So what do you do all day?

One of the common things wannabe early retirees and those around them seem to worry about is what are they going to do all day. It always struck me as the most bizarre thing to fret about, but it appears that many people define themselves by work, and the answer to ‘what do you do for a living’. If you do that, then yes, the question is valid, although perhaps you might want to take a step back and ask yourself how it came to be that you define yourself by what you do rather than what you are. There is even a small constituency of folk who define themselves by the level of their spending, these should never retire 😉 At least not until they have read Erich Fromm’s “To Have or To Be“.

It’s part of the class of issues generally going with ‘what others think’. Most people are actually too busy worrying about what others think of them, it’s part of the human condition. Jim has summarised the issues well

What will your response be if you overhear your other half talking about you “lazing around”, “putting on your pipe and slippers” or “knitting cardigans”, while they continue to bring home the bacon? Did you note a tone of pity in their voice as they try to explain why you couldn’t sustain the pace of the working life any longer? Were you really so unhappy in your job that you just couldn’t take it any more? Or were you fired? Made redundant?

to which I confess I initially though “Eh? Meh” but it’s clearly an issue for some. What I do all day as a retiree is fantastically more diverse and varied than what I did at work. It’s not that surprising – you tend to specialise at work, and specialisation trends towards knowing more and more about less and less, particularly in a globalised world.

Now at work you are constrained to do that because you optimise your ability to earn money, albeit at the expense of making your career more brittle due to its specialisation, and this tends to get worse as you get older. But if you lift that constraint, then I’m with Heinlein’s Lazarus Long

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

So which of these have I done since leaving work. I’ve designed buildings, balanced accounts, taken and given orders, acted alone and cooperated, solved equations, analyzed new problems galore, build compost and measured its heat profile, programmed computers, and microcontrollers. I’ve dug trenches and laid irrigation, climbed hills and walked many more miles that I would have while working.

Among others I’ve surveyed birds, built instruments, learned all sorts of stuff, gone for drinks with friends, explored places, got lost, found my way again. I’ve helped two groups raise more than £100k via crowdfunding. The invading and fighting and dying I’ve passed on, and diapers were never something I wanted to wrangle, but each to their own. The point is that there is a richness to experience as an early retiree relative to the working me for the simple reason that I have far more freedom of action, which goes along with the independence part of financial independence. For sure, you could just as well use the time to stare at the wall, watch endless runs of daytime TV or potter in the allotment. There’s nothing wrong in that if it’s the sort of thing that lights your fire. Independence is the independence to, perhaps more than the independence from after a while.

I was going to try and break it down more but fortunately Root of Good has done the job perfectly with the Early Retiree’s Weekly Schedule, and lives a more structured life so it makes more sense[ref]I am tracking this in Outlook to see what it looks like for me, but it’s much more bitty and broken up.[/ref]

Root of Good's early retirement schedule
Root of Good’s early retirement schedule

I don’t have the structure RoG has with the school run, nor the penchant for games and Netflix but it shows the freedom they have, and particularly the great comparison with the ghastly strictures of the work schedule later in their post. As they say, that schedule has way too much red, and was only 9 to 5 and didn’t include commuting.

As a retiree there is also the greater flexibility – a couple of days ago I was able to fit in a meetup with a friend from Denmark over on a short work visit to Felixstowe where he had a space because of a delay to his meeting. Once again, freedom to take up opportunities.

There is a joy in being a generalist again, to keep learning for the hell of it and the curiosity, indeed some of the exploration of a child but with the power of an adult mind rather than the simplistic incomprehension of a child. Of course learning some things are harder – it would have been easier for me to have learned Morse code as a teenager, or foreign languages as a child, and new motor skills in general. But nearly everything else is easier after a lifetime of learning how to learn, and resources to learn are far easier and cheaper now.

There’s no shortage of interest in the world – and it’s more interesting because of its variety, when you have the independence of choice. You don’t always have to do what you’re best at – I am going out this afternoon to shoot video for someone. I’m no Spielberg, but I have learned some of the rudiments of storytelling over the years, so I can do this to help someone tell their story, and get other people on board with their project. I get to do something different for a while, it helps the common weal a little bit and I get a little bit better at storytelling. It isn’t my greatest area of expertise, but then you don’t stop growing until they shovel the dirt in. Specialisation is for insects, and for work.


25 thoughts on “So what do you do all day?”

  1. in case anyones wondering, ‘conn’ means ‘the duty of giving directions for movement from the deck of a ship to the helm’


    1. hehee – and he’ll leave me for dust before I’ve finished the alphabet I should think. It’s one of those motor/language skills which are easier as a child.


