want to know the detail.

In the same way, if one of my old friends published their “Ten Personal Goals for 2016” on a blog, I’m sure I’d read it with my toenails firmly embedded into the soles of my feet. Look mate, I don’t want to know. Keep it to yourself.

I should state here that I’ve no problem with the blogging community who might read this – some of whom I’ve personally met – sharing their information, because that’s how I found them. Their “sharing”, for me, is part of that person, and I do admire their honesty and willingness to “put it all out there”. With older friends, however, I’m just not sure how I’d take a similar level of openness, and this prevents me from doing likewise on a blog.

The same goes for social media. I used to post quite regularly on Facebook and quite enjoyed tweeting or retweeting stuff I’d found on the internet. Over time though – and it was a short amount of time – I became a bit uncomfortable with it. I never posted anything offensive or anything that I later found embarrassing, it’s just that I began to feel some of my opinions were better kept to myself. That might be quite a strange admission for a blogger to make, but somehow I feel more in control of what I write here than something I might have tweeted on the spur of the moment or posted in a Facebook submission. I do sometimes puzzle over the postings that close friends or relations have made that lead me to think “That’s strange, why have they posted that?” and then wonder how well I actually knew them? I do think in life that it’s right and sensible to have various shades of personality to adopt in personal interactions that take into account social and cultural mores. But on Facebook or Twitter, it’s easy to appear as if you pretty much are what you post.

So, while I may well be writing “Ten Goals for 2016” in my personal life, my financial life, my fitness life and so on, I doubt I’ll be posting them here. I don’t think this is because I’m frightened of public failure when I fail to attain them, it’s more that I feel there’s a time and a place. January might well be the right time to do this exercise, it’s just that the World Wide Web isn’t the place for me to do it. 

* Two books in particular I’ve enjoyed over Christmas that highlight the dangers and potential downsides of current Internet trends are The Circle by Dave Eggers, which is a fictional thriller taking a big swipe at Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al. The second was non-fiction, The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen, which is a passionately argued case against the notion that the WWW is uniformly a Good Thing. Oh no it isn’t and, by the end of this book, I tended to agree. Both books, however, are really well written, witty and entertaining, and probably heavily influenced the post above!