Many that pursue FIRE become obsessed with financial independence. People will set a date when they expect to retire. Some shout it out to the world, while others keep it to themselves, afraid of jinxing it if they share it publicly.
We create excel sheets and compulsively check the numbers by running them through different retirement calculators. We zoom in on THE DATE and suddenly, it becomes the focus of our existence.
Suddenly, we find ourselves living in negative numbers.
Obsessed with Financial Independence
Today it is day -3625. In three thousand six hundred and twenty five days I will retire. On that day I will have achieved my goal.
The result is that instead of living our lives and enjoying the journey to financial independence and early retirement, we turn the process into a prison sentence, where we are serving time.
The danger of focusing on the future
When we focus exclusively on something that can only happen in the future, we endanger our happiness in the here and now. Instead of celebrating our successes and feeling grateful for all the blessings in our present life, we yearn for a future date and despair about how long it will take to get there.
This definitely happened to me when I first set up Smelling Freedom two years ago. I started off really excited and I created lots of spreadsheets working out different early retirement scenarios. Next I realized that I would indeed get there, but that it would take a few years.
I set a date and even put a counter on my phone. The result was a disaster – I ended up obsessing about how long it would take to get there. In the end I took a whole year’s break from blogging in order to break the cycle of anxiety that I had managed to get myself caught up in.
Uncertainty and the Need for Closure
Research about the psychology of waiting has shown that people who are waiting for a specific date such as an examination result, a wedding or early retirement, exhibit a number of anxious behaviors.
- Rumination: This involves thinking about the event you are waiting for and worrying about potential negative outcomes. The typical FIRE blogger would think about the markets or worry that he or she won’t find a tenant for a rental investment. They could also worry about sequence of events risk or whether the safe withdrawal rate is safe enough, or health insurance, or the myriad of other things that could put a spoke in the wheels of their plans.
- Need for closure: People are usually not very tolerant of uncertainty, and they like to get things over and done with. This means that when they find themselves faced with a situation that could take them years to resolve, their anxiety levels spike.
We all struggle with the anxiety of uncertainty and waiting. However obviously people with different characters would be impacted to differing degrees. Those who, like me, dislike uncertainty and have a high need for closure, would struggle much more than others who are much more comfortable with the unknown and do not mind waiting. Our propensity for optimism or pessimism also impacts our outlook on life and the way we feel when waiting for a much desired future event.
So what can we do to overcome these struggles?
I have found that it helps to force myself to stop ruminating on the numbers and reaching financial independence. Looking for and taking up different hobbies and focusing on my immediate successes helps. I run, I read and I knit. And I make time for my family and friends.
I also sit and think about the many blessings I have in my life and how great my here and now is.
In other words I tell myself that I do not need to wait till I retire in order to be happy. I can be happy today.
It’s good to plan and important to have goals. However we need to be careful that we do not allow these targets to become the centre of our existence. Aiming for financial independence and a happy and satisfying early retirement is definitely a very important and life defining goal. However for those of us who still have a long way to go until we get there, I recommend breaking out of the prison of our anxieties and expectations and focusing on being happy now.
Our journey to FIRE should not be just about the destination, but also about the journey.