  2. not sure how much you type, maybe quite a bit. I spent the last 3 years unlearning qwerty and picking up colemak. Its an alternative keyboard layout, a bit like dvorak but not so extreme. It minimises the workload on the fingers. Its quite a challenge to unlearn something as ingrained as qwerty. I wouldn’t recommend it for the masses but maybe you’d enjoy it – its certainly not easy. but when you get it you can type with your fingers barely moving from the home row. its very elegant. You realise how bad qwerty is, and wonder why we all put ourselves through it no we no longer use mechanical typewriters. it has the added benefit that no-one else can use my laptop – they start typing and garbage comes out..


    1. Wow! You must be a much faster thinker than me. I fear the bottleneck lies between my ears…

      Interesting idea though, since the shift isn’t so much. I do like the self-encrypting laptop!


  3. haha, its not so much speed thats the issue, its more ease. the layout turns a standard keyboard from something that is a bad design, to something that is a good design. Like the difference between using good and bad carpentry tools, good ones ‘just feel right’ – typing becomes an intrinsically pleasurable experience. Your fingers typically move a third of the distance for the same output.

    if you take the additional security step of not moving any of your keycaps (i.e. leaving them all in their original qwerty positions) it goes from tricky to impossible for anyone else to use your machine.

    You do have to really be able to touch type to get away with it though, i.e. type without ever looking at your fingers.

    you can get some keyboards with blank keycaps just to prove you know what you are doing

    there is a whole geek-word out there when it comes to keyboards, try looking up steampunk keyboards, maltrons, plover stenography, it goes on and on

    i have a mechanical filco keyboard, and people obsess over the sound that the different switches make and their individual actuation weights – its mental! filco blues are where its at, just in case you were curious, the switch of champions..


  4. I’m always interested in the people who ask that question.

    Is their work so fascinating that they can’t imagine doing anything more fun?
    Or is their imagination so poor that they can’t imagine doing anything without a supervisor telling them what to do? Do they sit around on Saturday waiting for Monday morning to start again?

    Where do they work and how do I apply?


  5. I was thinking about that Heinlein quote on my drive to work earlier in the week and making a similar list of all the things I’d done. Of course, Lazarus Long had a lifespan of 2000 years to acquire those skills.


    1. Didn’t realise that. I feel good about getting that far in fifty-odd then! Not sure I’d like to try 2000 years. There again, from the movies life as a vampire seems to have similar compensations in developing skills


  6. there is a point to my otherwise inane post about typing

    if a grown man can spend 3 years fascinated by the nuances of something as apparently banal as a computer keyboard then either:

    a) he’s a wrong-un


    b) the world is a fascinating place, the upshot being that boredom (or someone not knowing what to do with their time) is not a reflection on the paucity of the world surrounding a person, but a problem of perception within the person themselves. It could be indicative of a malnourished imagination.

    perception really is everything


  7. Thanks for an(other) interesting post. I found your blog – in a world of early retirement blogs – a couple of weeks ago and have been hooked. Just to yours I mean – most of the others don’t have enough soul in the writing for my taste.

    I’ve been following a slightly different path from the people in this world (but towards some of the same ends I think). I’m in my early thirties now and for the last few years, three to be precise, I’ve been working for only a few months of the year, ‘retiring’ for the rest of it to work on a writing project.

    The toughest part for me has been not being able to tell anyone except my wife about how my life has changed. I work in technology (if you haven’t guessed that already) as a freelancer, and sometimes work projects from home; this helps keep up the disguise with friends/acquaintances/parents. But still, its been tricky at times. Many of my friends are pushing ahead with their careers (and having kids) while I’m pulling back and trying to find a balance (and staying childfree). Its a choice I am in love with but some of them might find less than ambitious/responsible.

    I look forward to staying in touch as a reader of your blog.


    1. Thanks! Working that kind of part-time strategy is more in tune with Keynes’s Economic Possibilities for our grandchildren. The New Yorker had an interesting article on how Keynes achieved a win in predicting economic progress but a total fail on predicting a vast increase in leisure.

      But that isn’t what people are like. Instead of quitting early, they find new things to need. Many of the new things they’ve found weren’t even around when Keynes was writing—laptops, microwaves, Xboxes, smartphones, smart watches, smart refrigerators, Prada totes, True Religion jeans, battery-powered meat thermometers, those gizmos you stick in the freezer and then into your beer to keep it cold as you drink it.

      “Most types of material consumption are strongly habit-forming,”

      FI/RE is one way of taking that leisure time – saving it all up to the end on one’s workign life, and your path and @LCiL’s is an equally valid and perhaps a more civilised way of doing it.


  8. This post once again hits the nail on the head as to why I will do my best to never work full time again.

    After 5+ years of being a part time worker, those extra 2 days off each week (I work 3 days) are so full of good ‘life’ happenings I can’t imagine ever having the motivation to fill them up with paid employment again. It will of course be a longer journey to true ‘FI’ as a result of my choices, but that is just fine from my current standing.


  9. The main problem I encounter is the reaction from mainstream society to people who don’t have a ‘real job’ …..& more to their horror seem not to want one.

    In most aspects of life, you shouldn’t care what they think, but practically you can have problems in everyday situations when they can’t/wont understand you. So you can’t sort out what you want to do given your differing circumstances – like maybe getting various insurances, or having no fixed address if you’re travelling for an extensive amount of time…..

    The schlerotic institutions that are hide-bound with respect to societal change are adapting at a glacial pace to the flexibility of modern practices – does anyone have any experience with getting rental accommodation with only investment income to show for a living for example? I can imagine the estate agent thinking share prices could crash so landlords would consider you high-risk, even though lots of people in ‘solid conventional jobs’ can equally be laid off from those instantly …….if the economy suddenly tanks.


    1. I felt some of that pain in not being able to borrow money, get another credit card or probably even a mobile phone contract with zero income. Oddly enough though my pension will, of course be lower than my working salary it’s in many ways more secure. But then I don’t now need to borrow against it!

      I didn’t realise you had to prove an income to rent, I never had to but it was a long time ago. I guess the extra rules and regs are part of what Peter Thiel called an attitude of indefinite optimism – favour process and checklists rather than qualify specific cases. There again FI/RE is perhaps an extreme case of indefinite optimism – I used to know how to keep the wolf from the door, sell my time and skills for regular money, whereas now I rent out capital for money, so I am part of the indefinite optimism problem too.


  10. @Playing with FireThere seem to be two aspects to the problem – many people get meaning from their work, in some Calvinist sense.

    In the view of Edward Phelps, of Columbia University, a career provides “most, if not all, of the attainable self-realization in modern societies.”

    I was lucky enough to be free of that hangup, but it always puzzles me how widespread it is. But yes, many seriously do seem puzzled as to how you could fill your time, and that’s downright scary. I prefer @Rhino’s “it’s them, not that I am a wrong ‘un” 😉


  11. Hi Ermine thanks for the nod to my blog which, I admit, I do write somewhat in a perverse hopeful glee that I will wind up some of the “early retirement dream” crowd! 🙂 I do think that people need to be careful of the emotional aspects to leaving the world of work and then being unable to find an easy niche to slip into that gives them a sense of purpose, of contributing, that work might have done. Not everyone has “a passion”, or a hobby (hobbies) that consumes or involves them outside of work, but that doesn’t make them lesser beings or “Wrong un’s”. Of course, retirement gives you acres of time to discover what those hobbies might be….but what if you still really struggle to find them? Then you yourself begin to feel like a “wrong un”, and I’m just trying to highlight that this is perfectly normal, despite the pressure that you will feel that it isn’t.


    1. It’s interesting to see the difference in experience between us because we are of a similar age and time of FI – I was a few months shy of 52 when I retired which isn’t dissimilar to you.

      In some ways I think I paid my dues upfront – my exit from the workplace was a rout, not a planned exit, and I spent the first three years of this blog bitching on and off about work. I can honestly say I’ve never missed it, but then I never derived meaning from it. My career was good most of the tie and provided interest and money for 27 of my 30 years in the workforce.

      Perhaps the suckout of the last three years was a blessing in disguise though it didn’t feel like it – what does not kill you makes you stronger perhaps. Or maybe the turning inwards meant I was peculiarly maladapted to play the game around the workplace. Either way, it seems that sucking it up for three years of working in the endgame gave me a free pass to some of the meaning and what will I do issues, which i do accept are real for many,

      The attitude of Edward Phelps, for instance that “a career provides most, if not all, of the attainable self-realization in modern societies.” seems much more widely held than I had realised. It seems to limit the value of alternatives, and if so, the notion of FI will be tougher for people who feel that way. Arguably a phased retirement or switching to part-time working may be a much better approach. And there’s nothing wrong in that – your choices in life have to fit your temperament and talents! However, I don’t see it written in tablets of stone that career has to be the source of attainable self-realization – perhaps recognizing alternative realities is another way of tackling the problem.


  12. Read Time Enough for Love by Heinlein as a teenager and found it thought provoking as well as a good read. Interesting topic area and one with immediacy for me as being 56, being made redundant and on the cusp of FIRE….and in the last stages of a house build where I live in NZ.

    As the Clash said, Do I Stay (in work) or Do I Go? Agree with the specialisation. As a health care professional I’ve been in management so long I would not be competent in many other areas of my profession. I could learn but maybe something else, or many other things, suddenly become doable!


  13. Jun 4 was my 3rd annual hike to the summit of Saddle Mountain (near Astoria & Seaside, Oregon) in the morning where I and my compadres had a picnic lunch. We watched a crow perform aerial maneuvers (wingovers and stalls) and butterflies struggle in the breeze while enjoying the view of distant peaks (Olympic peninsula mountains, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, & Mt. Jefferson). Then I cooked pacific razor clams for my guests’ afternoon snack back at the house.

    Jun 5 Piddled around in the morning, took care of a few chores. A friend and I kayaked around nearby Lake Lytle where I caught a 3 lb largemouth bass for our dinner and let several yellow perch swim back to the depths. Forgot to put sunblock on my feet after shucking my shoes, so have a bad sunburn there.

    Jun 6 being out of pacific razor clams and a convenient minus tide appearing, I collected another limit of clams. Most were eaten, but one meal was sealed into the freezer for later. Also cooked pork chops for wife. Sunburn bothering my feet, so took it easy around the house, generating correspondence and playing videogame racing.

    Jun 7 watered & weeded the garden, harvested 4 pints of strawberries, exchanged the wrong chain for chainsaw for the correct one, and hiked in to verify whether spring chinook are coming upstream in a local river so friend & I could decide where to fish tomorrow. Saw vultures circling a few places. Yes, sunburn feeling tolerable now. Cooked a nice bean stew and added the pork chops.

    Jun 8 will fish for spring chinook in the morning and a videogame race scheduled in the evening. Wife promises to bake a blueberry pastry (we still have a couple quarts of blueberries leftover from last year that need to be used before August when our bushes become ripe again).

    Yeah, I have no idea how I ever got any work done as there’s plenty to do in retirement!


    1. Now that’s pretty good, well, maybe not the sunburned feet. It reminds me of something someody said on RIT’s blog, about that the natural world in particular offers activities that are cheap, challenging and good for you, but you need to get out of the city and all that work stuff first!


  14. Interesting and–to us, at least–a timely post as we anticipate early retirement perhaps a bit earlier than we would have 4-5 years ago. We wonder about the social aspect of early retirement since we will likely stop full-time work before we are 50. The number of our friends our age also likely to be retired: exactly zero. (We think that’s why we’ve been gravitating towards FIRE blog communities in the past year…) We also don’t live near family or have children. So, with no readily available social/familial unit, we are wondering whether we will feel somewhat isolated until our friends start retiring in 12-15 years…

    How have others, especially those who are “extreme” early retired (before 50, 40, etc.?) dealt with the social factor of early retirement?



    1. I still see some ex-colleagues from The Firm, and I’d cultivated those relationships and expanded them while still there .I did not move town from where I worked, I wouldn’t rule that out in the long run but for various reasons I didn’t do it at the time. But it’s a convenient time to let go those that are shallow, and definitely those that are toxic.

      Also cultivate relationships with other people through shared interests. In my case this is of the natural world, birds in particular, but it could be anything. I meet a fair number of people though our farm, and I meet others through getting involved in projects. You need a mix of people and ages – I would say that my human relationships were very narrow in terms of social class and age spread when I was working, they are much wider now.

      Parents often meet people through their children, though that tends to narrow the age range somewhat. It’s a bit more effort for the childfree in some ways, but not having the limitations of childcare means you can make a little bit more effort. It is interesting that some of my university friends are coming out of the childcare tunnel in their fifties and looking around.

      There’s no easy answer, but I would definitely advocate looking at this in the years before you retire as far as any work colleagues who are/may be friends and getting to know them outside work.

      But there’s no getting round it – most of your own age/social group will still be at work 😉 In the same way as steam gives way to sail the early retiree will usually need to be more flexible regarding time and place than those at work, it seems only fair, after all!


  15. I’ve also never understood the question on what do you do. But have enjoyed reading Jim’s blog to try to understand the alternative viewpoint.

    My own experience having two weeks off out of 6, I am busier than ever. How did I ever find the time to work full time? I have no reason to believe that this experience will not continue when I final reach full FI.

    @RhN – I’ve recently been struggling with what to tell people as well. Even when I went part time people seemed worried I’d lost the plot or had suddenly turned into a lazy so and so. Then I nearly got made redundant this week, and my casual excitement reaction didn’t go down too well with my parents, who seemed to think the world had ended. I guess if it does happen down the line maybe I should just point them to my blog and say have a read 🙂


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